The Arizona Wildcats' 2012-13 freshman class was one of the most highly regarded in school history, and the quartet more than lived up to the hype by producing two starters, a valuable role player and a key backcourt reserve.
It even created an unlikely second-round NBA draft pick in surprising early departee Grant Jerrett.
Now sophomores, frontcourt staples Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski no longer have the luxury of being looked at through first-year-player-colored lenses. In this era of so many one-and-done superstars, players who contribute heavily as freshmen and stay in school are immediately considered grizzled veterans.
Which means Ashley, a 6'8" forward, and the 7'0" center Tarczewski must now live up to the potential that saw them both rank among the top 20 prospects in the 2012 recruiting class by 247Sports.
But can they?
Ashley's long, fluid body just screams NBA wing, but as a freshman he managed just 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He only played 20.5 minutes per contest, despite Arizona's lack of depth at forward, because he'd either get into unnecessary foul trouble or become a defensive liability.
And Tarczewski, a true center with the kind of upper frame that should have produced much more than the 6.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 22 minutes per game he registered despite starting all 35 games as a freshman. More than anything, the player known by teammates and fans as "Zeus" lacked the strength to be truly effective down on the blocks, especially in the hands department.
Tarczewski's poor hand strength prompted one Tucson-area sports radio host, Jody Oehler, to suggest a way to improve that:
Kaleb Tarcszewski's summer job this year should be traveling around Tucson opening jars for people.— Jody Oehler (@jodyoehler) March 3, 2013
So far in the 2013-14 season, though, both players are showing signs of improvement, though not completely.
Entering Tuesday night's NIT Season Tip-Off game against Rhode Island, Ashley is averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and is shooting 72.7 percent from the field while committing only one turnover per game. But he's also collected 17 fouls in four games, fouling out of a 34-point blowout of Long Beach State in only 21 minutes of action.
Ashley should be doing better than that, but the arrival of uber-freshman Aaron Gordon is understandably delaying his development and progress. Gordon is more aggressive on offense, more careful with his fouls and much more of a nuisance defensively, all the things Arizona's coaches want from Ashley.
Maybe seeing how Gordon does it for this (very likely) one season in Tucson will inspire Ashley. Or it could sour him to the point he becomes a bust.
On the Tarczewski front, this season he is averaging nine points and six rebounds, and he's only committed 10 fouls. But the numbers are misleading, because Arizona coach Sean Miller chose not to start him in the opener against a small Cal Poly team, which seemed to light a fire in him when he started the next game against Long Beach State by seeing him go for nine points and 10 rebounds in only 19 minutes on the court.
The strength still isn't there, but the defensive presence is improving. He's blocked six shots in four games after only swatting 23 in 35 contests a year ago. And he's finding a way to get to more defensive rebounds, thus keeping him from being a detriment on defense while his offensive game slowly develops.
Zeus no longer has the undersized-yet-unafraid Solomon Hill to defer to in the post or on the back line of defense, so he's got to be the guy. If not, he'll quickly lose out to the smaller but stronger Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who has taken more free throws through four games than any other Wildcat despite having the seventh-most minutes logged.
Neither Ashley or Tarczewski have faced any particularly tough matchups through the first two weeks of the season, but those will come soon enough. In order for Arizona to meet the projections of a possible Final Four team, both of those sophomores will need to continue to step up their games.