Arizona Wildcats basketball


When Kaleb Tarczewski jumps into his first full Arizona Wildcats practice today, it will be tempting for coaches to view him as a 7-foot, 255-pound weapon around the basket.

After all, almost nobody has those anymore in college basketball.

But UA coach Sean Miller is aware that Tarczewski was hardly an early basketball prodigy. Until about seven years ago, he was just a skinny kid who loved to run around in the forest near his New Hampshire home.

Travel ball wasn't part of the equation, nor was any ball, really.

"Basketball wasn't really a big part of me growing up," Tarczewski said. "I was kind of a small-town kid living in a cabin in the woods with my mom. I used to just play outside when I was younger, so sports until recently haven't been a part of my life."

While growing up in Claremont, N.H. (population 13,000), Tarczewski did not join a full-time basketball program early on, as do many elite players even in elementary school. He said he tried football in fourth grade and basketball in sixth grade and progressed into an elite basketball prospect only after playing at St. Mark's School in Massachusetts.

While helping St. Mark's reach four straight league title games in high school, Tarczewski blew into a high-profile recruit who was courted heavily by Kansas before choosing UA after attending last year's Red-Blue Game.

Expectations grew exponentially.

His recruitment and five-star ranking fueled a belief that he will instantly take over as UA's starting center this season and move on to the NBA before long.

And he might. But Miller is trying to put the brakes on that expectation, again, by recalling the past.

"The one thing I'd caution everybody (against) is sometimes when a 7-footer shows up who can play, expectations are almost unfairly put on him," Miller said. "He's a young player who has come a long way to be where he is today. Three or four years ago, Kaleb's name really wasn't on the scene, and he worked really hard to develop."

Even after he arrived at UA this summer, Tarczewski had to keep working significantly hard. After arriving at about 225 pounds, Tarczewski said he is now up to 257, after working out regularly and making sure he ate fully in the mornings and throughout the day.

Then, starting with UA's exhibition trip to the Bahamas, Tarczewski had to start to play with all that extra strength. Initially, he wasn't nearly as nimble.

"Just learning to play with it has been tough," Tarczewski said. "I'm working on my flexibility and things like that."

Helping Tarczewski is his progress in footwork and the knowledge of defense that he had at St. Mark's, which he said has eased his transition into Miller's system so far.

It also helps that, despite UA's urgency for help up front, he's not alone. Where the Wildcats routinely suffered matchup problems that Miller called "death by inches" last season - with 6-7 Jesse Perry at center, 6-6 Solomon Hill at power forward and 6-3 Kyle Fogg - there is now Tarczewski and three other well regarded players who are 6-8 or taller ready to contribute.

Miller also brought in two other highly touted freshmen, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett, while athletic shot-blocking whiz Angelo Chol returns for his sophomore season.

So it's not all on Tarczewski's shoulders. There may be time and space to develop.

"There's no doubt that one day he's going to be able to play in the NBA, but that path getting there is not just simple," Miller said. "He's going to have his rough moments, and the good news for Kaleb is he's on a true team, where others can help him on the days where maybe he's not as productive."

When those tough days come, Tarczewski will be ready to cope. Even if those on the outside aren't.

"It's not pressure," Tarczewski said of his expectations. "You just go out and play your game. You can't ask for anything more. It's just having fun and winning. That's the most important thing. You just honor the process. That's really all you can do."

Up next

• What: Red-Blue Game

• When: 2 p.m. Oct. 21