Arizona freshmen ready to shine in first March Madness
March Madness has finally arrived. It’s time for the stars to shine, the veterans to leave a legacy and the coaches to define their careers. The NCAA tournament is meant to showcase the household names — the Zellers, Burkes and Krzyzewskis of the world — but Arizona’s three role-playing freshmen are starting to become difference-makers themselves.
The play of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett certainly won’t be the reason why the Wildcats would lose a game in the tournament.
But they’re more than capable of being the reason why they’d win.
“It was hard to be mad about the situation in the game,” senior forward Solomon Hill said Monday. “I think we played great basketball. I think Brandon Ashley played one of the best games since he’s been here. Grant really showed [he] is not all about offense, but when we needed him to make a big shot, he made a big shot for us.”
Kyle Wasson / Arizona Daily Wildcat The UA men's basketball team traveled to Las Vegas, March 13-16, for the 2012-13 Pac-12 Basketball Tournament. Although the Wildcats won their first matchup against Colorado, they fell to UCLA in the semi-finals for the third time this season.
Despite Arizona’s last second loss to UCLA, Tarczewski, Ashley and Jerrett all made a considerable impact in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal. Now that the lights are about to get even brighter, the play of a freshman could be the deciding factor between an early exit or a deep tournament run for the sixth-seeded Wildcats.
Luckily for the UA, the young big men are playing some of their best basketball as of late.
“Brandon may have played his best game of the season (against UCLA) … He did a great job,” head coach Sean Miller said after the game. “Our freshmen have done nothing but get better.”
“Watching them play out there, they’re playing at a very, very high level. A much higher level now than they did earlier in the year.”
Even the Bruins’ head coach Ben Howland was impressed by Tarczewski and Ashley. He said he voted for one of the Arizona three to make the All-Pac-12 freshman team, although he didn’t clarify which one (Tarczewski was an honorable mention).
“Tarczewski and Ashley were fantastic (Friday),” Howland said. “Thirteen rebounds for Tarczewski, 15 points for Ashley. Those guys will both be pros someday.”
While all three are interchangeable at times, and play similar minutes, each of the three players have drastically different impacts on the game.
Sophomore Nick Johnson described Tarczewski as a “beast on the boards” in the UCLA game. It wasn’t the case of a Marshawn Lynch-style Beast Mode, though. Tarczewski has been rebounding at a much higher rate recently.
During the past seven games, Zeus has averaged 8.3 rebounds per game in 25 minutes of play. Considering his height, that might not seem overly impressive, but it is a huge improvement over his 5.4 rebounds before the recent hot streak.
Tarczewski has also shot much better too, improving from a paltry 47.4 percent for a 7-footer to a much more impressive 63.7 percent in the last 10 games. He still misses the occasional head-scratcher, but he’s playing with a lot more confidence on the offensive end.
Ashley was once described as Arizona’s best freshman by Miller, but the athletic forward seemed to hit a wall near the end of the season. He finally broke through Friday, leading Arizona with a team-high 15 points while shooting 7-for-8 from the field.
This type of efficiency isn’t new either. When Ashley scores in double-figures, he’s only once shot below 50 percent. In fact, he’s averaging an incredible 70.7 percent (58-for-82) in his 13 double-figure scoring efforts.
Ashley is already the Wildcats’ most accurate shooter, but in the games where he really gets involved in the offensive end, he almost can’t miss. That type of efficiency from a role player could be crucial in the tournament.
After missing a game against Stanford in early February with foot pain, the sharpshooting freshman has really turned it on from deep.
Jerrett now leads the team in 3-point percentage (40.6) for players with more than four attempts thanks to some great shooting since the one-game absence. He’s made 15 of his last 29 shots from beyond the arc, and some has sunk some huge pressure shots as well.
Jerrett hit a game-tying three against UCLA with 57 seconds remaining in the game Friday before the Bruins’ Kyle Anderson hit the game-winner on the next possession. Jerrett also was the near-hero a few games earlier, again against UCLA.
The freshman forward hit back-to-back threes in the final minutes of the game to keep Arizona in striking distance. That type of willingness to take a big shot can come in handy in March.
Add that to his team-high 31 blocks — 10 more than the second-place Tarczewski despite playing 139 minutes less — and Jerrett is really starting to come into his own on the floor.