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Lord of the Boards

Only a freshman, Claremont native Kaleb Tarczewski has been an instant force for a nationally-ranked powerhouse.

Oral Roberts’ D.J. Jackson (12) loses the ball driving between Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski (35) and Nick Johnson last week at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. Tarczewski, a Claremont native and former Stevens High player, is the Wildcats’ starting center as a freshman. (Associated Press - Wily Low)

Oral Roberts’ D.J. Jackson (12) loses the ball driving between Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski (35) and Nick Johnson last week at McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. Tarczewski, a Claremont native and former Stevens High player, is the Wildcats’ starting center as a freshman. (Associated Press - Wily Low)

Tucson, Ariz. — The winter solstice is less than a week away, although it is camouflaged well in the Sonoran desert. It is 71 degrees as Kaleb Tarczewski, clad in his sweats, prepares for an afternoon practice. He has been forced into his closet for a sweatshirt a few times, but that is as deep as he has had to go to combat the elements. He loves it here.

“It just kind of has a warm vibe to it,” Tarczewski said. Certainly a far cry from his native Claremont.

Other than wardrobe, not a lot has changed for Tarczewski, at 7-foot the biggest of the young big men who were part of the University of Arizona’s top recruiting class last spring. Tarczewski has fit well. He has started every game for the No. 4-ranked team in the nation, and he has made steady progress while getting acclimated to the bigger bodies and faster pace of the college game.

Tarczewski leads the Wildcats in rebounding and is second in blocked shots and field goal percentage. He has done that despite the fewest field goal attempts of any starter, in part because Arizona is in the process of relearning how to play with a strong post presence after lacking one for the last few years.

It is a point of emphasis for coach Sean Miller.

“We want to be able to get him the ball, because good things happen when he catches it,” said Miller, in his fourth season at Arizona. “He is a willing passer. He shoots a high percentage. He’s physical by nature, and because of that, the players that are around him foul him a lot.”

“I think it is going to be easier to judge us maybe after 15 games or 20, and what I hope, because we talk about it a lot and are working to improve, is that we want to be able to make him more and more of a focal point of what we do offensively.”

Tarczewski, meanwhile, has been a strong rebounding and defensive presence for the Wildcats, 9-0 following Tuesday’s 89-64 won over Oral Roberts. Arizona was scheduled to East Tennessee State in Honolulu late last night.

Although foul trouble limited him to 20 minutes in Arizona’s signature 65-64 victory over then-No. 5 Florida at home last Saturday, Tarczewski still had four points, three rebounds and a blocked shot. Most notably, he helped throttle Gators center Patric Young, who scored only eight points after getting a career-high 25 against a smaller Arizona frontline the year before.

And he has had big nights, including a career-high 13 rebounds against Texas Tech. He has played the most in close games, a sign of Miller’s confidence. Tarczewski had seven points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes of a 63-55 victory over Southern Miss on Dec. 4, and he followed that with six points and six rebounds in 33 minutes in a 66-54 victory at Clemson on Dec. 8, seeing a career-high in minutes to counteract bruiser Devin Booker, whose brother, Trevor, plays in the NBA.

While Tarczewski was always the biggest player on the floor when he was growing up, he was not always the best. He did not begin playing basketball until the sixth grade and after that, needed time to grow into his body.

As a freshman at Stevens High, Tarczewski appeared in nine of his team’s 22 games, scoring 18 points total. He began to grow into his game as a sophomore, leading the Cardinals in scoring and rebounding as the team earned a 21-3 record, reaching the New Hampshire Class M semifinals before losing at the buzzer.

He moved to St. Marks School in Massachusetts the next year, where he played for three years. His obvious talent had college coaches taking notice almost from the start. As one of the top prep school big men in the country, Tarczewski was recruited by Kansas and a number of Big East schools before deciding on a trip to the Arizona desert.

True to his nature, Tarczewski had a modest assessment of his early body of work.

“Obviously, nothing really comes easy. This is big-time college basketball, so I’ve been working hard every day. I haven’t really had to change too much. I just go out and try to play hard and do the things I need to do to help the team win, which is rebound, contest shots and provide a little bit of low-post presence for the team,” he said.

“We have such a talented team. We all work together so well, and that is the most important thing.”

His presence definitely helps. There appears to be no truth to the rumor that sophomore shooting guard Nick Johnson, Tarczewski’s host on his recruiting visit to Arizona, unduly influenced the decision to attend Arizona rather than Kansas or North Carolina. But there also is no question that Johnson, guard Mark Lyons and forward Solomon Hill have been able to get better shots because the defense has been forced to sag in on Tarczewski and fellow freshmen big men Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett. To that end, Arizona is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.

“It’s huge. It definitely makes my job easier,” said Johnson, who leads the Wildcats with a 13.8 scoring average.

“To have a post presence, it frees up shots for the guards. He’s been rebounding great, blocking shots, playing defense. To have that 7-footer down in the paint makes teams think twice about coming into the paint.”

Johnson called Tarczewski a “gym rat,” and believes in what he has seen on the practice floor and at times during games.

“He is pretty much unstoppable when he gets in the post. You are either going to get an open three because he kicks it out — he’s a great passer — or you are going to get a nice little two-dribble, turn-around jumper off the glass. And it goes in every time,” Johnson said.

Miller said he has been most impressed by Tarczewski’s resolve and his respect for the process, showing a maturity seemingly beyond his 19 years.

“He has an incredible desire to be a great player. It’s a desire that I always feel sometimes it is easier for guards to have. They seem to be the ones to take extra shots, who live in the gym, who are on the quest to know more and grow. To have a 7-footer with that same desire is, to me, one very, very unique quality,” Miller said.

“His work ethic, his intelligence, his good-natured humor off the court, the type of person he is, great teammate ... I can’t say enough good things about who he is. With the talent that Kaleb has, he is going to be able to get to where he wants to get to in large part because his mind-set and all the qualities you need to put the work in, he has. From the very day from he got here he had it, and he’s never lost it one day.”

For Tarczewski, it is not about where he is, but where he wants to go.

“I love to be the in gym. Competition is one of the most important things to me,” he said. “I like going out there and proving I am better than someone. I really like that feeling, and I’ll do whatever I can to feel that way all the time. It’s definitely a lot of work, but hard work pays off, for sure.”

“I didn’t think that I was good enough to play at this level for a long time. I never like going out there and being cocky. I have a lot to improve on to get to where I want to be. I never try to go in with the mindset of this is what I can do, this is where I am.

“I like to go in there saying, ‘This is what I need to do to get better.’ I always expect myself to do the best I can. I think that really comes from the value my family has instilled in me.”