Why do the basketball gods hate the Arizona Wildcats so much? Like, what did Sean Miller or anyone ever do to deserve their wrath?
Actually, it’s probably best if you don’t answer that question.
The news that Brandon Williams will miss the upcoming season due to knee surgery is, as Miller said in a statement, “disheartening.”
It’s also heartbreaking, given that Williams was one of the most likable players on the roster, and expected, because Arizona basketball just can’t have nice things.
At least, not lately.
It all started in 2013-14, when the then-undefeated Wildcats lost forward Brandon Ashley to a foot injury. The Wildcats had reeled off 21 wins to start the season, with notable victories over Duke in Madison Square Garden and Michigan on the road.
Up to the moment Ashley’s foot broke, Arizona was clearly the best team in college basketball. They were quite good after the injury, but the loss of Ashley’s size and offensive skill proved to be too much to overcome when the Wildcats fell to Wisconsin in overtime in the Elite 8.
What if Ashley had never gotten hurt?
There’s not a doubt in my mind that had Ashley not been injured, Arizona would have won the National Championship that season.
The following season offered another good opportunity, only this time it was star freshman Stanley Johnson getting poked in the eye — by Ashley, of course — in another Elite 8 loss to Wisconsin.
Sam Dekker turning into Steph Curry didn’t help, sure. One could argue had Arizona’s leading scorer been himself, he could have. Instead, Johnson finished the game with just six points, and afterwards talked about how badly the poke affected him.
What if Johnson had never gotten hurt?
Arizona still may have lost to the Badgers even with Johnson at full strength, but you have to think the game would have gone different had he been able to, you know, see.
That was the last time Arizona was in the Elite 8. Perhaps they would have gotten back again if Ray Smith, one of the top recruits in the class of 2015, didn’t have injury issues of his own.
A 6-foot-8 forward with great athleticism and a torn left ACL in his past, he tore his right ACL in practice prior to his freshman season. He worked hard to rehab and get back on the floor for the 2016-17 campaign, only to tear his right ACL during an exhibition contest.
We’ll never know how good Smith could have been, nor how he would have fit on a surprisingly excellent team. We do know Arizona went on to win the Pac-12 and reach the Sweet 16, where it fell to lower-seeded Xavier in a game the Cats definitely should have won.
What if Smith had been able to play?
With his combination of size, athleticism, personality and skill Arizona would have been even more talented and the season as a whole would have played out much differently. A top seed would have certainly been attainable, providing an easier path to the Final Four that just so happened to be in Glendale that year.
And that brings us to Williams, whose story seems eerily similar to Smith’s in a lot of ways.
The wrong ways.
If there is any solace to take from Williams’ issue it is that there is a possibility he will eventually return.
“I’ve overcome obstacles before in my life and will work with our strength and medical staffs to overcome this one,” Williams said in a statement. “I’m dedicated to continuing my work in the classroom as a student, and I look forward to supporting my teammates and coaches as I spend this season focusing on my health.”
He’s not going anywhere, and it would be great to see him back on the McKale Center floor next season. As of now it appears the 2020-21 Cats could use a top-flight point guard, too.
With any luck, it will work out. But since when do the Wildcats have any luck?
Now before you go and say, “Come on Green, Arizona isn’t the only school to deal with injuries” rest assured that fact is not lost here. Indeed, we could look around the rest of the country and probably find similar issues.
But while the Wildcats are not the only team to have dealt with tough injuries, they are one of the few who could make a legitimate case that their home arena is a banner or two short because of them.
Without Williams, will we look back on the 2019-20 season with the same “What if?” that has been asked many times before?
You have to believe Miller and the program were prepared for this possibility. They snagged grad transfer Max Hazzard, who can help out at both guard spots, and were able to convince Devonaire Doutrive to stick around. Veteran Dylan Smith is also around, as is a freshman class that includes Nico Mannion and Josh Green.
There are options, with plenty of talent scattered throughout the roster. Arizona would be better with Williams, but his absence doesn’t have to mean hope is lost.
There is still time before the Red-Blue Game and even more until games start to count, so whatever team eventually takes the court will be doing so having known for a while that Williams will not be on the floor helping.
Maybe his absence will allow someone to thrive. Be it one of the more heralded freshmen or someone else, it is possible the role that is now open will be more than capably filled by someone else.
Who knows, maybe next April we’ll be talking about how the team managed to thrive even without one of its better players, getting back to the Final Four and winning a national title.
Just, hopefully no one will have to sacrifice a goat or something to make it happen.