SAN DIEGO - Jonathan Norris was the first to put the emphasis on Kaleb Tarczewski’s middle syllable, heavy on the “ZEUS!”
It is the most endearing term for an Arizona Wildcat since former PA man Roger Sedlmayr got every ounce out of “STEVE KERRRRR!”
If you are known as “Zeus,” you cannot be a point guard or some guy shooting threes. Zeus, the Greek god, carried a thunderbolt in his hand. So does this Zeus.
On Thursday at Viejas Arena, Weber State coach Randy Rahe got an up-close look at Tarczewski and said, “They’ve got a 7-2 guy at center, and we’ve got a 6-9 guy.”
Tarczewski has a team-high 50 dunks this year, most of them of the thunderclap variety, but the UA lists him as merely 7 feet and 235 pounds. He is not bigger than life, but sometimes, to an opposing coach, he appears that way.
Rahe will assign Joel Bolomboy, the Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year, to guard Zeus today. On paper, Bolomboy is listed as 6-9, 225. But when you watch the two centers work at Viejas, you don’t buy it.
You would swear Zeus is 7-5 and Bolomboy 6-5.
I sat next to Weber State radio analyst Dutch Belnap during Thursday’s Arizona workout, and while making himself familiar with Arizona’s personnel, Belnap pointed to Zeus and asked “who’s that?” as if saying “that might be trouble.”
“Not many teams have an aircraft carrier any more,” said Belnap, a former Division I head coach.
Kaleb Tarczewski was born in 1993, about the time CBS analyst Al McGuire’s term “aircraft carrier” was last used to describe a dominant college basketball center. Zeus is more like a 737 or a cargo jet.
But in recent weeks, Zeus has become more multi-dimensional. Against UCLA he stuck a 12-foot jumper, with touch, off the glass. Against Stanford a few weeks ago, he drilled a face-up 15-footer.
As Arizona enters the NCAA tournament, Zeus isn’t all thunder. He has improved as much from one season to the next as almost any Wildcat of the last decade, upping his scoring average from 6.6 to 10.1 and his shooting percentage from .538 to .585.
If you study the final five minutes of Arizona’s Pac-12 tournament loss to UCLA, you will find that one of the chief reasons Arizona lost is because it didn’t get the ball to Zeus. He did not attempt a shot in the frantic finish as his teammates shot 0 for 8 until Nick Johnson made an after-the-fact trey.
Had they forgotten that Zeus made three consecutive buckets — a dunk, a flip-hook and a put-back — as Arizona rallied from a 31-23 first-half deficit?
The guy sitting behind me at MGM Grand Garden Arena, a loud-lunged UA fan, shouted “Get the ball to Zeus!” over and over and over.
Zeus didn’t shoot in the game’s final 5:12.
Ball distribution is an indelicate subject in the UA locker room, in any locker room, and Tarczewski chose not to go there.
“I’ve taken a little bit more of a role in the offense this year,” he said. “I’m feeling good about my shot, but I don’t have freedom to just put it up there. It all works out.”
During Thursday’s workout, when the Wildcats went into a three-point shooting drill, Zeus was careful not to waste his time shooting from 20 feet. While Gabe York and Johnson let it fly from the out-of-bounds line, Zeus was purposeful in stepping in, to about 14 feet, and shooting the shots he’ll actually need in a game.
During one stretch, I counted seven consecutive swishes. He has as pure a shooting stroke as any big man at Arizona, possibly ever, with the exception of Channing Frye.
But it’s ironic that in an era when college (and pro) basketball have gone over to the three-pointer more than ever, Arizona has perhaps the nation’s most feared post-up center. Zeus is a ground force in a game given over to the air force.
Yet it’s probably true that Arizona will go about as far as his inside presence can take them.
Tarczewski grew up in Claremont, N.H., which is basically the wilderness. His grandfather was a gunsmith and a logger. His father, Zeus says, can fix anything. “He plows snow all winter for the local municipality,” he says. “He grew up outdoors.”
Rather than play basketball as a kid, Zeus was lured by the outdoors in an area blessed by the Sugar River and the Mount Ascutney recreation area.
“I would built snow forts and igloos,” he says. “We actually lived in a log cabin. I was definitely an outdoor guy.”
Kaleb Tarczewski is now an indoor guy. He has scored in double figures 19 times, has improved his minutes-played average from 22 to 28 and, perhaps more significantly, has become a reliable foul shooter, making 76 percent of his shots this year.
Maybe he’s not a complete player, not fully polished, not yet, but he’s getting there.
If he played for another team, a team Arizona was to face in the NCAA tournament, your reaction would be “trouble.”
Or, in Zeus’ case, big trouble.