Stars collide as Arizona takes on UConn
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Kemba Walker says Derrick Williams is the best college player in America.
Jim Calhoun rates Williams the second best, behind Walker.
However you rank them, the nation is in for a treat Saturday as two of the most prolific talents in college basketball lead their teams with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
It will be Walker’s Connecticut Huskies (29-9) vs. Williams’ Arizona Wildcats (30-7) in the NCAA West Regional final at Honda Center.
With Brigham Young and Jimmer Fredette eliminated, no two players have captured more headlines or become more ingrained in fans’ memories this March. Both Walker and Williams have put together the types of individual performances that people will talk about decades from now.
“He’s a great player and I enjoy watching him play,” Walker said of Williams. “He’s going to be a tough cover for us. He’s tough on the block, tough on the perimeter. We’re going to try our best to slow him down.”
On the flipside.
“He’s a dynamic scorer who can score any way he wants to,” Williams said of Walker. “People say he might take a lot of wild shots, but he can make those shots. Not too many people can stop him.”
Walker and Williams play different positions and hail from different coasts, but they share the role of leader and game-changer, as evidenced by the way they spearheaded their teams’ unexpected runs to the Elite Eight.
Start with Walker, the 6-foot-1 junior guard from Bronx, N.Y. He’s averaging 29 points per game in NCAA play. He had 36 – 24 in the second half – to stave off San Diego State in the regional semis. He had 33 – 16 in the last 10 minutes – in a third-round win over Cincinnati.
“When he’s playing at that level, Kemba Walker makes it very difficult to beat UConn,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
There there’s Williams, the 6-8 sophomore forward from La Mirada, Calif. Williams has put up 23.6 points per game during the tournament. His career-high 32-point effort in the region semis against Duke included 25 in the first half, keeping his team within six. He had a mere 17 in a win over Texas but helped clinch the victory with a three-point play in the waning seconds.
“He’s a special player,” UConn coach Calhoun said. “He gets to the foul line and he certainly can make shots. We’ve faced other guys like him and limited them. We hope to limit him. But you’re not going to stop him.”
To label Walker and Williams as merely scorers would be inaccurate. Walker led the Huskies in assists in the victory over the Aztecs and had a key steal against the Bearcats. Williams’ block in the final two seconds sealed a second-round win over Memphis. They both rebound quite well.
Like all great players, Walker and Williams are more than individual talents. They have raised the play of their teammates during March.
The guys who play alongside appreciate them for what they are: teachers by example and tone-setters.
Perhaps no Husky has benefited more from Walker’s tutelage than freshman guard Jeremy Lamb. Lamb has emerged as a force in the postseason, averaging 18 points in the NCAAs, and credits Walker for showing him the way.
“He’s been a great leader who knows how to win,” Lamb said. “Every time we are on the court, he’s always encouraging us. That’s a big part of the game and what we’ve been able to do. The other team has to bring two or three people at him so that gives me a lot of open shots.”
Williams has similarly sparked the Wildcats, perhaps never more than in their second-half beatdown of the defending champion Blue Devils. Sophomore forward Solomon Hill, who struck for 13 points and five rebounds, was one of the biggest benefactors.
“[Duke] basically tried to play him one-on-one in the first half,” Hill said. “He did what he had to do. He carried us the right way. In the second half, they made adjustments and we were able to cut them up as a team. He’s the type of player that if you leave him by himself, he’s going to kill you. When the double team came, he didn’t force the issue. He made the open passes. He found people for three-point shots.”
Those tasked with guarding these terrific talents know they’re in for long afternoons Saturday. Arizona sophomore guard MoMo Jones earns the assignment of checking Walker. The New York native and friend and former teammate of Walker has respect for his opposite but isn’t losing focus.
“It’s not Kemba vs. MoMo,” Jones said. “It’s Arizona vs. UConn. Just as simple as that. If either one of us try to go one-on-one our team will lose.”
Huskies sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi matches up with Williams. He’ll strategize mentally and physically.
“I know he’s very versatile,” Oriakhi said. “Even if I can push him off the block it’s not going to really affect him because he’s able to face up. I’m just going to try and contain him and make him take tough shots. It’s not going to be easy.”
The unlikely West final between the third and fifth seeds will prove the ultimate test of the individual and leadership skills of Walker and Williams.
The player who best converts his opportunities while involving his teammates moves on to the national semifinals in Houston, one step closer to a national championship.
Walker or Williams? Williams or Walker?
The tournament might not have seen this level of theater since Magic vs. Bird back in 1979.