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Cream rises to the top in West Regional

Arizona's Derrick Williams vs. Connecticut's Kemba Walker is as good as it gets in college basketball.

March 25, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Connecticut's Kemba Walker, left, and Arizona's Derrick Williams will try to lead their respective teams into the Final Four with a victory Saturday in the West regional final.
Connecticut's Kemba Walker, left, and Arizona's Derrick Williams… (Alex Gallardo / Reuters;…)

The West Regional in Anaheim started with four fine schools, their luggage, coaches, mascots and trainers.

It has now been promotionally condensed to two names on the Honda Center marquee:

"Kemba Walker vs. Derrick Williams."

Maybe that's too "busy." This tends to be a one-name town. Lindsay Lohan announced Friday she might even legally lop off her Lohan.

Let's go with "Kemba vs. Derrick."

Or, better yet, "Derrick and the Dynamo."

Connecticut ends San Diego State's sweet season

Connecticut and Arizona play Saturday for the right to advance to college basketball's Final Four in Houston.

By rights, these schools had no business being here.

Walker and Williams have infused star power into a regional final that feels more like comets colliding.

Connecticut and Arizona had something in common entering this season: mediocrity. Both solid programs missed the NCAA tournament last year.

Williams, a local kid from La Mirada, showed glimpses of greatness last year as a freshman, but nothing to foreshadow anything so stupendous.

"He's just amazing," Arizona guard Kevin Parrom said of his teammate. "That's why I call him Superman."

The word on Walker was all about how much the street-tough point guard from New York City had failed to accomplish in his first two seasons.

Few could have seen this coming.

Connecticut had lost four of five games entering the Big East tournament.

Ben Hansbrough of Notre Dame, not Walker, won Big East player-of-the-year honors.

Arizona rolled through Los Angeles in late February and got swept by USC and UCLA, the Bruins winning by 22.

And one month later the Wildcats are back in the Southland on the cusp of a Final Four trip?

"The battle of two hot teams," Walker said Friday.

And two hot players.

Walker, all 6 feet and 172 pounds, strapped a team on his back and has carried it to eight straight victories in 17 days. Connecticut won five games in five days to win the Big East tournament, with Walker scoring 130 points.

He had 33 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and five assists in a win over Syracuse. He hit the buzzer-beater against Pittsburgh. He carried that weight into the NCAA tournament.

Walker followed an 18-point, 12-assist game against Bucknell by scoring 33 against Cincinnati and 36 on Thursday against San Diego State.

Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun says Walker has managed to transmit his intensity and competitiveness to his teammates.

"That's a very unusual gift," Calhoun said. "I don't remember an eight-game period where any single player has been able to do that."

Walker and Williams are as different as the Bronx and Knott's Berry Farm, but they belong to a mutual admiration society.

"Just like Jimmer Fredette, he can score any way he wants," Williams said of Walker.

After Connecticut defeated San Diego State in Thursday's first regional semifinal, Walker stuck around to watch Williams score 25 first-half points against Duke.

"The first thing that came to my mind was he might be the best player in the country," Walker said. "The best player I've ever seen."

Arizona's only blip since Feb. 26 at UCLA was an overtime loss to Washington in the Pac-10 tournament championship game. That was despite Williams scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

Williams, 6-8 and 240 pounds, single-handedly saved Arizona's first two NCAA tournament wins, swatting a last-second shot to preserve the Memphis win and scoring the winning basket and "and-one" free throw to survive Texas by a point.

Williams then, almost by his lonesome, refused to let Duke run away with Thursday's first half. Included was a three-pointer at the buzzer that cut Duke's lead to six. It inspired the best second half Arizona has played in years.

"With Williams, he gives you confidence," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said after a 16-point loss. "You always know you have that guy on the court…There is physicality to his game. Clean, beautiful — he's a beautiful player."

Walker and Williams are nothing alike. They play different positions.

Williams likes to be called a "hybrid-forward;" Walker is a point guard who never goes backward.

Williams is quiet and unassuming — until he gets the ball in his hands.

Even his teammates can't believe his transformation.

"Probably the goofiest kid you'll ever meet, and I mean that in a good way," Parrom said. "… just to see him evolve after last year is just amazing. I mean, nobody knew who he was."

The NCAA tournament used to get star-studded matchups all the time. In 1982, when North Carolina faced Georgetown for the national title, the Tar Heels had Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. Georgetown countered with Patrick Ewing, Fred Brown and Eric Floyd.

That rarely happens anymore. The best players are lost early to the NBA, which has left the college game starved for mega-watt showdowns.

Walker vs. Williams is as good as it gets.

"Me and Derrick won't be guarding each other," Walker said, trying to dampen some of the hype. "It's not like me and him, and I've got to put on a show."

Walker thinks Williams is the best.

Williams says it's Kemba: "He's had a better season than I had."

One thing is clear: If Walker and Williams were on the same team, the other team wouldn't stand a chance.

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