TUCSON, Ariz. , Christian Koloko saw the play develop from across the lane, slid into position and blocked the shot with one hand.
Seconds later, after an offensive rebound, another TCU player had the audacity to challenge Arizona‘s 7-foot shot swatter. Denied, two-handed this time.
Once a skinny freshman with limited offensive skills, Koloko has transformed himself into an anchor at both ends of the court during Arizona’s run to the Sweet 16.
“Christian plays with much more swagger this year,” Arizona associate head coach Jack Murphy said. “He’s always been a talented kid. He’s taken a huge leap this year and a lot of it has to do with confidence.”
Koloko’s road to Thursday’s Sweet 16 game against Houston began in Douala, a port city in western Cameroon.
As a lanky kid, he played multiple sports with kids in the neighborhood, with a particular affinity for soccer. When Koloko started to grow and his interest in basketball rose, his path to the hoop was filled with obstacles.
His friends weren’t all that interested in basketball, so he didn’t have anyone to play against. Koloko’s neighborhood didn’t have any courts, so he’d have to walk a couple of miles to get shots up or play pickup games. Even then, the courts were often dotted with weeds, the rims sometimes broken.
“It was hard, but I just had no other choice,” he said.
Koloko developed his game enough to get an invite to the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp. The raw, skinny kid drew plenty of attention, earning several scholarship offers in the United States.
At 17, he made the difficult decision to leave Cameroon for a place where he struggled with the language and the strange food. Koloko ended up at Sierra Canyon School in Southern California, where he already had someone in his corner: his sister Stephanie.
Living with Stephanie made Koloko’s transition to life in the United States much smoother. She helped him with his English, taught him the ins and outs of American life and cooked the food he was used to back home. She also introduced him to a Southern California fast-food staple, In N Out.
“It was only a one- or two-minute drive from my house, so I’d go there whenever I could,” he said.
With his length and potential, Koloko drew the attention of several big-name schools. He chose to play for Sean Miller at Arizona, joining a recruiting class that included highly touted players Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji.
Koloko didn’t see much playing time as a freshman on a talent-loaded team, averaging 2.3 points in 8.3 minutes per game. His scoring average increased to 5.3 in 2020-21, but the pandemic stunted his development because he wasn’t on campus for offseason workouts.
Koloko took a huge leap this season.
Working with Arizona strength coach Chris Rounds, Koloko has added 20 pounds to his frame since his freshman year through the weight room and a better diet.
The addition of coach Tommy Lloyd, known for his player development skills in 22 years as an assistant at Gonzaga, accelerated Koloko’s progress on the court. Lloyd also gave Koloko a confidence injection, giving him the freedom to just play without having to worry about a quick hook if he made a mistake.
“Him knowing there really wasn’t anyone behind him where he’s looking over his shoulder, that made a huge difference,” Murphy said.
It sure has.
Koloko expanded his offensive repertoire beyond dunks and vastly improved his footwork to average 11.9 points and 7.9 rebounds this season. He’s become a dominant force on the defensive end, blocking 2.8 shots per game, first in the Pac-12 and 13th nationally.
The junior has ratcheted his game up even more as Arizona pushed toward the Sweet 16.
Koloko had 13 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots in the Wildcats’ win over UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament title game. He kicked off the NCAA Tournament against Wright State with 17 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocked shots — the first Division I player since Colgate’s Adonal Foyle in 1996 to hit those marks in an NCAA Tournament game.
Koloko was just as dominant in Arizona’s second-round overtime win over TCU, finishing with 28 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. He also showed off his agility at the end of regulation, moving his feet to help create a turnover near midcourt to prevent the Horned Frogs from getting off a final shot.
“Now I have skills that I didn’t have freshman year and my game is still evolving,” he said.
No longer a skinny freshman, Koloko is rising, taking the Wildcats with him.
More Associated Press coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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