ANAHEIM, CALIF. (AP) - One of the last times Derrick Williams came home to play basketball, things didn’t go well for Arizona.
The Wildcats arrived in Los Angeles with a two-game lead in the Pac-10 standings and got swept by Southern California and UCLA. Williams scored a season-low eight points against the Trojans before rebounding with 15 points against the Bruins.
The Wildcats hung on in their final two games to win the league’s regular-season title and Williams was named Pac-10 player of the year.
Now, the sophomore from La Mirada is close to home again, this time for the biggest game of his college career.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats (29-7) play the top-seeded Blue Devils (32-4) in the NCAA West Regional on Thursday at Honda Center.
Williams was besieged with ticket requests, although he’ll only be able to satisfy his family.
“Not that many people have that much money to spend on a 40-minute game, but a lot of people will be at a pizza place, someplace that has a lot of TVs, gather around and watch the games right there,” he said.
The Wildcats practiced Wednesday at Williams‘ old high school in La Mirada, 15 minutes from the Orange County arena.
“Going back to my high school brought back a lot of memories,” he said. “My senior season we won the league championship. That was the best thing my school has had basketball-wise, first time since ‘82 that we had a league championship.”
Another Arizona starter, Kyle Fogg, grew up 10 minutes away in Brea, while reserve Alex Jacobson is from nearby Santa Ana. Jordin Mayes and starter Solomon Hill are both from Los Angeles.
“It’s good to be home, but we’re here for business right now,” Fogg said.
And Arizona’s goal is to knock off the defending national champions, whose .762 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament is the best ever.
“It’s never to your advantage going against them in this tournament,” second-year Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
He should know. As a Xavier assistant under Thad Matta, Miller saw the Blue Devils beat the Musketeers by three points to earn a spot in the 2004 Final Four.
“Can we match their intensity and effort level, not for part of the game or not after the first four minutes when we get used to them, but from start to finish?” Miller said. “That’s our only chance.”
The Wildcats’ tourney winning percentage of .643 is eighth-best, although their run of 25 consecutive appearances ended last year, when Williams was a freshman and Miller was just starting to remake the program in his vision.
“We didn’t have a lot of goals other than to be better than we were a year ago and we had a lot of hungry players who had great offseasons that translated from last year to this year,” Miller said. “`That’s what’s fueled our improvement more than anything.”
Giving the Blue Devils a postseason boost is Kyrie Irving, who returned at the start of the tournament after missing 26 games with an injured right toe. He averaged 12.5 points in their first two wins, a blowout of Hampton and a two-pointer against Michigan.
The freshman point guard won’t start Thursday, although coach Mike Krzyzewski said he will play several minutes.
“He played significant minutes last week when I thought he was going to play limited minutes, so I mentioned that he will play significant minutes tomorrow,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know what the hell that means. It means he’s going to play great minutes hopefully.”
Irving’s biggest adjustment in going from bench-bound cheerleader to game action has been regaining his conditioning.
“I’ve been away from the game so long, not playing at a high level, so that’s going to be a factor for me,” he said. “I’m feeling more comfortable out there. I have no limitations on my foot.”
The Wildcats have prepared for Duke with and without Irving, regarded by many as the Blue Devils’ best player who could have been national freshman of the year had he not gotten hurt eight games into the season. He’s scored in double figures every game he’s played. “It changes their whole game because he can speed up the game, he’s a very good point guard,” Arizona’s Kevin Parrom said. “He makes his team a lot better. He can do it all.”
Arizona and Duke last met in the NCAA tournament in 2001, with Duke winning 82-72 in the title game to claim the third of its four national championships. The Wildcats haven’t gone that far since then, while the Blue Devils hoisted the trophy again last year.
“Our main focus is not being scared,” Parrom said. “Some people when they play they tend to get scared because they’re playing a big-name team. We respect Duke, but we just have to go out there and play.”
Krzyzewski notched his 900th career win last weekend against Michigan, leaving him two victories away from tying Bob Knight as the winningest coach in NCAA history.
“Any individual win during a season is never that big, except if it leads to a league championship, a tournament championship, and obviously the national championship,” he said.
Four more wins would do just that.