TUCSON, Ariz. — In three years at the University of Arizona, Sean Miller’s game plan hasn’t really included passing the ball near the basket to a true, blue big man.
Whom to throw to when there’s no one really there? Sure, former Wildcats star Derrick Williams played near the basket from time to time, and he sometimes played bigger than his 6-foot-9 frame, but he was no center.
Arizona has centers now, two legitimate go-to guys near the basket — freshmen Kaleb Tarczewski (7-foot) and Grant Jerrett (6-11). For good measure, 6-8 Brandon Ashley also is a big man who will be playing near the basket and expected to make an impact there.
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With time and patience, the trio could be very productive. It would also help if the perimeter players could get used to going inside.
A portion of Arizona’s trip to the Bahamas earlier this month for some exhibition games was to get accustomed to getting the ball inside. Plenty.
“Now we have guys you want to throw to — when you haven’t done it (in three years), it’s not natural,” Miller said at his summer wrap-up news conference. “That’s the thing we saw a number of times. It was like glue on the fingers: You’re not used to making that part of what you do. That’s one of the things we worked hard on. Throwing it in there is a good thing, and if we do, good things will happen.”
Not since Channing Frye has Arizona had a true center, and even Frye was a shade-to-the-perimeter type rather than a back-to-the-basket type, although he certainly did some of the latter.
Miller said all three of his current freshmen are hard workers who are committed to getting things done. It shows how well they’ve worked to this point.
Tarczewski has gained more than 25 pounds, getting him to just above 250, and “you don’t gain that much wait in a short amount of time without working as hard as you can.”
In a news clip provided by UA, Tarczewski said he didn’t play up to his potential over the summer in part because he still needed to learn how to play at his new weight.
Jerrett has gained more than 10 pounds (to 220) and has shown a knack for hitting the outside jumper.
And Ashley has gone from 22 percent body fat to about 10 percent.
“That’s a great commitment, and he’s worked hard,” Miller said.
Arizona senior Solomon Hill said the presence of the young bigs helped the Wildcats realize they will have help near the basket this year. And that will allow Hill to play his more natural position — small forward — rather than matching up against bigger opponents.
“Now (opponents) have to worry about our size,” Hill said.
He added that Arizona will have “weapons at every position,” which will help the team “make a good run” come March.
Another thing that will help the Wildcats is competition, said Miller, who has been a Division I head coach for more than a decade. He can thank last season for that reaffirmation, as UA had a so-so year after being hyped with high expectations.
“Competition is the greatest thing you can have in college sports today,” Miller said. “With that, things take care of themselves. Everything becomes seen by the players that you’re going to play as much as you earn, and when you’re not doing things that you are supposed to do — whether it’s on or off the court — we’ll have someone sitting right there who will be ready to go.”
In just more than two months, Miller and Co. will get a chance to see it on the floor. He did admit that last year’s team appeared to have talent and depth, with the likes of freshmen Sidiki Johnson and Josiah Turner joining a team that was one basket from a Final Four the season before.
But it was only supposed talent and depth. There were injuries and misfortune (Kevin Parrom and Jordin Mayes). Johnson was dismissed in December, and Turner left the program after a suspension-filled year.
They’ve been replaced by Arizona’s best-ever freshman class.
As evidenced last year, that doesn’t guarantee success, but what Miller has seen so far has been promising. And perhaps the most promising aspect has been the evidence the Wildcats will have a strong presence near the basket, something they haven’t had in some time.
Making use of that presence will be an emphasis all season.