TUCSON, Ariz. — The biggest player on Arizona’s roster might have an even bigger impact on the team going forward.
Yes, sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski is that guy, one many don’t talk about when it comes to No. 2 Arizona’s talented starting five. But Tarczewski might be the Wildcats’ most improved player — heck, he might be the Pac-12’s most improved player — as he’s averaging 9.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game this season.
And now, with sophomore forward Brandon Ashley out for the season with an injured foot, the 7-foot Tarczewski will have to become more of a focal point offensively.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said this week that even if Ashley were still healthy, it would be a goal to get the ball into Tarczewski’s hands more often.
"I feel at times we haven’t done as good of a job as a group at getting him the ball," Miller said. "He’s the one player on our team who really needs someone to get him the ball."
"Kaleb has been a big part the last few games," junior guard Nick Johnson said. "He’s established himself down low. He needs to keep that (up) with us (without) Brandon."
Another thing Arizona would like him to keep up: his free-throw shooting. Uncharacteristically for a center, he leads the team from the line this season, hitting 40 of his last 45 to improve to 81 percent.
"Last year I was sort of uncomfortable and a little nervous at the free-throw line," Tarczewski said this week. "It’s tough having 12,000 people stare at you when you’re shooting a free throw. You kind of feel like you’re out there on an iceberg almost. Getting comfortable with that has made it a lot easier."
It’d be even better to get him the ball closer to the basket, though. Miller said it’s in Arizona’s "best interest, long term and everything," to get Tarczewski the ball more often.
Tarczewski played a season-high 36 minutes on Thursday, second only to Johnson’s 39. Yet Arizona went to a small lineup at times against Oregon, likely in part to match up with the speedy Ducks. There were times when Johnson, guard Gabe York, point guard T.J. McConnell, small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and forward Aaron Gordon played together, making for a quicker but significantly shorter team.
"It was different, but I thought we were a lot faster on offense and getting back on defense," said McConnell. "It was a big change, but we will have to get used to it."
I feel at times we haven’t done as good of a job as a group at getting him the ball. He’s the one player on our team who really needs someone to get him the ball.
Arizona coach Sean Miller
Miller did say that, with Ashley out, "it’s going to take some time" to get used to the new lineups and redefined roles.
"Maybe we can even be better in a certain area that we weren’t," Miller said. "Confidence is everything."
That could come from playing time. Miller said he was disappointed he couldn’t get reserve forward Matt Korcheck into the game Thursday but is hopeful he will play Sunday against Oregon State. Miller was able to get 10 minutes for freshman guard Elliott Pitts, who went 1 for 3 from 3-point range, and the coach said he was pleased with Pitts’ contribution.
"I think he played great," said Johnson. "T.J. told him, ‘Don’t come in and play scared.’ And he goes against Rondae every day in practice. That’s toughened him up a bit. He did a great job on defense."
He was called a "warrior" on a number of occasions after Thursday night’s win, and Hollis-Jefferson made it clear that appreciated it after finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds in a season-high 34 minutes. Heck, he appreciated everything after the game, even thanking a reporter for asking him a question. The affable freshman is now in the starting lineup due to Ashley’s injury after being one of college basketball’s best sixth men. Miller said Hollis-Jefferson made some mistakes on the defensive end but addd that "when the chips are down, he rises to the challenge."
Arizona went into Thursday’s game ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in free-throw percentage. And the Wildcats didn’t help themselves against Oregon, going 19 for 35 (54 percent). Gordon was the worst offender, going just 2 for 11.
"That’s going to do us in if we don’t improve," Miller said. "I’m going to stay true to what I believe, and Aaron Gordon is a better free-throw shooter than he is showing. He is going to hit his stride."
Earlier this year, Miller predicted Gordon would hit at least 60 percent. He is now at 42.2 percent for the year.
Miller said Gordon rolled an ankle in the second half but is fine. Gordon left the bench for a moment, going with trainer Justin Kokoskie to get it checked, but returned shortly afterward and went back into the game.