SAN JOSE, Calif. -– Arsalan Kazemi sets a new milestone seemingly every time he plays a basketball game. Sitting in front of his locker following Oregon’s 74-57 rout of Saint Louis on Saturday, a wide smile plastered on his face, the Iran native and former Rice transfer casually rattled off a bunch of them while reflecting on the Ducks’ surprising Sweet 16 berth.
“When I went to Rice, I was the first Iranian to get a [basketball] scholarship in the U.S.,” said Kazemi. “Then I was the first Iranian to win the Pac-12 tournament championship, now the first Iranian to get to the Sweet 16. I hope it keeps going from here.”
Oregon’s trendsetting, rebounding machine was a key cog in the 12th-seeded Ducks’ consecutive upset blowouts here, first against Midwest fifth seed Oklahoma State, then the fourth-seeded, Atlantic 10 champion Billikens. The Pac-12’s third-leading rebounder during the regular season, when he averaged 9.5 per game, followed up a 17-rebound performance against the Cowboys with 16 against Saint Louis to help his team advance to next week’s matchup with Louisville.
The exceptionally polite senior -- whose teammates kid him for being too unselfish -- initially tried to downplay his performance. Then a reporter threw those rebounding numbers at him again. “Not bad,” he said, the grin still implanted on his face. “I’ve had better.”
This season, at least, he’d only had one game better, notching 18 boards in a Feb. 21 loss to Cal. On Saturday, Kazemi benefited in part because Saint Louis couldn’t buy a bucket for large stretches of the game. The previously torrid Billikens, 16-1 since mid-January, shot 0-of-10 from three-point range in the first half, when the Ducks initially built a 35-19 lead, and just 3-of-21 on the night.
But the Ducks (28-8) had plenty to do with that. Center Tony Woods said coach Dana Altman noticed on tape Saint Louis struggled at times against zone defenses, so Oregon practiced its zone heavily Friday and employed it “after almost every made basket” Saturday, Woods said. The Billikens (28-7), which normally excel in the short-range game, struggled to get looks in the paint. Kazemi had plenty to do with that.
“He’s huge for us inside,” Woods said. “It’s hard to rebound out of the zone, but it’s easier when Arsalan is in there because he’s a special rebounder. That’s a place he can be selfish.”
Three years after Oregon hired Altman in what seemed at the time like an interminable (39 days), desperate coaching search, the ex-Creighton coach has led the Ducks back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007. That year they fell to eventual national champ Florida in the Elite Eight. (That game, coincidentally, was played in St. Louis). In patching together his third team, he plucked other transfers (Woods from Wake Forest, second-leading scorer Carlos Emory from a junior college) and landed important recruits like freshman guard Damyean Dotson, who shredded the Billikens with a season-high 23 points on 5-of-6 three-pointers. But Kazemi was the missing piece.
After opting to leave Rice last September, the All-Conference USA performer applied for a hardship waiver to be able to play without sitting out a year. (He’s never publicly revealed the circumstances.) While awaiting the NCAA’s decision, he told his new coach, “If they don't declare me eligible, that's fine. I need to work on some things, and I'll just wait, and that's fine,” Altman said. “As a coach, you're going, ‘Man, you'd fit in so good on this team.’
“He’s been a real difference maker for us,” Altman said. “We're not a good rebounding team without him.”
Now, the first Iranian NCAA basketball career will last at least another week.
“I never got to experience this [at Rice],” Kazemi said. “Every year at this time I was sitting home and watching the games on TV.”