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Wildcats showing the country they are back

TUCSON, Ariz. – Wildcat basketball is back.

Arizona (23-4, 12-2), now ranked tenth, put the nation on notice at McKale Center this past Saturday with a thrilling 87-86 win over Washington, propelled by Derrick Williams’ walk-off block.

“It was a heck of a play by Derrick Williams,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.

The Wildcats, winners of eight straight, are one of the hottest teams in the country. Their success has made every game seemingly more important than the one that preceded it.

“Nobody is more excited about playing right now than we are because we are fortunate to have a lot at stake,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

Arizona will be put to the test this weekend with conference road games against streaking Southern California and second place UCLA. The Wildcats will have the opportunity to wrap up a Pac-10 championship by completing sweeps of the Los Angeles schools, but do not think Arizona is looking too far ahead at what would be a stunning turnaround.

“What keeps the team focused is that we are playing for a Pac-10 championship … we haven’t won anything yet,” Miller said. “It is never quite as easy as you think it is. [It] wouldn’t surprise me at all if we’re playing in our last conference game against Oregon and it could go either way.”

As it is, Arizona’s weekend opponents are not without talent of their own.

USC’s Nikola Vucevic comes into Thursday’s contest averaging a conference-best 10.2 rebounds a game to go along with 17.1 points per game, which is good enough for third in the conference. The Wildcats will not be sleeping on the Trojans’ big forward.

“I don’t think Vucevic gets enough credit … he does it in so many ways,” Miller said.

If going on the road to the Galen Center was not difficult enough, the Wildcats will have to finish the road trip against a UCLA team Sean Miller calls “the most balanced team in our conference.”

Led by Malcom Lee, Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt, the Bruins will be looking to stay alive in the Pac-10 title hunt at home this Saturday.

“Malcom Lee … doesn’t get enough credit, leads them in a quiet way in scoring,” Miller said.

For a weekend sweep, the Wildcats will have to be at their season best, and they could get a boost from a healthier Derrick Williams. Williams, coming off a 26 point, 11 rebound effort against Washington, is finally participating in practices again. The sophomore injured his left pinky in a game against UCLA a month ago.

“He practiced from start to finish yesterday, his hand is still wrapped,” Miller said.

Williams, in the middle of an All-American season, is looking forward to strong performances this weekend as he returns home to play in front of “100-200 family and friends,” none more critical than his own mother. When asked about his mother’s critiques, Williams said she knows what she’s talking about.

“She played basketball, she knows … she is a good observer … she will let me know what I did wrong,” Williams said with a chuckle.

Quotable Cats

“We’ve really gotten better on offense … we’ve created good shots for each other,” head coach Sean Miller said of the team’s progression.

“Stay within the team concept, what coach is trying to preach, we will be alright,” forward Jesse Perry said of continuing the success.

“A lot of people I know from back home will be at the games … hopefully I can play my best games,” forward Derrick Williams said of playing in Southern California.