Wildcats look to advance to Final Four

Arizona will face Connecticut on Saturday for the opportunity to play in the Final Four.

After the most impressive win of the Sean Miller era over Duke on Thursday night, Arizona's magical run through the 2011 NCAA tournament has carried it to the Elite Eight.

The only thing standing between the Wildcats and the fifth Final Four in school history is the third-seeded Connecticut Huskies, as the two teams will meet for a 4:05 PST tipoff in Anaheim.

After starting the season unranked in the national polls, Jim Calhoun's team won the Maui Invitational and rode a 10-0 start to the number four ranking in the country. UConn cooled off considerably though, as it went 11-9 in its next 20 games and finished with a 9-9 mark in the Big East, good for ninth place in the conference.

However, it appears that it has saved its best basketball of the season for March. The Huskies won five consecutive games to take the Big East Tournament crown, have cruised to the Elite Eight with a 81-52 victory over Bucknell, a 69-58 route of Big East foe Cincinnati, and most recently a 74-67 win over San Diego State on Thursday.

There is no mystery what UConn's secret to success has been this season, as it has ridden Kemba Walker all the way to its 29-9 record. The 6-foot-1 junior is an All-American and an All-Big East selection, and is the fourth leading scorer in the NCAA with 24 points per game. He's also the team's second-leading rebounder and is the squad's assist leader, with 5.4 boards and 4.5 assists per contest.

Walker has been outstanding in his past eight games, as he's averaging 27.1 points per game in that time frame. For the tournament, he's put up 29 points per contest, including a 36 point performance against San Diego State on Thursday. He does it all for Connecticut, and he does it well.

He is hitting on 43.3 of his field goal attempts and 34.6 percent of his three point tries on the season. Walker is as a complete scorer as there is in college basketball, and UA will have to enter the game knowing that he's going to get his buckets and just try to prevent him from completely taking over the game.

For much of the season, it was a one-man show for Connecticut, and non-coincidentally, the Huskies struggled winning games. Also without coincidence is its recent success due to freshman Jeremy Lamb emerging as a secondary scoring option to Walker.

After averaging only 9.6 points in the team's first 30 games, the 6-foot-5 Big East All-Rookie Team selection has come alive in the past eight games, as he's averaged 15.6 points, including a season high 24 points on Thursday against SDSU.

On the season, Lamb is averaging 10.9 points per outing, and is the team's leading three-point shooter at 36.8 percent. Overall he's hitting 47 percent of his shots and is a very versatile player who can score from inside and out.

His emergence could not come at a more perfect time for the Huskies, and he and Walker have formed a formidable duo. In Thursday's win, the two combined for 60 of the team's 74 points and attempted 36 of the team's 57 shots. It's going to be a tough matchup defensively for UA, but its recent performances prove that it's up to the challenge.

Holding down the paint for UConn is 6-foot-9 sophomore Alex Oriakhi, whose 8.7 rebounds per game are tops on the team. He's also averaging 9.7 points in 29.5 minutes per game, good for third on the squad. Oriakhi is also a stout player defensively, as he's averaging 1.6 blocks per outing.

The Big East is not known for the strength of its big men, and Derrick Williams may be the toughest draw for Oriakhi this season. How he responds on the defensive glass and how well he can stay in front of Williams will play a huge part in the outcome of the game.

He'll need help from his fellow frontcourt teammate Roscoe Smith in rebounding the ball and in closing off lanes defensively for the Arizona big men. In 25.3 minutes per game, the 6-foot-8 freshman is the team's fifth leading scorer and third leading rebounder with 6.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

Smith also has been a good player on the interior for the Huskies, as he is averaging 1.2 blocks per contest. His offensive game has not come as easily though, as he's hitting on 38.3 percent of his shots. He's not relied upon to score too many points, but what he brings defensively is crucial to Connecticut's success.

Forward Tyler Olander will get the start, but the 6-foot-9 freshman only averages 10 minutes per game. In that time Olander is averaging 1.5 points on 37.1 percent shooting and 1.9 boards per contest.

As his numbers indicate, he's not much of a threat offensively as he's averaging only two points per game in the tournament.

Off the bench, Shabazz Napier gives UConn the ability to let Walker play the off-guard position while he handles the ball. The 6-foot freshman was an Big East All-Rookie Team selection and fourth on the team in scoring with 7.9 points per contest along with being the team's second leading assist man with 3.1 per game.

Napier is also a pest in the passing lane, as he averages 1.6 steals per outing. He has struggled a bit with his shot, as he's connecting on just 33.3 percent of his three point tries and 37.8 percent of his shots overall.

He's an up-and-coming player for UConn and he will be counted on to handle the rock and distribute it to open teammates.

The team's other primary reserves are in the frontcourt, and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel is a versatile forward at 6-foot-7. The sophomore is averaging six points in 17.3 minutes per game, but is more effective closer to the rim with his shot, as he's hitting 29.6 percent of his three-point tries and 42.1 percent of his field goal attempts overall.

Despite averaging only 15.2 minutes per outing, Charles Okwandu is a big body along the interior for UConn. The 7-foot senior from Nigeria is averaging 1.2 blocks per contest to go along with 2.9 points and 2.8 rebounds.

Arizona's goal in this game has to be to make someone other than Walker and Lamb beat it. Normally it would be okay to let the other team's star player get his points and neutralize the rest of the team, but Connecticut has shown time and time again this year they're perfectly fine deferring to Walker and letting him put up 25-30 shots.

UA should be encouraged by the effort it had against Nolan Smith, as it held the All-American to just eight points on 3 of 14 shooting. Walker is much more explosive and will be much more assertive than Smith, but UA needs to carry the confidence over and keep the intensity and effort at ultra high levels against UConn's star player.

It's defense that has carried Arizona to this point in the postseason, and UA should come out motivated to show that it has what it takes to contain Walker.

With its first Elite Eight since 2005, the 2010-11 Arizona Wildcats are doing things their own way. Heart, defensive intensity, chemistry, and teamwork have all carried the Wildcats to within one win of playing in the Final Four in Houston.

It's clear after a season that has produced 30 wins, a Pac-10 championship, and a berth in the Elite Eight that the comparisons to the 1997 and 2001 teams are no longer necessary. This year's Cats are carving their own path, and still dancing in March to the beat of their own rhythm.

Wildcat Authority Top Stories