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The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona Wildcats basketball: silver lining freshmen

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Tyler Besh

Freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski dunks against ASU on Saturday, March 9, 2013. Arizona won the game 73-58 at McKale Center.

Let’s be honest, the highly touted freshmen class of 2012 was a disappointment last season.

Sure, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett all showed flashes of brilliance, but they were more signs of potential than actual consistency. And, poor Gabe York didn’t even get a chance to disappoint since he was stuck at the end of the bench.

It was the best recruiting class to ever find its way to Tucson — the legendary Lute Olson never brought in two McDonald’s All-Americans in a single year — with three players being ranked inside ESPN’s top 16. Yet, they didn’t play like the college superstars they were billed to be; instead, the big three were solid role players on a Sweet 16 team.

But, there is a silver lining, and a big one at that.

While the freshmen underperformed, they didn’t at all flop, like the Josiah Turners and Sidiki Johnsons of the world. What they did do is player their way out of the first round of the NBA Draft, and next year Arizona will reap the benefits.

Instead of grabbing a couple of one-and-done All-Americans, head coach Sean Miller managed to bring in more modest talent that will be around for the long haul. Add that to another top-five recruiting class for 2013 and the Wildcats now have an embarrassment of riches.

I guess it’s sometimes better to wait.

Tarczewski was the No. 3 center in last the 2012 class and the No. 4 player overall. Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Baylor’s Isaiah Austin were above him, Pittsburg’s Steven Adams below.

Out of that group, the Arizona 7-footer averaged the least amount of points, rebounds, blocks and minutes and finished only ahead of Austin in shooting percentage.

Tarczewski improved significantly by season’s end, averaging 7.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game over his final 11 games after averaging 6.0 points and 5.5 boards prior to that. Even with the late improvement, though, Tarczewski finished behind his peers.

He also will be back in college next season, barring any unforeseen changes. Heck, his mom even rented a house in Tucson — Tarczewski will be a Wildcat for his sophomore campaign.

Kentucky and Pittsburgh won’t have that luxury, as Noel and Adams already declared for the draft. Austin still hasn’t made a decision, but as a potential lottery pick, all signs point to the Baylor big man leaving for greener pastures.

Now Jerret (No. 9 overall) and Ashley (No. 16) didn’t have quite the high pedigree as Tarczewski, but the NBA was still a realistic possibility.

Over the last three years an average of seven of ESPN’s top 16 players have entered the NBA Draft after their freshman year. While the Wildcats’ two power forwards were closer to the safe zone (the Top 5 players have almost always gone, with 13 of the last 15 darting for the NBA), they were also the second and third best PF in the class.

Only UNLV’s Anthony Bennett ranked better and, lo and behold, he outperformed Jerrett and Ashley. Significantly. Bennett, the No. 6 overall player in 2012, finished with more points (16.1), rebounds (8.1) and blocks (1.2) and shot at a higher percentage than both Ashley and Jerrett.

Even if you combined the two Arizona big men, Bennett still outscored them by 3.4 points and grabbed just 0.8 less rebounds in 11.2 less minutes per game.

But, the Runnin’ Rebels also got just one year of production out of him because Bennett recently declared for the NBA Draft. Ashley and Jerrett appear to be sticking around, as there hasn’t even been a whisper of them leaving.

Having a Bennett or Noel obviously has its upside. If Arizona’s freshmen played at that level, the Wildcats might still be in the tournament.

Instead the Wildcats are left reflecting on a Sweet 16 loss. The fact that Jerrett, Tarczewski and Ashley combined for 15 points (5-for-10 shooting), nine rebounds and six fouls in 58 minutes of play definitely didn’t make the game any easier. Those numbers scream role players, not elite talent.

All three, and most likely York, will get a shot to change that distinction next year and really blossom in Tucson — and it’s a big reason Arizona is a Final Four favorite.

Maybe it was luck. Maybe Miller chose these three big men because he knew they were built more for college than the NBA. Whatever it was, it hurt Arizona in the short term, but has the Wildcats built for the long run.

Stanford University conducted a psychological study in the late 1960s about delaying gratification; they offered children one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later.

It looks like Miller waited for the two marshmallows, even if just by accident.

-Kyle Johnson is a journalism junior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @KyleJohnsonUA.

STATS:

ESPN No. 1/1(center) Nerlens Noel, Kentucky: 10.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4.4 bpg, 59.0 percent in 31.9

No. 3/2(center) Isaiah Austin, Baylor: 13.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 45.2 percent in 29.8

No. 6/4(center) Steven Adams, Pittsburgh: 7.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 57.1 percent in 23.4

No. 4/3(center) Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona: 6.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.7 bpg, 53.8 percent in 22.0

No. 7/1(PF) Anthony Bennett, UNLV: 16.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 53.3 percent in 27.1 minutes

No. 9/2(PF) Grant Jerrett, Arizona: 5.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 40.9 percent in 17.8 minutes

No. 16/3(PF) Brandon Ashley, Arizona: 7.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.5 bpg, 52.5 percent in 20.5 minutes

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