ANAHEIM, Calif. — As always with a giant like Kaleb Tarczewski, it starts from the bottom up.
As a sophomore, the Arizona center has been focused on his feet, keeping them healthy and improving his footwork, and both have paid huge dividends for the Wildcats.
“With big guys, first thing you look at is their feet,” Arizona trainer Justin Kokoskie said. “It’s not normal for a guy to be 7-foot and weigh 250 pounds. From Day 1, we’re fitting them for orthotics, their foot mechanics, and it’s all about prevention. I’ve been here so long enough that I’ve seen a lot of big guys ruin their feet and their back.”
The sad thing for Tarczewski: He almost did it to himself.
Tarczewski bulked up before his freshman season in anticipation for the bigs he’d have to defend at the college level, but the extra weight only kept him grounded. Later in the season, he felt sluggish and hobbled.
“Last year and the summer before last year, I was too focused on adding weight,” said Tarczewski, who will be the focus of a twin-tower matchup with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky tonight in their Elite Eight bout at the Honda Center.
“I thought I was going to be too skinny to play against some of the post players in college, and I gained about 35, 40 pounds that summer. Most of it was good, some was body fat. As the season wore on, it was tougher and tougher, and I didn’t feel like I was as quick as I should be.”
Tarczewski has learned much since then, but primarily two lessons: (1) That college post players really aren’t too strong or big, and (2) that he needed to focus on his body.
Tarczewski dedicated himself to yoga to enhance his flexibility and his athleticism, and he has doubled-down on his willingness to buy into the training staff.
“He really bought into the stretching and the preventative stuff,” Kokoskie said. “He knew that if he can be at 90 percent versus 95 percent, that’s a big difference.”
Tarczewski has played in all but two games this year, missing early-season matchups against Southern and Northern Arizona with a sprained ankle, and most importantly, he’s been healthy for the team’s stretch run.
His health — and his ability to avoid foul trouble, which plagued him against San Diego State on Thursday — will be paramount against the Badgers and their big man, Kaminsky.
Kaminsky emerged this season as a true scoring threat, upping his scoring from 4.2 points per game as a sophomore to 13.7 as a junior, and he has been at his best late in the year. Kaminsky scored 28 against Michigan State in a Big Ten tournament loss on March 15, then had 19 against Oregon in the round-of-32 win and 19 again against Baylor on Thursday in the Badgers’ Sweet 16 win.
“We’ve watched a little film on him before; he’s one of those rare players who is a five that pops out and shoots threes,” Tarczewski said. “We’re going to do what we do — we’re going to lock down on our defensive principles.”
Tarczewski will be charged with limiting Kaminsky to around his average Saturday — a tall task against the fellow 7-footer – but he’s not putting all the pressure on himself.
“I don’t feel like it’s a weight on my shoulders,” Tarczewski said. “I feel like it’s a weight on everyone’s shoulders, coming into this game. Defense is so much more than one-on-one, it’s so much more than my assignment. It’s everyone’s assignment.”
The rest of the Wildcats have Tarczewski’s back, even if they know that really, he has theirs.
“He’s a 7-footer, man; you don’t see too many 7-footers walking around who can stick with the ball and play defense like him,” Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “Then you have us on the frontcourt helping him. But once he steps up and walls up, it’s pretty hard to get around him.”