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Arizona Wildcats Aim for Nation’s Best Frontcourt in 2015-16

The Arizona Wildcats are guard-heavy this season.

The math won’t quite work out in the end. There are six reasonable/intriguing candidates for the two spots, one of which, presumably, goes to sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright at the point. Perhaps a couple of those guys could play small forward, but playing time there might be locked down by a pair of lengthy newcomers (and Miller likes to play big).

Ray Smith, a 6-foot-8 freshman, is earning early raves. Mark Tollefsen a 6-9 graduate transfer from the University of San Francisco, can swing between the forward spots.

While it will be fascinating to see who emerges in the backcourt and how Miller schemes, let’s not forget that Arizona has one of the most experienced combinations of post players that you will ever see from an elite program.

Center Kaleb Tarczewski and power forward Ryan Anderson have combined for 199 college starts. That’s nearly unheard of.

Tarczewski has 107 starts and, if he stays healthy, will easily beat the school record of 135, set by point guard Jason Gardner from 2000 to 2003. Anderson started 92 games at Boston College and was third-team All-ACC before transferring to Arizona, where he sat out last season.

“I’m going to say this right now: I hope we’re the best frontcourt in the country,” Tarczewski said. “That’s my goal: At the end of the season to say we’re the best. We’re incredibly talented on the block.”

It’s quite a luxury to have a pair of starting big men (emphasis on men) who will turn 23 during the season.

“Depth and experience inside, that is something we feel very good about,” Miller said.

Many thought Tarczewski (7-0, 250) would be in the NBA by now, and that his return to school as a senior indicates a failing on his part. But Miller says he has “no doubt” that Tarczewski will be play in the NBA, which will covet his physicality on defense and mobility for a man his size. He often did the unselfish dirty work last season, allowing Brandon Ashley or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to grab a rebound while he cleared everyone else out of the lane.

Anderson might be the top awards candidate on an Arizona team that doesn’t have an identifiable lottery pick, unlike the past two seasons (Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson). Anderson (6-9, 235) averaged 14.9 points and 8.0 rebounds as a sophomore in the ACC, and then put up averages of 14.3 and 7.3 as a junior.

Anderson, in preseason conditioning recently, put up 21 reps of 185 pounds in the bench press, tying for the best in program history.

“Ryan is an unbelievable basketball player,” Tarczewski said.

“His work ethic is unlike any I’ve ever seen. … He really makes everyone around him better. For a 4-5, I think our combo is really good. He’s very unselfish. We’re both unselfish players, and I think we can really get some high-low action, something we really haven’t had in the past.

“I think it’s going to be good. He works hard. I work hard.”

And as they might say on a game show, “And that’s not all …”

The Wildcats have talent waiting behind other doors. Tollefsen, who started 70 games at USF and averaged 14.0 points per game last season, will log minutes at the 4, able to stretch defenses with his 3-point shot.

“Mark Tollefsen is incredibly agile,” Miller said of the 6-9, 205-pound senior. “He’s not a big guy, but he can move. Being able to run — distance, quickness, jumping — he’s about as good as about anyone we’ve had here in my time.”

And Miller, who has taken Arizona to three NCAA regional finals in his six years, hasn’t had a big guy as skilled around the basket as sophomore Dusan Ristic, a 7-0, 255-pound center. The native of Serbia averaged 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in 8.6 minutes per game as a freshman, showing natural and advanced offense with either hand. Holding him back were his defense and physicality, two areas in which he needed only time.

“Dusan, coming back for his sophomore year is a much different player,” Miller said.

“Dusan has transformed his body more in one year that any player I’ve coached, replacing body fat with muscle. The work he has put in from the time he showed up until now is amazing.”

Miller said the coaches will devise a plan to have 7-footers Tarczewski and Ristic on the floor together in every game. Now, that’s an intriguing combination.

“Talk about depth,” Miller said. “Think about the difference between having those two in together vs. having just one.”

And the beat figures to go on as Arizona also has freshman Chance Comanche, who could be a redshirt candidate but will get all kinds of great experience in practice every day. Comanche (6-11, 205) has skills, but he needs time in the weight room. He is said to have already put on 15 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus in the summer.

“He came in, and he was tiny,” Tarczewski said. “He was stick and bones out there. Going against him, it was fun for me, I knew I was going to score.”

Tarczewski averaged 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in 26 minutes per game last season, relatively modest figures. He didn’t need to impress Miller, though. The coach loved his presence in the middle of the defense and likened him to a 300-pound defensive lineman who eats up blocks while others around him make all the tackles and get all the glory.

The Arizona frontcourt, collectively, will be looking for plenty of glory this season.

“Coach Miller says it all the time, ‘If you’re on a winning team, everything else personally that you want to achieve will come in line,” Tarczewski said. “We’re going to get it done down there on the block.”

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