March 26, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - Lamont Jones spent his last spring break staring at his dorm room walls in Tucson, fuming over Arizona's failure to make the NCAA tournament after 25 straight trips.
Kemba Walker had a few similarly sleepless nights in Storrs when Connecticut also missed the tournament last spring.
"It happens to all great programs from time to time, but I just decided I wouldn't go through that again," Walker said.
So did Jones, Walker's friend since junior high. Two dynamic guards from New York have played major roles in getting two perennial powers back to the brink of the Final Four just one year after they fell out of the field.
Arizona (30-7) and UConn (29-9) will meet in the West regional final on Saturday at Honda Center, ending one perennial power's spring resurgence and sending the other to Houston.
"This is the kind of game you expect to play when you go to a school like Arizona or UConn," said Jones, known to everybody as MoMo. "These are the teams that play for championships, and it's good to get Arizona back on top."
Redemption was a recurring topic of conversation in Orange County on Friday as both teams prepared for the final 40 minutes before the Final Four.
The Wildcats are back in the national title hunt and on top of West Coast hoops after missing the tournament in coach Sean Miller's debut season. With a roster built around California talent with an East Coast pugnacity, Arizona won the regular-season Pac-10 title before taking apart defending national champion Duke in Thursday's regional semifinals.
"I didn't expect the dramatic change to happen so fast," said Kevin Parrom, a Bronx native and Arizona's top bench scorer. "It feels good that we're making our own mark in the history books."
Derrick Williams believes Arizona grew into its talent down the stretch, and nobody did it better than the high-flying forward from nearby La Mirada, Calif., himself, scoring a career-high 32 points during the Wildcats' evisceration of Duke.
Williams knew Arizona's history when he decommitted from Southern California along with Jones and Solomon Hill to join the Wildcats two years ago - and he's also talked to fans hungry for another title because their T-shirts from Arizona's 1997 championship are getting a bit tight.
"It was only a matter of time before we bought into what the coaches were selling us," Williams said. "It's a chain reaction, and you can believe in what they're saying when you're at a winning program like ours."
Miller humbly gives much of the credit for Arizona's resurgence to the culture of winning built by retired coach Lute Olson, whose brief appearance on the overhead scoreboard prompted loud chants of "Luuuute!" from the Wildcats fans who are expected to dominate the building again Saturday. Miller knows programs build a generational momentum that one down season can't kill.
The Huskies also stayed home last year and then scuffled through a .500 regular season in BIG EAST play this winter before winning five games in five days to take the conference tourney, followed by this remarkable cross-country NCAA run. Not much in basketball can surprise UConn's 68-year-old coach, Jim Calhoun, but he's pleasantly thrilled by Walker's ability to take charge of two straight tournaments in dramatic style.
Walker scored 36 points in UConn's win over second-seeded San Diego State on Thursday, his seventh game with at least 24 points in the Huskies' last nine outings.
"It's never unexpected to me. It's joyous to me," Calhoun said. "It's always going to have a special place for me because of the group, because of the way we started the season. ... Nothing seems to get them down. The kids really do want to win and listen, and this group has done as good a job as any team I've had in a long, long time."
Walker has been unstoppable during UConn's eight straight wins, but Jones knows more about the 6-foot-1 guard's formidable game than just about anybody. They've been talking and texting up a storm during this week in the shadow of Disneyland, but not about basketball.
"That's what everybody thinks," Walker said. "Everybody who knows me thinks they know how to stop me, but I can do a lot of things, man."
UConn did surprisingly well against San Diego State star forward Kawhi Leonard in the semifinal, but Williams presents athletic challenges that can't be duplicated. Forward Alex Oriakhi notes the importance of keeping Williams off the boards, but the Huskies realize Duke's formidable frontcourt couldn't get it done.
Walker is equally tough to match for the Wildcats, however. Jones will do his best, but Miller believes Walker has elevated his driving abilities to almost unstoppable levels in recent games - and he hit four 3-pointers against San Diego State.
"It's a matchup of two hot teams," Walker said. "I know we've got a good chance. It might depend on how many shots I make."
SEVERAL SCHOOLS WANTED ARIZONA'S WILLIAMS: Arizona wasn't the only school to chase Derrick Williams after the power forward backed out of a commitment to Southern California two years ago in the wake of former coach Tim Floyd's NCAA scandal.
UConn made a pitch to Williams when he decided not to stick with the Trojans. Williams was intrigued by the Huskies and Memphis, but he chose Arizona to stay a bit closer to home.
"He was long, and he had skills, so he really wasn't a hard evaluation," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "He was hard to get. He didn't end up in (our) uniform, but we're happy about the career he's had."
UConn star guard Kemba Walker played alongside Williams at a recent summer camp, but he isn't lamenting what might have been in the Huskies' frontcourt - not even after watching Williams destroy Duke in the regional semifinals.
"I got a chance to watch the first half, and he was unstoppable," Walker said. "The first thing that came to my mind was that he might be the best player in the country, the best player I've seen this year."
Williams went to Arizona along with fellow USC commits Solomon Hill and Lamont "MoMo" Jones, Walker's childhood friend from New York.
"I got a lot of offers, and I had a lot of people talking to me when I decommitted, but Arizona was always near the top of the list of schools I wanted to go to," Williams said. "I can't imagine playing with (Walker), but MoMo is pretty good himself."