NCAA Tournament: Arizona-UConn preview

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 25, 2011

Associated Press
ANAHEIM, Calif. ó 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 today 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 ó 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, but it was just one disappointment in a few years of trouble for veteran coach Jim Calhoun, who dealt with punishment for recruiting violations and what the NCAA labeled “failing to create an atmosphere of compliance.”
UConn 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 the 68-year-old coach, but he’s pleasantly thrilled by Walker’s ability to take charge of two straight tournaments in dramatic style.