The tower of Tarczewski: Arizona Wildcats center hitting his stride at the right time
Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski throws his hands up on defense instead of going for the block against Harvard’s Kenyatta Smith in the third round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.
Size has never been an issue for Kaleb Tarczewski.
He was born 10 pounds, 3¾ ounces and two feet long. Now, 20 years later, he weighs 260 pounds and stands 7 feet tall.
Height runs in the family. Tarczewski’s father is 6-foot-4 and his grandfather is 6-foot-5. Tarczewski’s mother is 5-foot-11 and her father is 6-foot-6.
Tarczewski didn’t have a 10-inch growth spurt in high school like last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, Anthony Davis, but he was consistently the tallest for his age.
“It was pretty much a gradual progression with him,” said Erick Tarczewski, his father, in a phone interview with the Daily Wildcat.
He steadily grew to be a 7-footer by his senior year of high school, but he didn’t start playing basketball until middle school. He wasn’t very good in the beginning, either.
“When he first started it was slow,” his father said. “Granted, he was really young at the time, but he had his struggles for sure. But really by the time he was a freshman in high school, he really had some good things going for him.”
At St. Mark’s School, where he transferred after one year at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., Tarczewski developed into the nation’s fourth-best recruit in the 2012 class by ESPN.
Now, he’s the starting center for the Arizona Wildcats.
It was Dec. 18, and Arizona had just defeated Oral Roberts by 25 points, 89-64, winning its ninth straight game to open the season.
But head coach Sean Miller wasn’t happy.
At least, not with freshman center Tarczewski, who fouled out after 16 minutes of action in his second straight game fouling out.
“One of the things I’m thinking of telling him is,” Miller said sarcastically, “‘If anyone wants to run into you, just run away — run on your tippy-toes. Fall down as much as you can. Get out of the way when the game gets physical.’
“Because part of being a 7-footer is, it’s almost as if they’re watching you in a different light.”
Three months later, with the Wildcats advancing to the Sweet 16 and facing Ohio State at 4:47 p.m. on Thursday, Tarczewski is playing his best basketball of the season. But he’s still getting called for fouls.
In the early going of Saturday’s NCAA Tournament third-round matchup with Harvard at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, 6-foot-8 Crimson forward Kenyatta Smith drove right at the 7-foot Tarczewski.
As Smith went to the basket with an intent to shoot, Tarczewski stood his ground, threw his arms up and balanced on his “tippy-toes” to extend his 9-foot standing reach, looking to disrupt Smith’s shot without getting called for a foul. Smith missed the shot, but the whistle blew anyway.
Foul on Arizona, No. 35. Two shots.
That’s happened often in Tarczewski’s career, both at the UA this year and at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., before that.
He’s fouled out six times this season for the Wildcats and has been in foul trouble (three fouls or more) 10 other times.
“I’m kind of used to it,” Tarczewski said, smiling. “I’ve always been bigger than everyone else, so I’m kind of used to getting those calls. But there’s great officials here, doing a good job.”
There wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in his voice, and Tarczewski is the last person you’d expect to go on a Miller-like “He touched the ball!” rant, so his complimentary view of the officiating crew that night wasn’t surprising.
In fact, for most of the season Tarczewski didn’t say much at all, at least to the media.
With his deep, booming voice — the kind you’d expect of a 7-foot, 260-pound behemoth — Tarczewski often answered questions with short, simple statements.
On the court, his numbers were OK — 6.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game and a 61.9 field goal percentage in the first 10 games — especially for a freshman center thrust into a starting role on day one. But Tarczewski said he struggled moving with the 35 pounds he’d added to his 220-pound high school frame and using it against opponents with similar size for the first time in his playing career.
“I thought college basketball was going to be easy,” Tarczewski said, “and that’s definitely the farthest from the truth. Players, speed of the game — everything is just at a higher level. It was tough for me in the beginning of the year.
“Being the No. 4 player in the country, I thought I could come to college basketball and beat everyone, but that’s not the case.”
As Tarczewski sat in the locker room after Arizona had just beat down Harvard 74-51, with ice packs draped on his knees, he was cheerful and talkative, calm and collected. Arizona advanced to the Sweet 16 in Tarczewski’s first year at the school, and he was all smiles. Against Harvard, he tallied seven points and eight rebounds, one game after posting 12 and 8 in a second-round NCAA win over Belmont.
“He’s found himself,” said forward Kevin Parrom. “He’s not a freshman anymore. Freshmen become sophomores. He’s playing like an older guy now.”
