ANAHEIM, Calif. - If Arizona Wildcats fans and others inside Honda Center try to boo Duke off the floor tonight, that's OK.

At least the Blue Devils will have had a pre-game meal.

"I've been to a restaurant where I was unable to, um, order any food," said Duke's Kyle Singler, whose team will face the Wildcats in the NCAA West Regional semifinal. "Just a burger. It was kind of a walk-up place."

When told that story, Duke guard Nolan Smith chuckled.

"I got plenty of those," Smith said. "I've been kept from being served food. I've been in the grocery store, when I had to take my stuff to the next line."

That's part of the deal when you sign a letter of intent for one of the most successful college basketball programs in recent history.

So maybe you can toss in noise from all those Wildcats fans either visiting or living in Southern California at them and, maybe, it doesn't matter all that much.

It's Duke, after all. Not only the defending national champions, but also a hardened, veteran team used to taking shots in the gut from any opponent and any fan - any time, anywhere.

"That's something you prepare yourself for before you even come to Duke," freshman guard Kyrie Irving said. "Just having that love-hate. And especially going to different arenas and beating someone on their floor there's just no better feeling than that."

But if playing on the West Coast at Honda Center doesn't exactly intimidate the Blue Devils, it should make the Wildcats feel good, at least.

Formerly known as "The Pond," Honda Center is a neutral floor that has actually seen two of the more painful losses in UA history: The ousting of the defending national champions by Utah in the 1998 West Region final, and the sudden end to the once top-ranked Wildcats in the 2003 West Region final.

But all that, of course, is ancient history for this generation of Wildcats. What Honda Center means to them is proximity, a chance to get friends, family and supporters a look while they play on the biggest stage most of them have been on yet.

They received a taste of it already Wednesday morning, when they took a bus to practice at Derrick Williams' alma mater of La Mirada High School.

"Saw a few people who gave me hugs," Williams said, smiling.

It could get even better tonight. The Wildcats, who have three starters and six players overall from Southern California, have a chance to launch into their first Elite Eight since 2005 before all those supporters.

"It's actually great that we're playing close to home," Williams said. "It's great for me and (Kyle) Fogg, we don't get a chance to come home other than to play USC and UCLA and in the Pac-10 tournament. It's just great to come back in here."

Singler, a onetime UA recruiting target from Oregon, said he was excited to have some West Coast friends come see him for the first time ever in college. But the advantage is clearly in favor of the Wildcats.

"The thing that's great is with the majority of our players being from this area, it's nice that they can share in this experience," Miller said. "I would like to think that the crowd is not going to hurt us. We'll take any advantage we can get."

It's also likely that fans of San Diego State, which will face Connecticut in the other West Regional semifinal, and anyone else who just wants to root against Duke will be pulling for Arizona.

AD Greg Byrne said he wanted to give a "shout-out" to Aztecs fans, saying "You root for us, and we'll turn around and root for you."

But in the end, the Wildcats' focus is not on home, but on Houston. That's where the Final Four is next week and where the Wildcats, who weren't even expected to win the Pac-10 or reach a Sweet 16, are starting to think about.

"I'm not really trying to see my family," said Solomon Hill, a Los Angeles product. "I'm just trying to get a W. It's cool to be in Cali. But it could have been in San Antonio, New Orleans. Whatever."

Bottom line: The Wildcats aren't just happy to be here, at home. And they aren't just happy to be here, in the Sweet 16.

"Of course. It's not like we've won anything yet," Kyryl Natyazhko said. "What's the point of playing if you don't think you can win?"

Not so good in SoCal

By reaching the Pac-10 tournament final on March 12, the Wildcats partially turned around a troubling trend in Southern California.

Now the Wildcats, still just 6-16 in the Los Angeles area since the beginning of the 2005-06 season, will have a chance to clean out some ghosts at Honda Center (formerly The Pond) of Anaheim, Calif.

There, the Wildcats suffered two of their most heartbreaking losses in school history: A shockingly lopsided 76-51 loss to Utah in 1998 that ended the Wildcats' quest to defend their 1997 national title, and a 78-75 loss to Kansas in the 2003 West Region final that ended a season when Arizona began as the No. 1-ranked team.

Overall, Arizona is 5-2 at Honda Center, formerly known as Arrowhead Pond. The full history:

• Dec. 7, 1996: Arizona 69, Utah 61 (Wooden Classic)

• March 19, 1998: Arizona 87, Maryland 79 (NCAA West Region semifinal)

• March 21, 1998: Utah 76, Arizona 51 (NCAA West Region final)

• Dec. 8, 2001: Arizona 79, Purdue 66 (Wooden Classic)

• March 27, 2003: Arizona 88, Notre Dame 71 (NCAA West Region semifinal)

• March 29, 2003: Kansas 78, Arizona 75 (NCAA West Region final)

• Dec. 5, 2004: Arizona 68, Mississippi State 64 (Wooden Classic)


• What: NCAA tournament Sweet 16, West Region, Anaheim, Calif.

• Who: No. 5 Arizona (29-7) vs. No. 1 Duke (32-4)

• When: 6:45 p.m.

• TV, radio: Ch. 13, 1290-AM, 107.5-FM