Miles Simon knows all about the Final Four. He won Most Outstanding Player in 1997 while leading Arizona to its first, and only national championship.
CBS play-by-play broadcaster Jim Nantz’s iconic call of "Simon says ‘Championship,’" remains the defining clip from UA’s overtime defeat of Kentucky 15 years ago. Today, Simon is on the opposite end of the microphone as a color commentator and analyst for ESPN.
Simon is appearing at Bracket Town during the Final Four to "talk hoops with the fans," on behalf of Allstate March Mayhem. Among those involved in Allstate March Mayhem with Simon are Dick Vitale, James Worthy, and from last season’s improbable VCU Final Four run, Joey Rodriguez.
Like VCU, Simon’s 1997 UA team made NCAA tournament history. The Wildcats were the first four seed to claim the national championship, and remain the only team to ever knock off three top seeds in one postseason. The Wildcats entered the tournament 19-9 and off a fifth place finish in the Pac-10 – though Simon said their standing was deceiving.
"We were tied for second in the Pac-10 going into the final weekend. That was the tough road trip to the Bay Area, Cal and Stanford. We lost those games by one point and two points [final scores: Stanford 81, UA 80 and Cal 79, UA 77]," he said.
"But the fifth place [finish] makes for a better story."
Connecticut made its way to the 2011 national championship through similar circumstances, finishing eighth in the Big East before beginning a wild run in the conference tournament that catapulted the Huskies into the NCAA.
Simon said the closest parallel in this year’s field is Vanderbilt.
"Kevin Stallings has done a great job there," he added. "That’s a great academic school. You can’t have just anyone play there."
VU moved one step closer to New Orleans on Thursday with a 79-70 win over Ivy League champion Harvard.
The Commodores are one of two teams from the SEC Simon has pegged for the Final Four. Aforementioned UK reigned as No. 1 for most of the season, and easily handled Western Kentucky in the Round of 64.
"Kentucky plays great defense, which you don’t normally see from such a young team," Simon said.
At the forefront of John Calipari’s Kiddie Corps is Anthony Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman forward and National Player of the Year frontrunner.
Davis’s versatility is the centerpiece of what the Wildcats do on both sides of the floor.
"[Davis] is a like Kevin Durant. Durant of course won National Player of the Year as a freshman, but Durant doesn’t defend like Anthony Davis," Simon said.
The former UA guard projects UK reaching the title game, but like it did against UA, falling just short. Simon’s pick for the 2012 national championship is North Carolina.
A potential sleeper Simon is following is his former teammate Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers. The Conference USA champion’s second round date Friday is full of Wildcat ties – Memphis opponent Saint Louis is coached by Rick Majerus, sideline general of the Utah team that ousted Simon and the Wildcats from the 1998 tournament.
Should the Tigers get past Majerus’s Billikens, Simon said their athleticism could pose problems for one seed Michigan State.
Memphis is the sole C-USA representative left standing, much like the Pac-12 with Colorado. The 2011-’12 campaign was a trying one for Simon’s alma mater conference, but he anticipates a back bounce next season.
"That’s three teams that will start the season with top 25 potential," he said.
Simon also lauded the work of Sean Miller in his three seasons since taking on the challenge of restoring the legacy Simon’s coach, Lute Olson built in Tucson.
"I’ve watched some of [Miller’s] practices, and his players have respect for him. He’s done a tremendous job in a short time," Simon said.