Tarczewski couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how far he’s come.
He called back to the six straight shots he missed at the Red-Blue game in November, in his first-ever playing experience at McKale Center in front of 14,365 screaming fans.
One year before Tarczewski played in the Red-Blue, he sat in the stands as a recruit, heart racing, imagining what it would be like to play home games in front of the raucous Tucson crowd. At the time, Tarczewski was choosing between the UA and Kansas. 10 days later, he committed to the Wildcats.
“Where I came from in prep school, if we had 100 people there it was a big game,” Tarczewski said. “Fifteen thousand people cheering for you, it’s a little bit different. It gets your nerves going.
“I’ve never had that many people cheer for me.”
Now, in the midst of March Madness, Tarczewski is confident and thriving.
In his last five games, Tarczewski has gotten 7.6 points per game along with 8.4 rebounds and is shooting 68 percent from the field.
“He’s got just really great skills for a traditional center, and the start of the year he wasn’t really showing that,” his father said. “But I think as the season has progressed he’s more comfortable with the players on the team in Arizona. I think he’s really starting to shine.”
In his sophomore campaign at St. Marks, Tarczewski took an unofficial visit to Harvard. A first-rate academic institution, sure, but not exactly the mecca for developing basketball talent.
Before this year, where the 14-seed Crimson upset 3-seed New Mexico before falling to Arizona, Harvard was winless in its only two NCAA tournaments (2012 and 1946).
The Crimson don’t even offer athletic scholarships, but Tarczewski was smart, and he wasn’t getting much interest elsewhere. Plus, Cambridge is only 30 minutes away from his high school in Southborough.
(Tarczewski had a 4.0 GPA in high school before he went to St. Marks, where it dropped a bit because, he said, of the increased difficulty at a private school.)
“I went over for a few visits unofficially to see the place when I was younger,” Tarczewski said. “I was thinking, if I could get a Harvard education that’d be great, but the basketball kind of tipped off and my recruiting went to the next level.”
As a junior at St. Mark’s, Tarczewski got 17 points and 12 rebounds per game. As a senior, 20.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.
Evan Cummins, a little-used freshman forward at Harvard, played on the same AAU team — the New England Playaz — as Tarczewski and against him with Northfield Mount Hermon High School.
“He was a lot of fun to watch because of how quickly he was improving,” Cummins said. “Every day you would just shake your head and say, ‘There’s nothing you can do about that.’
“You could tell he was a special player.”
Tarczewski’s parents split up “a while ago,” Erick said, but their relationship is still good, and that’s because of their son.
“We’ve always both been focused as a team effort to his development as a person,” Erick said.
In the fall, Tarczewski’s mother, Bonnie Wyand, rented out her home in New Hampshire and rented a house in Tucson to be closer to Tarczewski.
UA assistant coach James Whitford said that Tarczewski has a tendency to get down on himself when he’s struggling, so having his mother nearby — instead of 2,574 miles across the country in Claremont — has been invaluable.
“It was a much bigger adjustment for him than we realized,” Whitford said. “If Kaleb doesn’t play well, he’s miserable. If he plays well, he’s great. His mom could care less how he plays; she just loves him.”
In December, Erick Tarczewski came to Tucson to watch Arizona’s game against Florida, and he stayed with Wyand.
Erick Tarczewski and Wyand sat and watched as their son jumped and slapped at the ball for the opening tip at McKale Center. He sat alongside Joe Murphy, the father of Gators forward Erik Murphy, who played with Tarczewski at St. Marks. John Carroll was there, too — Tarczewski’s coach with the New England Playaz and a former Boston Celtics head coach.
It wasn’t Tarczewski’s best game — he had four points, three rebounds and fouled out in 20 minutes — but Arizona defeated the Gators on a last second shot from senior point guard Mark Lyons.
If the Wildcats advance to Atlanta for the Final Four, Tarczewski’s father plans to be there.
“It’s unbelievable,” Erick Tarczewski said. “For a kid from a small area like we’re from, it’s just incredible that he’s gone as far as he has. As far as Arizona can make it, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get them there.”
Weight: 260 pounds
Hometown: Claremont, N.H.
Stats: 6.6 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, 53.5 percent shooting, 0.6 blocks, 2.5 fouls
(Last five games): 7.6 points per game 8.4 rebounds, 68 percent shooting, 3.4 fouls
(6) Arizona against (2) Ohio State
When: Thursday, 4:47 p.m.
Where: Staples Center
— Zack Rosenblatt can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @ZackBlatt.