By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - One word ran through Brandon Ashley's mind.
He knew, instantly, it was bad. He had jumped for an offensive rebound two minutes into last season's game at Cal, landing awkwardly on his right foot. Damn.
"That was the first thing that came to my mind," Ashley said. "Just, damn."
He tried to take a step. Couldn't. He put his hands on the ground and had to sprawl on the court. He didn't know what he had done to his foot, only that it wasn't going to be something he could walk off.
"I've had injuries throughout my career. I've broken fingers, sprained ankles, all that good stuff. But this was one of those injuries when you have a very distinct feeling where you know it isn't right," he said.
It has widely been described as a broken foot, although ESPN.com referred to the injury as a torn ligament. It doesn't much matter now.
Ashley is back. Arizona basketball is back.
Both are rarin' to go.
The Wildcats, ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, open their season Friday night against Mount St. Mary's - it's located in Emmitsburg in northern Maryland - and Ashley's return is one of the many storylines for Sean Miller's club.
The power forward averaged 12.0 and 6.0 rebounds through 21 games last season - all wins - before going down early in the 22nd game on Feb. 1.
"When I got here I went back and watched tape of what he did during games, and I was like, 'This guy, he really did it last year,'" said freshman wing Stanley Johnson, who played with Ashley on the Oakland Soldiers travel-ball team.
"And when he came back this year for the first open run we had, he was dunking on people and everything. I was like, 'Wow, this dude has gotten tremendously better from the last time I've seen him.'"
Not to say the rehab was easy. A recent ESPN.com story chronicled how Ashley, stuck in his Tucson apartment while Arizona played at Arizona State on Feb. 14, threw and shattered his remote control in frustration as the Wildcats lost that night.
He slogged through the drudgery of rehab and made his first public on-court appearance in the Red-Blue scrimmage on Oct. 18, when he looked a bit tentative. That was not the case in Saturday's exhibition against Cal Poly Pomona, when he played a team-high 29 minutes, with 10 points and seven rebounds, looking very much like the fluid athlete he is.
"He is clearly one of our team's leaders," Miller said.
"I thought in the last game, he was one of many who really came alive. There is no doubt that, if healthy - and we have no reason to believe he won't be - that he'll be a better player as a junior than he was at any time during his first two years here.
"He has great length. His game has really settled in to being that face-up forward that I think a lot of teams covet; certainly, the next level does. The sky's the limit for him because he's very intelligent and he's a hard worker ... and he's also very talented."
Yeah. There's that. There were times through two-thirds of Arizona's 2013-14 season when Ashley was the team's best player in any given game. The Wildcats had been ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for eight consecutive weeks before he got hurt. Without him, Arizona went 12-5, losing by a point in overtime to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament West regional final.
Think he would have made a difference?
The benefits come now.
Instead of Ashley very possibly being in the NBA right now, the injury brought him back to college. He says he's more mature. Time on the sideline forced him to view the game with something of a coach's eye. He claims, not bashfully, that every aspect of his game is better, notably ballhandling and his outside shot. If he can be a credible threat from behind the 3-point arc - he was 11 of 29 (37.9 percent) last season - that would be significant in helping spread out the defense.
That's one of the things that will play out in what could be a 40-game season, stretching from Friday night to Monday night, April 6, in Indianapolis.
Expect Ashley to savor every moment.
"In all honesty, I actually teared up when they announced my name, just for the exhibition game," he said.
"All the love and support I have gotten from Arizona fans all over the country, it's been amazing. I definitely couldn't ask for a better supporting group. It's special. It's special."
Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.