Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Arizona. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.
It all makes sense now.
That rebuilding project that Sean Miller began to concoct upon his arrival has materialized. His 2013-14 roster is stud-filled.
Yes, it’s necessary to hype Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State as the upcoming season approaches. But don’t forget about Arizona. Seriously.
So Miller’s program will rely on youth next season. But a multitude of programs will face the same circumstances. So the Wildcats will not be alone.
With Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a pair of five-star recruits per RecruitingNation, anchoring Miller’s incoming class, and Brandon Ashley, Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski all back for the Wildcats, they should enter the year as the Pac-12 favorites.
That’s a lot of returning talent. The most important returnee for Miller, however, is Tarczewski.
He arrived with an assortment of accolades. He was ranked fourth overall in the 2012 recruiting class by RecruitingNation. And long before he’d reached the Tucson campus, many pegged the seven-footer as a one-and-done prospect.
But, Tarczewski struggled in his first season. Most big men do.
He shot just 63.3 percent from the free throw line. He averaged 1.5 turnovers per game and 0.7 blocks per game. His 3.18 block rate (KenPom.com) fell short of expectations, too.
Plus, he fouled out six times, even though he averaged 22.0 minutes per game.
Still, there were flashes of what we could see in the future throughout the 2012-13 campaign. He finished much better than he started.
But who will Tarczewski be in 2013-14?
The answer to that question will impact Arizona’s entire season.
He has to score more. He has to be tougher. He has to be a better defender. And he has to do that while avoiding foul trouble as teams attack him inside.
It’s time for Tarczewski to justify the hype and prove the prognosticators right.
This is a critical offseason for the program and the sophomore, who has the tools to blossom in his second season.
Arizona is stacked.
Gordon, in normal years, would be the undisputed No. 1 recruit in America. He’s a tremendous specimen with power, finesse, length and elite athleticism. Ashley could have a breakout season. Johnson is ready to lead the program. And Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell (11.4 PPG, 5.5 APG, 2.8 SPG in 2011-12) is a true point guard who will be prepared to step in immediately.
But Tarczewski could be the difference between an Arizona squad that wins a few games in the postseason and an Arizona team that reaches Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four.
Consider recent history for a moment.
Gorgui Dieng was a critical piece for Louisville’s national title run. Trey Burke was a warrior for the Wolverines, but they wouldn’t have reached the national championship without Mitch McGary. Jeff Withey helped Kansas earn a trip to the Final Four in 2012, the same year that young big Anthony Davis elevated Kentucky to another national title.
We often fail to realize the significance of fluid big men until they become separating factors in the NCAA tournament. Now, you can’t win with good bigs alone. But they’ve been x-factors for multiple Final Four teams, especially on defense.
Arizona was ranked 32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com. That’s solid. But national champions are usually ranked higher (Louisville was ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com last season).
Tarczewski could help the young Wildcats evolve into an advanced defensive squad next season. He has to use his size to alter and block shots and force opponents to avoid the paint. He’s capable of that.
I’m not suggesting that next season’s success rests on Tarczewski’s shoulders alone, and I don’t expect him to become Dikembe Mutombo. But I can’t see the Wildcats reaching their ceiling unless he enhances his game and matures into a more consistent contributor for Miller’s program.
Arizona has enough talent right now to compete with any team in the country. To truly make a push for the national title, however, they’ll need their seven-footer to play up to his potential in 2013-14.