The Cardiac ‘Cats are back.
The fifth seeded Arizona Wildcats (29-7) have returned to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years in the most dramatic of fashion.
The men from Tucson escaped from Tulsa needing a last second Derrick Williams block of Wesley Witherspoon to sneak past Memphis 77-75 and a three point play with nine seconds remaining to outlast Texas 70-69 in a game that featured four ties and two lead changes in the final three minutes.
The Wildcats will face the defending champion and number one seeded Duke Blue Devils (32-4) on Thursday in Anaheim with tip being set for 6:45pm PT.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller knows the Wildcats’ work has just begun, but he hinted that his team would not be awed by the Blue Devils
“They [Duke] have a lot of talent, a great coach, defense is terrific, but it’s their effort level that they play at that sometimes can catch you off guard,” he said.
“We’ve played Kansas on a neutral court, and this point in time, just beating Texas, I don’t really look at our team with having a problem with being star-struck. I also know that we respect Duke tremendously, as well we should.”
The Blue Devils, who won the ACC regular season and tournament championships, clearly deserve the respect to which Miller previously alluded.
Led by head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who earned win number 900 when his team defeated Michigan in nail-biter in the round of 32, is just two wins shy of Bobby Knight’s all-time record, which is in reach as the Blue Devils are loaded with talent.
Duke senior guard Nolan Smith, a 2011 Naismith finalist, received over 97 percent of the votes for ACC player of the year and was the only unanimous All-ACC first team selection, while finding a spot on the ACC All-Defensive team was icing on the cake. Senior forward Kyle Singler joins his teammate on the All-ACC first team as well. Both Smith and Singler are also finalists for the 2011 John Wooden award.
Krzyzewski, though, knows that winning is paramount, not individual accolades.
“Our players are all about winning. The guys I have coached here, individual honors they’ve gotten a lot of them, but none of them have played for individual honors. These guys will hang their hat on winning a national championship last year,” he said.
The Blue Devils are bolstered by freshman guard Kyrie Irving, who returned in Duke’s first NCAA matchup against Hampton after missing 26 games with a toe injury. Irving was averaging over 17 points a game in the first month of the season and had 14 and 11 in wins over Hampton and Michigan, respectively.
There is good news for Arizona, however, as the Wildcats arrive in Anaheim as hot as any other team remaining in the national tournament.
Arizona’s last three games in the postseason have come down to the wire, with the Wildcats earning a victory in the last two. In the regular season the Wildcats had another pair of heart stoppers. Arizona survived the Cal Bears 107-105 on the road in February, needing three overtimes and Lamont “MoMo” Jones’ career-high 27 points. Later that same month the Wildcats escaped the Washington Huksies 87-86 thanks to a monster block of Darnell Gant by Williams. Those same Huskies broke the hearts of Wildcat nation as Isiah Thomas sank a buzzer beater in overtime to defeat Arizona 77-75 in the 2011 Pac-10 tournament championship game.
While the rollercoaster ride in Wildcat land marches on, one thing has stayed true: Derrick Williams is there when needed.
Williams, the Pac-10 Player of the Year and Naismith award semi-finalist, has been spectacular. Williams is averaging just under 20 points a game on the season and in the tournament, while getting to the line 24 times in the last two games.
While Williams may fly under the national radar, coach Krzyzewski will not be fooled.
“He’s got to be a first team All American, I don’t know how he doesn’t get the publicity,” Krzyzewski said as his team left Durham for Anaheim.
Arizona is getting contributions from all sides, and that has played a huge factor in keeping them in the hunt for the school’s fifth Final Four appearance all-time.
“We’ve been a true team in every sense of the word, and that’s where our success should be credited. We’ve played ten players in every game this season. We’ve played 11 in quite a few more. The guys who come off the bench who don’t start are just as important to our success,” Miller said.
Wildcat freshman guard Jordin Mayes is coming off a career night against Texas where he scored 16 points while connecting on all four of his three point attempts. In fact, Mayes has not missed a trey in the NCAA Tournament.
“Jordin played with incredible poise this past weekend. It wasn’t just his shooting, but it was his overall play that helped spearhead this team to the Sweet Sixteen,” Miller said.
Solomon Hill is averaging over 11 points a game in the tournament, well over his season average of eight. Hill added spark to Mayes as he dropped 16 points to go along with eight rebounds against Texas.
Duke holds a 4-3 advantage over Arizona all-time and will enter the eighth contest as a 10-point favorite. The last time these teams met a national championship was on the line. Duke, led by tournament Most Outstanding Player Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Jason Williams, went on to win the 2001 national championship 82-72 in Minneapolis. Arizona was led by double-doubles from Loren Woods (22pts./11reb.) and Michael Wright (10pts./11reb.), while Richard Jefferson scored 14 of his 19 in the second half in a losing effort.