It's tough to put into words what Derrick Williams has meant to the University of Arizona and their basketball program these past two years. He's the best player I've ever seen take the floor at the McKale Center -- though I'll admit that I never saw Steve Kerr or Sean Elliott play -- and his highlight reel dunks, three-pointers and game-saving blocked shots will never be forgotten. And while the national media has just recently learned of Derrick's story of being a wiry, unranked high school player, he's held a special place in the hearts of Wildcat fans both in Tucson and abroad.
Set aside all of the impressive statistics and accolades, Derrick Williams did something for Arizona basketball that not many could have done: with a program in shambles, a fan base desperate for stability and a roster full of relative no-names from the recruiting world, Derrick came to Tucson when not many would and gave life to a program in need of serious help.
It all started at the Maui Invitational on November 24th, 2009, as the Wildcats faced the Wisconsin Badgers. Sean Miller was still in the process of adjusting his lineup and gave Williams the first start of his career against a tough Badger front-line. The result? 25 points and eight rebounds. He followed up the next night with a near-double-double of 11 points and nine rebounds. That was just the start of an incredible streak of scoring in double figures; after scoring 10+ points in those two games in Hawaii, Williams scored ten or more points in 62 of his remaining 65 games. He recorded a double-double in eighteen of those contests.
While hailed on the court by Wildcat fans everywhere, Williams was hailed off the court just as much. Armed with a contagious smile and willingness to sign an autograph or pose for a picture just about whenever he was asked, he became somewhat of a legend in Tucson. Crowds swarmed him whenever he would make an appearance around campus and the roars in the McKale Center were some of the loudest ever heard from the ZonaZoo and the fourteen thousand who occupied the arena each night. When the Wildcats' new Nike jerseys were released, just one player's was available for sale: Derrick Williams'. You couldn't get your hands on one for weeks.
And while most thought it couldn't get any better after a regular season Pac-10 championship, Derrick Williams saved his best for last in this year's NCAA Tournament. He swatted away the Memphis Tigers in the first round, and-one'd the Texas Longhorns in the second round, dismantled Duke in the Sweet 16 and had an incredible performance in the Elite 8 against the UConn Huskies despite questionable foul calls to take Williams out of the game in the early going. Arizona wouldn't have returned to March Madness without Derrick Williams, and they nearly won a National Championship because of him. Other players contributed on the magical run and Sean Miller and his coaching staff had the team prepared each night, but at the end of the game, they knew it was Williams they could count on.
We're going to miss you, Derrick. You were an incredible joy to watch these past two seasons. We know you'll have a long, productive career in the NBA and you'll always be welcome back to McKale. Seriously, stop by any time. You're a hero, and without you, Arizona basketball might not have come back after years of turmoil. For that, we're eternally grateful. Bear Down.