Miller, Williams lead Arizona basketball out of the desert

Lute who?

My, how soon we forget.  That’s what winning does, particularly when it leads to a berth in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

The basketball program that Lute Olson built at the University of Arizona fell into disarray when he retired in 2008 after 25 years at the helm of the Wildcat program.  Unfortunately, part of his legacy were a series of NCAA penalties imposed on his program over recruiting violations.

The Hall of Fame coach, who spent 25 years building UofA into a national power, was at last night’s game when the Cats brought down top-seeded Duke in a 93-77 stunning upset.  He was interviewed from the stands, and it was a bit of nostalgia for long-time Arizona fans.

But it’s the Sean & Derrick Show that has the spotlight now.

Sean Miller, in just his second year as Olson’s replacement, has fast-tracked a rebuilding process for an elite program that last year missed a trip to the NCAA Tournament for just the first time in a quarter century.

Miller found his way to the desert from Xavier University in Ohio, where he had four 20-win seasons in his five years there and went to the NCAA Tournament four times.  His first year at Arizona resulted in a less-than-stellar 16-15 finish.

But this year is different.  And so is Derrick Williams, which accounts for the Cats’ sudden turnaround in Miller’s second year.

Now a sophomore, Williams has really come into his own.  The 6’8″, 240-pound forward has developed his game to the point that he is expected to be a very high NBA draft pick next year.

He has the strength of a power forward, handles the ball like a guard, and shoots like a machine.  This year, he is averaging 19 points and eight rebounds a game and shoots with 58 percent accuracy from behind the three-point line.

When he arrived in Tucson, after de-committing from USC and then very nearly switching to Memphis, he was a three-star recruit that had flown under the radar for the most part.  This year he is the Pac-10 Player of the Year and a strong candidate for the national Player of the Year.

And last night, he was a man among boys.

The ferocity of his dunks drew appreciative ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the crow at Honda Center in the Los Angeles area.  Many were family and friends, since he attended school just down the road at La Mirada High School, and others on the team hail from the LA area.

And he gave them all a show worth the admission price.

Williams scored 25 points in the first half to keep the fifth-seeded Cats on the floor against the defending national champs who were favored by many to win the tournament again this year.  He finished with 32 points and 13 rebounds, providing a monster presence under the glass as his teammates made a 19-2 run in the second half.

Arizona (30-7) shot 54 percent from the field and put more points on the board than a good Duke team has allowed all year.

The Cats were physically intimidating, particularly in the second half, and just kept pounding the Blue Devils into submission.

This was a team that had beaten its first two tournament opponents by a total of three points, 77-75 over Memphis and then 70-69 over Texas.  But Miller’s guys played up to the level of competition against Duke – and then some.

“They just got on a roll,” said Duke coach, Mike Krzyzewski after the game. “We had no stop for them.”

While Williams was the catalyst, the supporting cast played a big role, as has generally been the case this year.  Lamont ‘MoMo’ Jones contributed 16 points and Solomon Hill added 13 more.

Both, by the way, are sophomores.  So Miller’s cupboard won’t be too bare should Williams jump to the pro game, as expected.

The Cats will try to match up tomorrow with No. 3 UConn, which advanced to the tournament’s West Regional final by beating No. 2 San Diego State, 74-67.

This won’t be Miller’s first rodeo.  During his career as either an assistant or head coach he has taken 15 teams into post-season play.  His Xavier teams twice made it to the Sweet 16 and his 2008 squad made it to the Elite Eight.

He’s out from under the pressure now that comes with a rebuilding effort, trying to prove his system will work at yet another school.

And out from under the long shadow of a coaching legend.