(The Sports Network)
The West Regional final of the NCAA Tournament is set as the Connecticut Huskies and the Arizona Wildcats tangle at the Honda Center in Anaheim today for the right to advance to the Final Four in Houston next week.
For the fifth-seeded Wildcats, this is their ninth trip to the Elite Eight and heading into today's bout the squad has an even 4-4 mark in those previous eight contests. In the first two games of this year's tourney Arizona had its hands full against Memphis and Texas, defeating the Tigers and Longhorns by a combined three points in order to advance to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim. On Thursday night we saw a completely different side to the Wildcats, particularly in the season half, as they mauled the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils in a 93-77 decision that didn't even seem that close. The victory was the seventh in the last eight outings for an Arizona squad that lost in the Pac-10 Conference Tournament title game against Washington in overtime two weeks ago, 77-75.
Arizona, which had to forfeit a pair of appearances in this tournament from back in 1999 and 2008 due to NCAA infractions, has a record of 46-25 in 27 official appearances according to NCAA records. The team won it all in 1997 with an 84-79 overtime victory against top-seeded Kentucky in Indianapolis.
As for the third-seeded Huskies, a team that was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East Conference heading into the 2010-11 campaign, there was a stretch in late February, early March when the squad dropped four of five outings against league foes. Since then however, the group has rattled off eight consecutive wins and made believers of all those who had doubts to begin with. Since running through the Big East Conference Tournament with a staggering five wins in five days, UConn has also tossed aside tournament foes Bucknell (81-52), Cincinnati (69-58) and most recently San Diego State on Thursday, 75-67. With the victory over the Aztecs two days ago UConn moved to 47-27 all-time in this event as it tries to add a third national title (1999 and 2004) to its postseason resume.
With respect to the all-time series between these two programs, UConn has won all four of the previous encounters, the most recent of which came in November 2005 as part of the Maui Invitational as the Huskies tossed Arizona aside in a 79-70 final in Lahaina.
The winner of tonight's game heads to Reliant Stadium in Texas where they will take on the survivor of the North Carolina/Kentucky matchup in the national semifinals on Saturday.
Two nights ago it was again the Derrick Williams show for the Wildcats as he recorded his 13th double-double of the season with a career-high 32 points, all but seven of which coming in the first half of the 16-point blowout against the Duke Blue Devils. Williams, who also collected 13 rebounds in the outing, showed great versatility between hitting a staggering 5-of-6 shots behind the three-point line and also connecting on a number of tough shots in the paint for the underdogs. Also putting up strong numbers for the Wildcats were Lamont Jones and Solomon Hill with 16 and 13 points, respectively. After trailing by six points at the break, Arizona went to work on the glass in the second half and completely dominated the Blue Devils in the paint, eventually putting up a 40-27 edge in rebounding. Through 37 games, of which they've won 30, the Wildcats continue to follow the lead set by Williams, the Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year who is scoring 19.5 ppg and clearing 8.4 rpg. Everyone knows that he is a fixture at the free-throw line where he has made good on 238-of-319, but what is truly stunning is his precision shooting behind the three-point line on the season, having knocked down a staggering 60.3 percent of his chances. Granted, he's not exactly a threat to live on the perimeter given how much he has dominated the inside with his athletic ability, but just the notion of him dragging defenses out to the three-point line in order to open up passing lanes for teammates has got to be a concern for UConn right now. While Arizona has made 292-of-724 (.403) beyond the arc this season, opponents have struggled against the Wildcats on such attempts (.293).
As Williams was the star for the Wildcats on Thursday, the same could be said for UConn's Kemba Walker who delivered a game-high 36 points in the win against San Diego State. Walker shook and shimmied his way to 12-of-25 shooting from the floor, including 4-of-8 behind the three-point line, while also adding 8-of-10 at the free-throw line for the Huskies. Continuing to accept more and more responsibility is Jeremy Lamb who knocked down all three of his three-point tries and was 9-of-11 from the floor overall en route to his 24 points. Clearly Walker and Lamb are the keys to success for UConn these days, but when you consider the rest of the roster combined to account for a mere 14 points on 6-of-21 shooting from the floor there has to be other teammates who can be relied on for support. Everyone is well aware that Walker is the go-to guy on offense for the Huskies with his 24.0 ppg, leading the team in scoring in each of the last 10 contests. In addition to getting a boost from Lamb (10.9 ppg) who has been coming on strong of late, UConn has got to get more production from Alex Oriakhi, who has combined for a mere 18 points in the last three games. Granted, Oriakhi has cleared a collective 32 rebounds in those tournament games, but until he becomes more of a threat in the scoring column the Huskies will have to put all their eggs in the Walker basket and at some point he will be unable to carry it all by himself.
With spotlights on both Williams for Arizona and Walker for the Huskies, it will be the players on the periphery who will likely decide the outcome in this meeting. As long as the Wildcats can again get a complete effort like they did in the second half against Duke and don't become too enamored with their own success, they should be able to finally count at least one game against the Huskies in their favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arizona 71, Connecticut 67