John Clay

John Clay: Oregon rebounding machine from Iran was almost a Cat

INDIANAPOLIS — Imagine if Kentucky's 2012-13 basketball team, which completed its season with a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris, owned on its roster a 22-year-old, 6-foot-7, 226-pound rebounding machine.

It almost happened.

"I had a situation at Rice that I decided I have to transfer and then at the end, it end up coming to between Kentucky and Oregon," Arsalan Kazemi said Thursday during Oregon's NCAA Tournament news conference at Lucas Oil Stadium before the Ducks' Friday night date with overall No. 1 seed Louisville.

"I just did some research on myself," Kazemi continued, "and Oregon was the best place for me."

One more 50-50 ball the Cats didn't come up with.

Welcoming Kazemi would have been quite the coup, too, and not just on the court where he averaged 9.6 rebounds this season and set an NCAA record with 33 rebounds in Oregon's two tournament triumphs.

Kazemi is from Esfahan, Iran, believed to be the first Iranian-born player ever in Division I college basketball.

"My mom bought me a basketball for kind of like our Christmas, but we don't have Christmas," Kazemi said Thursday. "It was a gift for our new year and I just loved it. I played more and played more and I just fell in love with the game."

A member of the Iranian national team, he decided to come to the United States to continue his education and play basketball at Rice.

That dream nearly ended before it began, however. Upon arrival at George Bush Airport in Houston, Kazemi was detained seven hours for questioning. His student visa, issued for North Carolina, apparently sparked suspicion. Questions about terrorism were asked before Kazemi was finally released.

He says he bears no ill will concerning the incident, but after three years at Rice he decided he might be happier elsewhere. He was released from his scholarship, picked Oregon over UK as his future home and petitioned the NCAA for instant eligibility on grounds he suffered discrimination at Rice. The NCAA granted the request.

Kazemi declines to detail the circumstances, saying he doesn't wish to hurt Rice. He didn't arrive at Oregon until late September and did not become a regular starter until late January.

He did not leave his rebounding prowess in Houston. After recording 45 double-doubles at Rice, he's posted 10 at Oregon. Six games Kazemi has grabbed at least 15 boards.

"He's really made us a good rebounding team," Oregon Coach Dana Altman said Thursday, "but his unselfishness and his maturity have helped our young basketball team."

"He's 42 years old," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino joked Thursday, "so he has a lot of experience."

Indeed, with his dark beard, Kazemi appears older than 22. His American experience, however, was earned in a large city (Houston) and a different offense.

"I went from a big city to the small city, that was a hard adjustment for me," Kazemi said. "But the people in Eugene, Oregon, they're so lovely."

"He picked up the offense quicker than some of the guys have picked it up in a year," teammate E.J. Singler said. "He's been unbelievable for us this year both on and off the court."

That has been especially true at tournament time. Kazemi scored 11 points and collected 17 rebounds in the second-round win over Oklahoma State. He ripped down 16 more in the third-round smashing of Saint Louis.

"You watch the film and he's battling two or three guys and he always comes up with the ball and ignites the fast break," Pitino said. "He'll rebound the basketball and go lane to lane."

So if Oregon goes from a No. 12 seed to a Final Four team, what impression would that make back home in Iran?

"Right now, they're paying a lot of attention," Kazemi said. "There are a couple of newspapers that are following me pretty closely and writing down everything that we do here ... . I think it's going to be pretty big."

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