TUCSON, Ariz. — Matt Korcheck doesn’t remember exactly when he fell in love with Arizona basketball, but it was definitely after Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Jason Terry and the rest won the 1997 national championship.
Back then, he was just a 5-year-old trying to get through his vegetables. His passion for basketball didn’t start for another two to three years.
"I wasn’t always sure I wanted to play basketball (as a child)," he said Sunday night. "But once I did pick it up, I knew I wanted to be in this moment."
Who wouldn’t? The moments are memorable, sometimes even magical in the NCAA tournament. This year’s Arizona team is embracing them, having already reached the Sweet 16, where it will face San Diego State on Thursday night.
And Korcheck, now a 22-year-old center/power forward coming off the bench for the Wildcats, is doing what he can to help the West Region’s top seed try to get to the Final Four.
Upon reflection, basketball and life have been very good to Korcheck, who two years ago this month was offered a scholarship by coach Sean Miller. Just a few years ago, he was a "raw" but athletic big man who was making his way through the junior college level.
After sitting out for a redshirt season upon his arrival in Tucson, he has averaged 1.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 4.6 minutes per game this year. His key role is giving sophomore big man Kaleb Tarczewski some moments of rest.
"The minutes I’ve played are for the situation," said Korcheck, a former Tucson Sabino standout who signed with Cochise Junior College in Douglas, Ariz.
We’ve practiced 100 times this year, and Matt is 100 for 100, not missing a day. If you came to watch practice, you would leave saying he’s one of the hardest workers. That’s a special quality when you don’t get a lot of opportunity in games.
Arizona coach Sean Miller
In signing with Arizona, Korcheck became the first local player since Darnell Shumpert in 2008 to sign with the Wildcats and the first in-state junior college recruit in three decades.
Needless to say, this opportunity doesn’t come often for a local player, getting to be part of a national powerhouse that has reached its 16th Sweet 16 and has a legitimate chance to reach its fifth Final Four. For Korchek, the experience is all about winning and being "able to play at the highest level," he said.
"It’s been a lot of fun. I can’t really describe it. There’s been a lot of hard work and dedication that’s gone into it, a lot of sacrifice. But we’ve got a great group of guys. We are in this together. It’s been a great experience."
It’s the experience he hoped for when he signed two years ago, shunning other power programs such as Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Marquette.
"We’re excited for him," said Cochise coach Jerry Carrillo. "With him going to Arizona (it) was good for our program."
Media attention. The spotlight. Kind words about an oft-successful program.
And Carrillo is no novice. In 18 years as Cochise’s coach he’s sent more than 35 players to Division I programs.
"We had jets landing at air strips just outside of Douglas landing here a lot," Carrillo said of Korcheck’s recruitment.
All it took was a drive for Miller, who made the trip one December day to see what Korcheck was all about. What he saw was what Carrillo saw: a 6-foot-9, 220-pound center who could run the court well for his size, defend and rebound.
"He has a good motor and he sprints well from rim to rim," Carrillo said."He could defend a number of positions."
Now, it’s mostly in the post. That’s where he played Sunday night in San Diego, defending 7-1 Gonzaga big man Przemek Karnowski.
"He did a really great job for us," Miller said.
Nothing less was expected. If nothing else, Korcheck is steady and consistent — reason enough to recruit him as part of the class that included big-time prospects Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett.
"We’ve practiced 100 times this year, and Matt is 100 for 100, not missing a day," Miller said. "If you came to watch practice, you would leave saying he’s one of the hardest workers. That’s a special quality when you don’t get a lot of opportunity in games. But because he goes about his business, not only does he make our team better, but when this opportunity hits him in March, he’s ready for it."
It’s the opportunity Korcheck had hoped for coming in.
"When I signed, I knew we’d compete for this," he said of the NCAA tournament.
Korcheck is doing whatever he can to be part of that lore.
"We’re proud of him," Carrillo said. "I watched him (on Sunday) and he defended well and built some great walls. He had great energy. I heard Coach Miller talk about him being a great practice player, and I like to think that he learned those practice habits here. They’ve stuck with him daily, and it’s carried him well. I think he’s earned the respect of his teammates and coaches."