ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A look at the Huskies-Wildcats matchup at the Honda Center in Anaheim:
How they got here: Behind a huge 36-point performance from Kemba Walker, UConn was able to knock off San Diego State 74-67 to get to this game. Walker continued to show he is one of the nation’s great scorers and big-game players by scoring at will. He also had help, as freshman Jeremy Lamb scored 24 points to help beat the second-seeded Aztecs. Arizona also got a big game out of its star player, with Derrick Williams going off for 32 points and 13 rebounds in a 93-77 trouncing of defending national champion Duke. Williams scored 25 of those points in the first half, and the Wildcats played their best basketball of the season by scoring 55 points and decimating the Blue Devils’ defense after halftime.
Storyline: The two programs have proud histories, combining for 18 Elite Eights, seven Final Fours and three national championships. Yet they've somehow never met in the NCAA tournament. They have played four times in the regular season, though, and UConn has won each of the meetings, including the last one -- a 79-70 victory in the 2005 Maui Invitational.
This one will be a star-studded affair, and the winner will celebrate a Final Four berth along with the satisfaction that rebuilding projects don’t have to take long after all.
Third-seeded UConn has had to deal with an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations that landed the program on probation. Last season, the Huskies lost 16 games and finished 7-11 in the Big East. But with a young roster and an explosive scorer in Walker, coach Jim Calhoun has the Huskies back within a win of the Final Four.
“We’re moving on to hopefully a Final Four, and we’ve had a fabulous year, and we would love to get to the Final Four,” Calhoun said.
Fifth-seeded Arizona has upset Texas and Duke on its way to the Elite Eight. Coach Sean Miller has done wonders putting together, and developing, a roster that has quickly matured. Williams has emerged as one of the nation’s most dominant forces and clutch players, and the Wildcats are peaking at the right time after running the defending champs off the court by scoring the most points of any Duke tourney opponent in 14 years.
“I’m sure on UConn’s end, that would be the team that they don’t want to see because that’s probably the best that we’ve played,” Miller said.
Players to watch: Walker called Williams the best player he’s seen this season before Calhoun corrected him. “He’s a terrific player, and I would have to disagree with Kemba for once,” Calhoun said of Williams. “I think he is probably the second-best player in America.”
Of course, Calhoun likes his own guy very much. Since helping the Huskies win five games in five days at the Big East tournament, Walker has remained hot in the NCAA tourney and has surpassed the 30-point total in his past two games. It will be an interesting matchup watching Walker go up against his friend and former New York City high school teammate Lamont "MoMo" Jones.
“I think our guys really understand the focus and the energy that it takes to do the best job you can against a player like him,” said Miller, who likes that the Wildcats have experience playing against Washington’s Isaiah Thomas.
Williams, while conceding that Walker would make his share of shots, emphasized that crashing the boards would be a key to winning the game. “It’s really just about getting defensive rebounds and whenever those guys miss just make sure we get the rebound,” he said.
For UConn, it will have to contain Williams not only on the glass, but also from making game-changing plays. “He’s definitely a great player and the key to that team,“ Huskies big man Alex Oriakhi said. “If we can do a good job of keeping him off the boards, I think we’re going to make it tough on them.”
What to look for: Arizona’s rotation is deep and really showed up against Texas and Duke. Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry, along with reserves like Jamelle Horne, Kevin Parrom and Brendon Lavender, have given solid rebounding performances in the tournament. “Bottom line, the diversity and the flexibility of their team in many ways gives you grave concerns,” Calhoun said.
UConn is a young team growing up right in front of the nation. Sophomore Oriakhi and freshman Roscoe Smith showed they can control the boards. And Lamb, also only a freshman, is coming off a 24-point performance and has scored in double-figures for eight games in a row. “He’s playing with great confidence, shooting the ball at a very high level,” Miller said.
Arizona doesn’t just consist of Williams, and the same goes for UConn and Walker. The game could very well come down to which team’s complementary players step forward.