Twenty years ago, the University of Arizona’s championship dream began long before the men’s basketball season even started. The Wildcats beat three No. 1 teams in the 1997 NCAA Tournament en route to its one and only national championship.
Twenty years ago, the University of Arizona’s championship dream began long before the men’s basketball season even started.
Freshmen Josh Pastner and Mike Bibby began shooting at night. Just the two of them. At the university’s McKale Center if it were available, but if not, then at a middle school or at a court near the football stadium. Three hundred shots. Over and over.
Over time, the group grew. Junior wing Michael Dickerson joined the freshmen, and then junior guard Miles Simon. One night, Pastner, optimistic by nature, told his teammates that they had no limits.
“Man, I think we can win a national championship,” he said, according to Simon’s memory.
“Josh, shut up, man, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Simon replied. “Dude, you’re not even going to play. What are you doing?”’
Simon didn’t realize it then, but he would soon. The 1996-97 Wildcats had something special. A poised freshman in Bibby. Seasoned vets in Dickerson and Simon. A versatile guard in sophomore Jason Terry.
A Hall of Fame coach in Lute Olson.
They would face adversity. They struggled at times in the Pac-10, finishing fifth, and during their first two NCAA Tournament games, against lower-seeded teams, they would trail by 10 points in the second half.
Yet over two weeks, fourth-seeded Arizona knocked off three of the sport’s heavyweights.
All No. 1 seeds. All eliminated.
Such a thing never had been done before. And with this season’s Final Four about to unfold in Glendale, it hasn’t been done since.
“I tell people this all the time: It’s the greatest run in the history of the NCAA Tournament,” Pastner said with conviction. “It doesn’t get enough credit. I don’t want to hear about the ’85 Villanova team. This run by the Arizona Wildcats in 1997 was the greatest NCAA Tournament run in history.”
Growing up, Simon attended several Final Fours with his father. In 1989, he watched Michigan win in Seattle. He also watched games in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Minneapolis.
To make it as a player was surreal. Upon arrival in Indianapolis, Simon looked at all the fans and thought, “These people are coming to watch me in a day or two.”
Pastner’s optimism aside, Arizona faced hurdles throughout the season. Simon – the team’s top scorer from the previous season – missed the season’s first 11 games because of academic reasons. Even once he returned, the Wildcats had their ups and downs. In the Pac-10, they were strong as usual in McKale, but they struggled on the road, losing three of their first five.
After a loss at Oregon, Olson questioned the team’s toughness. “How can you go out and get your butt kicked and not fight back?” he said to reporters.
Bibby and Pastner still had their late-night shooting sessions – Pastner actually had a key to the McKale Center – but by this time, with Bibby playing a starring role and Pastner glued to the bench, Bibby had altered the routine.
“I told him, ‘I’m not rebounding for you anymore, Josh. You rebound for me,’ ” Bibby said.
Joked Pastner: “I’m the all-time leading rebounder in the history of Arizona.”
A lot of championship teams get to the Final Four by getting hot at the right time. Arizona, however, lost its last two games of the regular season, falling to 19-9 overall and 11-7 in the Pac-10.
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Even so, then-Arizona State coach Bill Frieder wasn’t fooled. To him, the Wildcats were as good as anyone. Their guards were among the nation’s best. Bibby was the point guard – mature beyond his years – but Simon was the leader. Terry was clutch and selfless, volunteering to give up his starting job shortly after Simon returned from his academic issue.
“They had a team that could go big or they could go small,” Frieder said. “When those three guards – Simon, Bibby and Terry – were on the floor, they were an excellent basketball team. Anytime you go small, if you can rebound the defensive boards, it provides you so many advantages offensively, especially in transition. And they were so good in transition.”
That was Olson’s influence. In his 14th season at Arizona, Olson didn’t micromanage. He let the Wildcats play. As a college basketball analyst for ESPN, Simon these days often comes across teams with 35 or 40 plays. In 1997, Olson’s Wildcats pretty much had five.
“That was typical of what we tried to do at Arizona – don’t confuse them with all kinds of special plays, just let them play and have confidence that they’re going to do the right thing,” Olson said. “The media would ask: ‘Who’s going to take the last shot?’ And I’d say: ‘Whoever’s open.’ “
In the NCAA Tournament’s first round, the Wildcats – No. 15 in the country in the regular season’s final Associated Press Top 25 Poll – trailed South Alabama by 10 with 7 minutes left but rallied to advance. In the second, they had to hold on in the final seconds to survive 12th-seeded College of Charleston.
From there, the Wildcats got on a roll. They stunned top-seed Kansas, an 11-point favorite who had lost just one other game all season. After the game, then-Kansas coach Roy Williams called Arizona the best defensive team he had seen all season.
In the regional final, Simon scored 30 points to lift the Wildcats over Providence in overtime. In the national semifinal, he produced 24 points, five rebounds and five assists to help topple a North Carolina team that featured future pros Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.
“I always fashioned myself as a guy that would show up in big games,” Simon said. “I always felt like if my team was going to lose, I wanted to take on the burden whether we were successful or not.”
Up next: Kentucky for the national championship.
‘I will never forget’
Twenty years later, this is what Jason Terry remembers most about that night: On the bus ride to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, former Arizona greats Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott gave the pregame speech. Be confident, they told the Wildcats. Share the ball. No regrets.
“Something I will never forget,” Terry said.
Kentucky was the reigning national champion. How good were Rick Pitino’s Wildcats? They lost leading scorer Derek Anderson to a knee injury in January, and yet, they kept rolling, winning their first five NCAA Tournament games by an average of 16 points.
“But I had a choice to make,” Pitino said. “Derek Anderson had gotten cleared, but I actually thought we could win without him. I said, ‘Derek, I can’t risk you coming back in the finals when you’re going to be an NBA lottery pick.’ I said, ‘We’re going to win anyway; don’t worry about it.’ And had he played, he would’ve guarded Miles Simon, who went off on us.”
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What unfolded was one of the best championship games in tournament history. Think about this: Over 45 minutes – 40 minutes of regulation and 5 minutes of overtime – the contest featured an astounding 18 lead changes and 21 ties. No team led by more than six points the entire way.=
“It doesn’t get the credit it deserves,” Pitino said, “because that was a great ballgame.”
“When they talk about great final games,” Olson said, “I don’t know of many I would put above that one.”
“Phenomenal,” Pastner said. “Absolutely phenomenal.”
Arizona didn’t have a field goal in overtime, but the Wildcats hit 10 free throws to win 84-79, completing an improbable six-game run, the Wildcats’ longest winning streak of the season. As the final seconds ticked, Simon – who had scored 30 points – fell to the court. On the bench, junior forward Bennett Davison messed up Olson’s hair.
“Big time,” Bibby said. “No one expected us to do it.”
Four years later, the Wildcats returned to the championship game, but lost to Duke in Minneapolis. Since then, they’ve been to five regional finals – on the door step of the Final Four each time – but have fallen short, losing by a combined 14 points.
Maybe that’s about to change.
Like the 1997 team, this year’s Wildcats have battled through adversity, building the mental toughness needed for postseason success. Like Simon, they have a poised veteran in guard Kadeem Allen. Like Bibby, they have a talented freshman in Lauri Markkanen.
This year’s journey began in October at the the program’s annual Red-Blue scrimmage. That night, Arizona honored the 20-year anniversary of the championship run. As the 1997 team was introduced, Simon held the championship trophy above his head. At one point, former assistant Jim Rosborough brought the Wildcats together, one last huddle, one final time.
The moment gave Pastner chills. Hands in the middle.
One, two, three …