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March 20. 2013 10:12PM

Vin Sylvia: NH big man in Big Dance


Dec 23, 2012; Honolulu, HI, USA; Arizona Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski (35) hangs on the net after making a slam dunk against the Miami Hurricanes during the second half of play at the Diamond Head Classic. Mandatory Credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports 
SCOTT Fitzgerald is thrilled about how things have turned out for Kaleb Tarczewski, though he can't help but think about what would have been had Tarczewski completed his eligibility at Claremont's Stevens High School.

Note we said "would," not "might."

A 7-foot freshman, Tarczewski is the starting center for the University of Arizona, which begins play in the NCAA men's basketball tournament tonight against Belmont. Four years ago, he was the starting center for Stevens, playing beside 6-foot 6-inch forward Kevin O'Connor in NHIAA Class M (now Division III) competition.

Fitzgerald, now at Kearsarge Regional of Sutton, was director of athletics for Stevens in 2009, and, he recalled Wednesday, Division I coaches already were contacting him about Tarczewski. Visions of an unprecedented period of Stevens basketball dominance fired his imagination.

"I know exactly what it would have been like," he said, launching into a description of life with two seasoned big men competing in a small-school league. "The gym would have been packed for every game. You would've had to get there before the JVs played to see the varsity. We would have had Division I (college) coaches in the gym all the time, and there's no doubt in my mind Stevens would have won its first state title in more than 100 years of basketball at the school."

But Tarczewski transferred before the next season to prestigious St. Mark's School in Southborough, Mass., where he knew he would have a better opportunity to develop his basketball skills in addition to getting a great education. The following year, O'Connor left for equally renowned St. Paul's School in Concord, where he continued to play basketball and also became a highly successful competitive rower.

Stevens still hasn't won that elusive state basketball title.

"When Caleb talked to me at the end of his sophomore year about the opportunity to go to St. Mark's, I wanted him to stay because he was a great kid - he's smart, he had good grades - but I told him he had to do what he thought was best for him," Fitzgerald said, adding that he had a similar conversation with O'Connor the following year.

"I have no regret or disappointment over their choices," Fitzgerald said. "Obviously, both went on to great things at their next schools, so their decisions worked out well for them. But it would have been cool if they'd stayed ..."

A raw talent still adjusting to his height as a Stevens sophomore (he'd failed to make the varsity as a freshman, despite being close to 6-feet, 10 inches at the time), Tarczewski developed his skills and refined his game in three seasons at St. Mark's and at multiple summer camps - developed them to the point where he became one of the most widely recruited players in the country.

As he did in choosing St. Mark's he appears to have made a good decision in selecting Arizona.

Nicknamed "Zeus" - his last name is pronounced Tar-ZOO-ski - the 20-year-old Granite Stater has started all 32 games for the Wildcats, averaging 6.5 points and 6.1 rebounds in 21 minutes per game. Arizona has gone 25-7, earning the No. 6 seed in the West Regional.

Tarczewski will handle tip-off duties when the Wildcats step into the Big Dance against No. 11 Belmont (26-6) at 7 p.m., and pro scouts will be watching.

Although his statistics this season are relatively modest, multiple factors make Tarczewski an almost surefire NBA prospect. First, of course, there's his size: a chiseled 255 pounds on that 7-foot frame. Then there's the matter of how far he's come in a fairly short time - from that gangly kid who couldn't make the Stevens varsity to MVP of the Independent School League at St. Mark's (he averaged 20.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks as a senior last season) to an honorable mention on the Pac-10 Conference all-freshman list this year.

With a reputation for being smart, hard-working and eminently coachable, Tarczewski is expected to continue that improvement over the next season or two at Arizona before facing the decision of whether to leave school early to enter the NBA Draft. Once he's there, he'll become just the third former New Hampshire high school player to make it to the NBA, following Portsmouth High's Jeff Cross, who played in 21 games for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1986, and, of course, Concord High's Matt Bonner, now in his seventh season with the San Antonio Spurs and ninth season in the NBA overall.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Tonight, most of Claremont - and much of the state - will be watching when Tarczewski jumps center for Arizona in the NCAA tournament. No need to imagine: The big man from New Hampshire has hit the big time.

Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at vsylvia@unionleader.com.

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