In 2012, Kaleb Tarczewski was a top-four recruit at his position and among the 10 best in the country. The 7-foot center was listed behind former Kentucky big Nerlens Noel and Baylor's Isaiah Austin. Tarczewski was the highest-ranked prospect of Arizona head coach Sean Miller's recruiting class.
The signing paved the way for Miller to be recognized as one of the best recruiters in college basketball. Miller has since appeared in the Sweet 16, and most recently the Elite Eight for a second time in five years. Year in and year out, Miller courts a top-notch class that is capable of competing for a national championship.
Tarczewski's freshman year was what some might call a disappointment, but the bigger picture will show that his first year in Tucson was exactly what he needed. His offensive role was small, as Miller did not entirely throw Tarczewski into the lion's den and expect to see immediate results. Miller was patient. The majority of his offensive contributions came from quick touches in the post and putback plays.
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The young center lacked physicality in the paint and the ability to create for himself down low. Tarczewski shot a below-average 41 percent.
Coming into the next year, Miller - once again - courted another highly recognized recruiting class, headlined by five-star recruits Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
The energy in Tucson was at a level not seen in about a decade. The fans were looking at one of the best teams in the school's history.
Nick Johnson was primed to take the next step in his game. Brandon Ashley was expected to make a lot happen with the minutes Grant Jerrett left on the table. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson were looked at to instantly provide on both ends of the floor.
Miller's roster - from top to bottom - looked great. But something was not right. All this praise for Miller's most talented unit, and few were including Tarczewski.
Granted, inside the Arizona camp, the staff and players knew the significant improvements Tarczewski made over the offseason, but his name was hardly in the conversation in most outlooks.
Tarczewski averaged 6.6 points and six rebounds per game during his freshman season. With the departures of Jerrett and Solomon Hill, it was imperative that Miller's frontline was ready to maximize its potential, and the 7-footer from Southborough (Mass.) St. Mark's would need to be a reliable man in the middle.
The 2013-14 Wildcats prided themselves on defense, and Tarczewski was holding down the paint. His importance cannot be measured on a stat sheet, but if you look at how teams were forced to play against the Wildcats, it becomes evident that coaches did not want to challenge Arizona's stout interior defense. Miller's team held opponents to 58.6 points per game - ranking sixth in the country. They also led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.87 points per possession, according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced metrics. Opponents were often forced into perimeter looks.
Tarczewski did not allow much in the paint. He does not block a lot of shots, but he alters almost any attempts.
Before Miller put together a campaign that won him the Pac-12 Conference coach of the year, he was looking to add some proven assistants to complement an already well-rounded coaching staff.
Former Wildcat big Joseph Blair returned as Miller's undergraduate assistant prior to the season. The players love his presence on the coaching staff, but the Arizona big men benefit tremendously.
"It's great to have somebody with the experience and the size that he has," Miller said after Blair was hired.
Tarczewski has seen remarkable gains since the arrival of Blair. His sophomore season could be summed up in one word: improvement. The offensive production was his biggest amelioration.
Considered an all-conference snub, Tarczewski increased his scoring average from 6.6 to 10.1 points. His shooting also went up from 53.8 to 58.4 percent.
Blair has been high on Tarczewski's maturation. He told GOAZCATS.com during the Pac-12 tournament that Tarczewski's offensive skills have come along, but his defense has been better.
Ashley's season ended Feb. 1 with a foot injury at California, and Tarczewski's versatility soon after started to show. He was stepping out to the mid-range - almost an untested part of the floor for him. Blair stressed that a mid-range shot is something most post players need to complete their arsenal of moves.
Following the loss at Cal, Tarczewski's play picked up. His averages increased and he was rebounding the ball more. At one point, the sophomore center had a five-game streak of double-digit scoring performances, including a 16-point effort in a rematch against the Golden Bears.
Tarczewski was a model of consistency during his sophomore season. He anchored one of the nation's best defenses, and he was an efficient post scorer for a loaded team. It is fair to assume that - without Tarczewski - the Wildcats are not a 30-win team.
Gordon and Johnson have since announced that they will enter the NBA draft. Tarczewski briefly considered it, but decided to return for his junior season and expand his game.
Coming into next year, Tarczewski will resume his role as Miller's starting center, and he will be looked at as one of the premier bigs in the conference.
When Tarczewski formally announced he was returning for his junior season, he let the media know that there is a goal to be accomplished next season.
"I think for all of us sitting up here, the one reason why we're coming back this year is because we have sort of unfinished business here at the U of A," Tarczewski said. "When we signed on to this program, our goal was to make it to the Final Four, to be able to play for a national championship, and next year, that's our goal."
The goal is a realistic one. Next year's team has the ability to top Miller's 2013-14 roster. A potential starting five of T.J. McConnell, five-star recruit Stanley Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, Ashley and Tarczewski creates a physically imposing unit that can, once again, control the Pac-12.
Click Here to view this Link.Joseph Duruaku
GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer