Arizona will improve for at least one big reason: Kaleb Tarczewski

BY Reid Forgrave • October 24, 2014

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Question: How could Arizona possibly be a better team this season than the Wildcats were a year ago, when they spent seven weeks at No. 1 in the AP poll, won 33 games, came within a couple bounces in the Elite Eight game against Wisconsin of making Sean Miller’s first Final Four, then sent Aaron Gordon (fourth overall) and Nick Johnson (42nd overall) to the NBA?

Answer: OK, well, there are a few answers here.

One is that the Wildcats, who will be ranked in the top five in the preseason, added one of the most versatile scorers of the 2014 recruiting class in the dynamic Southern California wing Stanley Johnson.

Another is that Arizona will be deeper this season, and therefore not as susceptible to setbacks like the Brandon Ashley injury in February that took the most reliable shooter off a team that seemed primed for a national title run. This year’s team could see 10 or 11 players crack the rotation.

Also, how about the fact that this Arizona team is more experienced (five upperclassmen in that rotation)? Or the fact that possible NBA lottery pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be starting instead of coming off the bench? Or that the choking, pack-line defense that was the nation’s most efficient a season ago won’t miss a beat this season? Or that several players told me Arizona’s defense actually will be even better (yikes) this season? Or that Ashley’s and Gabe York’s 3-point shooting, nearly 40 percent a year ago, ought to only improve with another year of experience? Or that I’ve heard more than one person compare 7-foot Serbian freshman Dusan Ristic to Wisconsin’s inside-out threat Frank Kaminsky?

I could go on.

But if I had to pick one reason why this year ought to be the first time we’ll see a Sean Miller team in a Final Four, I’ll point to the development of the big man in the middle, Kaleb Tarczewski.

The 7-foot, 240-pound, back-to-the-basket junior came to Arizona from New England as a highly touted top-five recruit, ranked ahead of now-NBA players like Kyle Anderson, Steven Adams, Marcus Smart and Anthony Bennett. But his game was unfinished, especially on offense. As a freshman, Tarczewski said his free-throw shooting was “awful.” His outside shooting was pretty much non-existent, his post moves limited.

Last season, as a sophomore, his free-throw shooting improved markedly, from 63 percent to 76 percent. So did his outside shooting; he started stepping out for 15- to 17-footers toward the end of the season, and he averaged nearly 10 points a game. He’s spent this offseason refining his post moves to try to become less a defense-first player: “Just working on my awareness around the rim,” he told me, “being able to feel defenders, working on back-to-the-basket moves, setting guys up, all that stuff that takes time to understand.”

But the biggest reason I see Tarczewski as the explanation for why Arizona will get over that Final Four hump this year?

It’s because when I asked him what he’s most proud of about his game these days, he didn’t speak about scoring. He didn’t speak about his NBA future.

Instead, he talked about being a smart defender. He spoke about buying into Miller’s defensive principles. He said all the unselfish things a coach hopes his players say, and he said it like he meant it.

“I want to create shots for other people,” Tarczewski told me before a recent team workout. “From screening, from sealing people in the post, from being a willing defender, hopefully from being a great defender this year.”

To understand what a big deal it is for an elite player to talk about being proud of setting effective screens, you must first understand the AAU/summer basketball culture that feeds into today’s college basketball. Not everything is bad about the AAU circuit. It gives players an outlet to develop their game during the summer and to get exposure among college coaches. But it’s also a roll-the-ball-out-and-score metality, where teenagers learn by osmosis that in order to make it to The Association they need to attract the attention big-time college coaches with flashy scoring exploits and highlight-reel defensive plays. That culture leads to a player choosing a school that promises him minutes as a freshman over a school that promises he’ll develop over time. It’s the culture that makes a guy who’d be a natural wing at the college level force his coach to play him out of position at point guard because that’s what he’s been told will get him to the NBA.

It’s a me-first basketball culture that laughs at a player like Tarczewski who brags about setting picks, a culture that thinks sealing off the post is a skill that pales in comparison to highlight-reel dunks.

And it’s a culture that Sean Miller has upended at Arizona, by getting five-star recruits to value defense more than offense.

This could be the Arizona team that brings Sean Miller to his first Final Four.

“We’re setting goals from the beginning of the year, trying to be the No. 1 defense in the country,” senior point guard T.J. McConnell told me. “It’s the culture we’ve set around here. It’s different.”

“We went 33-5 last year,” York told me. “You look at that and it’s a great year, got to the Elite Eight – but we left money on the table. We weren’t satisfied with making it to the Elite Eight. The Final Four was what we wanted to accomplish. The national championship was what we wanted to accomplish. At the end of the day, it didn’t happen.”

In time, though, it will. It happened for Bo Ryan, the coach whose defense-focused philosophy led him to the title of “best coach not to make a Final Four” – until he beat Arizona in last season’s Elite Eight. It will happen for Miller, whose Arizona program has become self-sustaining – losing two players to the NBA one year and still having national title aspirations the next year. And because of players with the mentality of Tarczewski, it will likely happen sooner instead of later.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.



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