Power Forward U.? Wildcats will lean on big men, frontcourt
2015-16 UA basketball season preview
Point Guard U has turned inside out this season.
While sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright is expected to take over UA’s traditional marquee role after serving as understudy to T.J. McConnell last year, the Wildcats’ true strength this season has shifted up front.
How many teams, after all, have not one, but two 7-foot NBA prospects on their roster … who didn’t leave school after a year?
And how many teams have a total of 10 years of college basketball experience between their top four post players, as Arizona does, with grad transfer Mark Tollefsen (San Francisco) and senior transfer Ryan Anderson (Boston College) joining those 7-footers, senior Kaleb Tarczewski and sophomore Dusan Ristic?
“One of the things we like is we have size,” UA coach Sean Miller says.
Experienced size. Improving size. So much size that it just might spill out of the post and into small forward, where the 6-9 Tollefsen might find himself playing regularly or even starting while 6-9 Anderson plays power forward.
“Especially if I’m at the three, Ryan is at the four and Kaleb’s at the five, that’s a lot of big bodies crashing the boards,” Tollefsen said. “This team is so deep that there’s many options to throw out there.”
One of the more unusual scenarios could put Tarczewski — all 7 feet, 245 pounds and essentially zero body fat of him — at power forward with Ristic at center.
Why? Ristic returned so much stronger and defensively capable that, combined with his already established offensive skills, he figures to warrant more playing time somewhere. So this way he can alternate with Zeus at the five and earn a few more minutes at the four … while the Wildcats get positively huge.
“Kaleb, from a defensive perspective, has a lot more flexibility, where he can guard more of a variety of players,” Miller said. “With Dusan’s improvement, there are times where it’s just going to make sense for us to give him more opportunity. I think the way you give him more opportunity is he doesn’t always have to have Kaleb out of the game to be in the game. And it gives us a much different look.”
Not only could it be good for Ristic, but it might also be good for Tarczewski, an already well-regarded defender and “little things” contributor who could lock himself up as an NBA draft pick with a little more inside production and maybe a little more versatility.
“We’ve been working on it a little bit,” Tarczewski said. “Obviously it’s going to be a little bit different for all of us. … We’re all kind of trying to figure out our roles, and Dusan is a great player. I would love to be able to broaden my horizons a little bit and play a little bit of four in there with him. I think that would benefit us, but also benefit the team, as well.”
Most of the time, however, the Wildcats are expected to go with a front line featuring Tarczewski or Ristic at center, plus Anderson or Tollefsen at power forward, though Tollefsen may actually find as much or more time at small forward, in part depending on how much freshman Allonzo Trier plays there.
The Wildcats are so loaded inside that 6-10 freshman Chance Comanche is good enough to start or play a prominent role for many Pac-12 teams, but he’ll likely either redshirt or be near the end of the bench as a freshman while he gains strength on his 205-pound frame. Miller said he’s gained 15 pounds of muscle already over his first few months in Tucson, but he’s still considerably behind Tarczewski and Ristic in size and experience.
Of the two power forwards, Anderson is 20 pounds heavier than Tollefsen and is a solid rebounder, more of a prototypical power forward, but still with considerable mobility for his size.
“I do a lot of different things,” Anderson said. “One thing for sure is I’ll bring a lot of energy. Me and Mark are two versatile players. We can play both (forward) positions, and anytime you bring a guy like that who has a love of the game, and a guy like myself, that’s going to help the team.”
Anderson also has the advantage of having sat out at Arizona last year, learning Miller’s system while recovering from shoulder surgery and taking the redshirt season required of undergraduate transfers.
Tollefsen came straight over from USF last spring as a grad transfer with a year left to play, since he redshirted as a skinny freshman with the Dons in 2011-12.
Having even defended guards at USF, Tollefsen is something of a hybrid, a slender, athletic big man who can play multiple positions. He’s also an accomplished dunker, having grown up mesmerized by Michael Jordan’s “Space Jam” movie and winning the Red-Blue Game dunk contest, while Miller said the coaching he received under Rex Walters at USF made a big difference defensively.
“They have a similar style that we have, especially on defense, and Mark did a lot of things for them,” Miller said. “He’s a clever passer; he plays more than one position.
“He can really jump, and he’s very mobile. I look at him defensively as somebody who could mimic the things that Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) brought to the table a year ago. Or even Aaron (Gordon), where they’re versatile and the guard is a perimeter player, but they’re bigger. He’s not as heavy, but I think just a very intelligent player who can do a lot of different things.”
But even with all that experience and versatility in the transfers — and the eye-opening upside Ristic has — there’s no doubt who the anchor of the unit is. And that isn’t just because he goes by the name Zeus.
It’s because Tarczewski has been at UA for three years, starting 107 games, the 10th-most in program history. Tarczewski is also likely to become the winningest Wildcat ever, having already played in 92 wins, just 17 behind all-time leader Matt Muehlebach.
He can be the glue. Of the post unit, and of the team.
“Part of what you get as an older player is you understand the game better, how it works with the nine other people on the court,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of guys who can roll into a gym, 1-on-0, 1-on-1, and they look like, ‘Wow.’ And Kaleb would be one of those guys. But to me, the biggest jump he’s made is the team game.
“Part of our success for our team and him this year is that he will have the ability to do more because he can utilize his teammates more. They know how to play alongside him better. And I have no doubt he’s going to have his career-best year as a senior.”