Tarczewski savors chance to go the distance with Arizona program

Kaleb Tarczewski spent the summer competing for Team USA in the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Tom Szczerbowski/Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

TUCSON, Ariz. — For three years, Kaleb Tarczewski has played a supporting role in a cast made up of NBA draft picks.

But Tarczewski is set to complete his Arizona playing career this spring with a chance to do something none of his more heralded teammates has done — become the program’s all-time leader in career victories.

Tarczewski has built an impressive three-year resume with the Wildcats including a 94-17 overall record, one Sweet 16 an two Elite Eight appearances.

And for all of his hard work on and off the court, there is still a stigma that Tarczewski has something to prove in Tucson.

"Part of the reason I’m coming back is because I feel like I have stuff left on the table that I need to take care of," Tarczewski says. "Every game is an opportunity to prove myself this year, and I have one last shot to do it."

Last season Tarczewski started 37 of 38 games and averaged 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in 26 minutes per game. He ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage at .572, but for "Zeus," and seemingly anyone who has followed his career, it doesn’t ever seem to be enough.

Maybe the 7-footer is questioned because he only had three double-doubles last year or because he was only able to muster 0.6 blocks per game in his junior campaign.

Maybe it’s because the three-year starter has never earned a conference honor higher than a Pac-12 All-Freshman team honorable mention.

But Tarczewski shines in the areas that the stat sheet overlooks. He took a team-high 10 charges last year. His defensive presence is what coach Sean Miller believes is the anchor of a defense that ranked in the top 25 nationally for points allowed and defensive rebounds per game last year.

But questions are continually being asked of Tarczewski’s seemingly unfulfilled potential. And some have even questioned his decision to return for a fourth season of college basketball.

On Friday, Miller made it clear in his opening statement of a roughly 45 minute media-day press conference how valuable it is to have a four-year college player in today’s one-and-done style college hoops landscape.

"I want to focus on Kaleb for a second," Miller said. "I’ve answered so many questions about him returning for his senior year and I almost feel that we all, including Kaleb, are made to feel like you have to apologize for showing up a fourth time."

Miller added, "It wasn’t too long ago when that type of player would have been bombarded with positive questions . . . It’s really sad."

Perhaps that’s the state of college basketball today. It’s unrealistic to imagine a top-five recruit sticking for four years.

Tarczewski and Texas’ Cameron Ridley are the only top-10 players from the 2012 recruiting class who haven’t left school early to go pro. Seven of the 10 are currently on NBA rosters.

"I don’t think it’s negative at all," Tarczewski says. "I think it’s a positive thing 100 percent."

Miller expressed how Tarczewski’s success in academics helped shape his decision to stay in school, providing the opportunity to graduate from the University of Arizona’s prestigious Eller school of Business.

"To be able to go out there and enjoy my senior year, step away with a degree, and hopefully win a ton of basketball games, I think that is the most important thing for me," Tarczewski says.

Tarczewski believes he made big strides with his game in the offseason, highlighted by his involvement as one of seven college players picked to play with the U.S.A Pan American team over the summer in Canada. He helped team U.S.A win a bronze medal and says he gained valuable experience playing alongside professional players.

"That was one of my favorite experiences that I’ve ever been a part of," he said.

Tarczewski believes with the return of fellow 7-footer Dusan Ristic, and newcomers like Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson and San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefsen, the Wildcats will have an imposing front court.

"I’m going to say this right now, we are the best front court in the country," he said. "We are incredibly talented on the block."

Arizona lost its floor leader from last season in T.J. McConnell. Tarczewski says he is looking forward to stepping in and filling the leadership void.

"It’s definitely a different role," Tarczewski says. "I have been through so many experiences here at UA, and I have kind of seen it all."

"It’s an opportunity for me to come back and help the younger guys along and hopefully make their experience a lot easier."

Tarczewski says he hopes to enjoy some of the emotional moments that guard McConnell experienced last season playing for Arizona — most notably kissing Arizona’s block A logo at half-court in his home finale last year.

"I hope that I can have a few of those T.J.-like moments," Tarczewski says. "It’s funny, when you become a senior you start to realize how blessed you are to be in a situation like this. It’s your last time down this road, and you really just want to make the most of it.

"I think we are going to do something special this year," he said. "This is my last year in college, I’m never going to get to do it again."