Arizona’s Ashley is X-factor against Wisconsin’s Kaminsky

LOS ANGELES — Brandon Ashley, the X-factor, didn’t crack. No emotional break. No boastful talk, no expressions of regret. Just his level-best calmness. You couldn’t tell it was the day before the biggest basketball game of his life.

Ashley and the Arizona Wildcats take on No. 1-seeded Wisconsin in the West regional final on Saturday, a rematch of last season’s epic Elite Eight game that Ashley could only watch from the sideline because of a foot injury.

If only we had Ashley to help guard Frank Kaminsky, Wildcats fans lamented.

"There’s no way to tell if me being out there would have changed the game that much," Ashley said Friday at Staples Center. "There are always the ‘what ifs,’ but you never know. It wasn’t anything I wanted to spend too much time focusing on."

Ummm … sure.

"First of all, everyone realizes Brandon isn’t an overly expressive person," said graduate assistant Joseph Blair, a former Arizona center who works with the team’s big men. "But now that I know him one more year, I know how badly it affected him. Even though when he says something in a very monotone way — ‘It really messed with me’ — it’s something that is very profound for him to even speak it out loud.

"I know it affected him, and I know he has looked forward to this opportunity to be out there with his team and prove he could have been the difference-maker last year."

Arizona likely will throw the kitchen sink at Kaminsky, the 7-footer who had 28 points — including three 3-pointers — and 11 rebounds in the Badgers’ 64-63 overtime victory over Arizona last year in Anaheim. Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski has the muscle to handle Kaminsky down low, but he often was lost lwhen Kaminsky floated out to the perimeter. Ashley gives up a few inches in height but has the athleticism to guard Kaminsky out to the 3-point line.

At least that has been the narrative for the past year.

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"At 7-feet tall, he can shoot the ball, handle the ball and post-up," Ashley said of Kaminsky. "It’s a more complicated matchup than most people are used to seeing, especially at the college level.

"I will definitely be seeing some of Frank Kaminsky tomorrow. I definitely will be guarding him. I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to guard him. He’s a very talented player; I’m not saying anything like that. But I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see."

Kaminsky averages 18.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and is hitting 41.3 percent from 3-point range (38 of 92) in a season that could very well net him multiple national player of the year awards. In an effort to keep him as uncomfortable as possible, it would not be a surprise if Arizona also unleashes defensive ace Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — a 6-foot-7 wing — on Kaminsky for a couple of possessions, with Tarczewski helping from the weak side.

"We can keep saying Kaminsky, but there are a whole lot of great players on that team that add to what Kaminksy does," Blair said. "You put him on a different team, I’m not sure he’s as effective as he is with Wisconsin."

No doubt, it’s a pick-your-poison affair with Wisconsin, rated as the nation’s most efficient offensive team. Arizona just prefers to not suffer death by Kaminsky again.

It’s important to note that having power forward Ashley guard the other team’s center is not a cure-all. Tarczewski can’t guard hot-shooting 6-9 forward Sam Dekker, leaving him to defend athletic Nigel Hayes, another player who can stretch Tarczewski far from the rim.

But will Arizona take its chances with Hayes shooting jumpers rather than Kaminsky?

Absolutely.

Blair noted Ashley’s presence this year — he missed the final 17 games of last season — won’t be felt just on defense. Ashley has been quiet offensively in the past two games — a combined 15 points vs. Ohio State and Xavier — but he recently had a pair of 20-point games en route to earning MVP honors of the Pac-12 tournament.

"You have to look at it the overall way," Blair said.

"It’s not just what he can add to defense. It’s what he can add to Kaminsky having to guard him on offense. It’s a few more touches where Kaminsky has to play more defense, which could wear him out a little bit more."

So, Ashley will be an X-factor all over the court.

Nobody will ever know if he would have been the difference last season. All that matters for Arizona is for him to be a difference-maker this season as the program tries to reach its first Final Four since 2001.

"Any competitor wants to be out there and have a chance to maybe shut someone like that down," Ashley said of Kaminsky. "We’re looking for a battle."

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