TUCSON, Ariz. – It was only a matter of time before Arizona’s much-lauded freshman would get it. At least that’s what Arizona coach Sean Miller believed.
The learning curve took awhile, but there’s no time like the present.
Sound the alarms – it’s March and the mayhem begins on Thursday for Arizona when it faces Belmont in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the NCAA tournament.
For all intents and purposes, the last 31 games have been dress rehearsals for Arizona freshmen Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski.
Some games were good. Others? Not so much.
They were a trifecta that rarely hit together. More tease than tantalizing.
At times, it appeared UA’s freshmen were blinded by the spotlight. Being a freshman on the basketball court is often a recipe for uncertainty.
But with time, practice, skill development, learning, and elbow grease, the three have worked themselves into a position to help Arizona.
“I’m really excited,” said Tarczewski, a 7-footer who is arguably UA’s most improved player since October, regarding the tournament. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid. It’s going to be a great experience, and hopefully we can play well throughout it.”
If the last couple of weeks are an indication, Arizona can ratchet up its expectations for each.
Tarczewski has led the Wildcats in rebounding in four of the last five games, averaging more than nine a game. For the season, he’s averaging 6.5 points, 6.1 rebounds in 21.9 minutes a game. Jerrett, averaging 5.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in 18.2 minutes a game, led Arizona in scoring (14 points) two weeks ago in a loss to UCLA. And Ashley, who averaged 7.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.7 minutes a game, led UA in scoring against UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament with 15 points.
“You can sense that our freshman big guys are really getting better,” Miller said. “They are playing with a lot of confidence.”
Miller singled out the recent strides by Tarczewski, pointing out that there’s room for more growth as the Wildcats find way to get him the ball more.
For a majority of the season, figuring out which player would step up in any given game was a mystery. Few times have all three have played well at once, and success has come in small doses.
“It’s been a tough transition coming to college,” Tarczewski said Monday. “The level of basketball is a lot better, but I think we’ve done a good job of transitioning, working hard every day, honoring the process and getting better. I think collectively as a team and collectively as freshmen, we’re playing our best basketball right now at the perfect time of year, and hopefully we can keep it up.”
Just last month, many wondered what took the four-player recruiting class (including shooting guard Gabe York) so long. Jerrett and Ashley, former McDonald’s All-Americans, ran hot and cold all season. York had just a few sharp-shooting moments. And Tarczewski, the most consistent of the bunch, had fans frustrated at times because he couldn’t handle passes near the basket.
They fumbled and stumbled and showed warts. But they’ve learned from their mistakes along the way.
“We’re just getting used to being out there and getting comfortable playing,” Tarczewski said. “Our team has been developing in the past few weeks quite a bit, and I think that’s giving us a great opportunity to play well.”
For many young players, March is often a time when they the proverbial wall. But Tarczewski said it hasn’t been an issue.
“When you look at their minutes played, they all have a level of freshness,” Miller said. “Sometimes when someone is playing 30-35 minutes, you can wear them out mentally as well as physically, but the role these guys have on this year’s team and the way they’ve played and practiced has them in this for the long haul. Or as long as we go.”