Arizona Wildcats senior forward Solomon Hill sat on the bench next to Kaleb Tarczewski in the final minutes of Wednesday night’s exhibition game and playfully put the freshman center in a little headlock, as if to show how to proud he was of his little brother.
But there’s nothing little about Tarczewski or the Cats this season.
No opponent — or very, very few — is going to be giving Arizona noogies this season.
“The big difference between last year’s team and this year’s is the obvious — just bigger,” coach Sean Miller said.
Tarczewski is the biggest Cat of all.
The 7-footer started the exhibition against Humboldt State and had team-highs with 18 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes. He made 7 of 9 shots, often scoring on a nifty jump hook, helping Arizona pull away for a 108-67 victory at McKale Center on Wednesday night.
“I teased him a little before the game because he was a little nervous during Red-Blue,” said sophomore guard Nick Johnson, referring to the intrasquad scrimmage on Oct. 21.
“I told him, ‘We’re playing basketball. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter what size the gym is or how many people are in it. Just go out and play.’
“We see him every single day in practice and we know he’s a big body and can score in the post with the rest of them.”
Miller experimented with various personnel combinations in the exhibition, mixing and matching his four big men — Tarczewski was paired with freshman Grant Jerrett (nine points, five rebounds, three assists, three blocks), freshman Brandon Ashley (12 points, eight rebounds) and sophomore Angelo Chol (five points, four rebounds).
After usually not having anyone on the court taller than 6-7 last season, Arizona always had two players at least 6-8 on the floor vs. Humboldt.
“The weird thing is there’s so many of them,” senior point guard Marc Lyons said.
“It’s not even that I have one big guy who’s the best I’ve ever played with. I have a lot of great big men who arguably are the best I’ve ever played with.”
Tarczewski had two rebounds in the first 50 seconds, and three within 77 seconds. He had his first “and-one” opportunity with just more than two minutes gone.
“If you play him with one player and you don’t double or crowd or trap, he’s going to get a good shot at the basket,” Miller said. “In the Red-Blue Game, he was more in a hurry and was nervous. This game, you can see if he gets the ball around the basket, he can score.”
Remember what Miller said last year about the Cats, which featured 6-7 Jesse Perry at center: “Death by inches.” He won’t have to say that again.
And it’s not just height. Miller said Tarczewski was not quite 230 pounds when he arrived in Tucson in early June. He’s now about 260, Miller said.
The usual caveats apply about not getting overly excited about one game, especially an exhibition against a team that lacked height. Arizona’s big men weren’t challenged much on the offensive end. They will face bigger foes, more suffocating defenses.
But with the kind of confidence Miller exudes, it’s not hard to think that, despite inevitable growing pains, there will be many more games for Tarczewski like the one Wednesday night. He was a near-unanimous top 10 national recruit out of St. Mark’s in Southborough, Mass., committing to the Cats over Kansas and North Carolina.
Credit the 12,431 fans at McKale Center for paying attention. They serenaded Tarczewski with his nickname “Zeuuuuuus” after good plays or when he was leaving the game. Get ready to hear that — and louder — all season.
“The most impressive thing is his attitude and who he is as a person,” Miller said.
“He is really unselfish. He’s a willing learner. … He also has a mean streak to him that allows him to be physical. For him, a lot of great things are going to happen. He’s only going to get better because he works so hard at it.
“Guy like him are difference-makers.”