This year’s Final Four finally arrives Saturday and will emanate from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Four programs who have scratched and clawed their way over the last several weeks will fight for a National Championship — two of them searching for their first in program history, one looking for their first since 1939, and the last looking to add a sixth to their championship collection.
The Arizona Wildcats are not involved. You know that by now. If you didn’t, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Hopes were high this March as the Wildcats grabbed a share of the Pac-12 regular season championship and added a Pac-12 Tournament Championship on their way to the 2-seed in the West region.
With the Final Four in their backyard, many people believed this was THE YEAR for Arizona to break through and go to their first Final Four since 2001.
So for those that can’t bear to watch the Final Four this Saturday or the National Championship Game on Monday night, I invite you to join me on a trip back to a much simpler time.
20 years ago today. March 31, 1997. A gallon of gas was $1.22. Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Hold Me Down” was the number one song in the country. For kids out there, that’s Diddy, two names ago.
And the Arizona Wildcats were about to capture their first National Championship.
Led by the incomparable Lute Olson, the 1997 Arizona Wildcats did the unthinkable in the NCAA Tournament, defeating three 1-seeds on their way to glory, to this day, the only team to accomplish such a feat.
Now, this was 20 years ago. I was 8 years old. So, while I can remember where I was and the moment it happened, and I recall the joy of the moment, I was just a kid. I didn’t understand the magnitude of a National Championship win, or Coach Olson shutting his critics up with a title, or what it took for Arizona to defeat three Goliaths in a ten day span.
So, I chose to relive it as a 28 year old man.
I own very few things on VHS tape. Some of you may not know what VHS is and I’ll get to that in a second.
I own Wrestlemania 17, the greatest wrestling show of all-time.
I own Michael Jordan’s final game as a Chicago Bull (Game 6, 1998 NBA Finals in Utah) and as a Washington Wizard (Game 82, 2002-03 regular season in Philadelphia).
I own a Chappelle’s Show marathon that aired on Comedy Central some random Saturday night in 2003. This is before DVR, people. If you didn’t want to miss something or watch something at a later time, you needed a VCR and a tape.
And last, but not least, I own the entire NCAA tournament run of the 1997 Arizona Wildcats.
My grandmother recorded it at the time. I’d never known why or how she managed to pick the right year to want every single game on tape. What a random coincidence.
My decision to relive Arizona’s championship sent me on a mission to that Grandmother’s house, in search of one thing: A VCR.
While I was there, I had to ask, what drove her to record those 1997 games? Was it just a feeling she had? Did she think Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and company had something special in them? I awaited this beautiful anecdote about how that 1997 team differed from any other Arizona team in history.
“I recorded all of Arizona’s March Madness games back then. ‘97 just felt like the only ones worth keeping.”
She revealed that she had at one point owned Arizona’s 1992 first round loss to 14-seed, East Tennessee State, the 1993 first round loss to 15-seed, Santa Clara, and the 1994 Final Four loss to eventual champion, Arkansas. She would just record over the games with movies that aired on TV and hope the next year would end in a better fashion.
She finally got her wish in 1997.
When I arrived back at home with the VCR, my two stepsons reacted like I’d brought in a famous relic from some museum.
“What is that thing?!” asked my 7 year old.
My 8 year old quickly responded, “It’s an old DVD player, you idiot.”
He was pretty close. Also, when you’re an adult, you never realize how often you end up finishing sentences with, “...and don’t call your brother an idiot.”
After having a lengthy discussion over what a VCR does, or did, I watched the first five games of Arizona’s magical run in perpetual fast forward.
The Wildcats entered the tournament as a 4-seed that was really struggling to find itself, having had a mediocre Pac-10 season. They were 19-9 and were coming off back-to-back losses in the Bay Area to Stanford and Cal.
As magical as the run would end up being, things didn’t look promising in the first round. Arizona, who had suffered first round defeats in three of the past five years, trailed by double digits early on against South Alabama. But after a strong second half from Michael Dickerson and a 16 rebound effort from AJ Bramlett, Arizona survived, 65-57.
The story was similar in round two, trailing early to 12-seed, College of Charleston. 38 combined points from Simon and Bibby kept Arizona alive, 73-69.
With their close calls against lesser teams, many expected Arizona’s season to end in the Sweet Sixteen. The 1997 Kansas Jayhawks were an overwhelming favorite to at least reach the Final Four, and more than likely capture a National Championship.
They didn’t see Arizona coming.
Much like the Wildcats’ first two games of the tournament, the underdog jumped all over the favorite to take the lead. Except this time, it was the Wildcats who were the underdog.
The Jayhawks had a furious rally in the final minutes but several game tying threes with under 10 seconds to play all fell short. Arizona won, 85-82.
Jim Nantz described it as "the biggest upset of the tournament." But this would just be the beginning of Arizona’s accomplishments in 1997’s edition of March Madness.
After the Kansas win, the Final Four felt like a lock. But awaiting the Wildcats in the Elite Eight was a feisty 10-seed, the Providence Friars, led by NBA talent Austin Croshere and the man with the best handles in the country, God Shammgod. It was an overtime thriller that had fans on the edge of their seat. The game was 20 years ago and I’m well aware of the result and even I felt nervous. Despite Michael Dickerson fouling out, Miles Simon’s 30 points carried the Wildcats past Providence, 96-92 and into Indianapolis for the Final Four.
Four games. Three against opponents that Arizona was easily favored against. Arizona nearly lost all of those. One against a heavy favorite where Arizona pulled off the unthinkable. The Wildcats were the only team in the Final Four not to be a 1-seed. And they had become an unpredictable lightning rod, impossible to forecast how they were going to perform next.
The North Carolina Tar Heels, in what would be legendary coach Dean Smith’s final game, would find out the hard way just how tough it was to predict what the Wildcats were capable of. North Carolina fell, 66-58. Bibby and Simon combined for a Russell Westbrook-esque 44 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
This was Lute Olson’s fourth trip to the Final Four, third at Arizona. And this would be his first National Championship game.
On that cool Indianapolis Monday night, it would be Arizona facing the defending National Champion, Kentucky Wildcats.
From the get-go, the two men that have carried Arizona through March are on the attack.
Bibby, just a freshman, and Simon, a junior who lost the first half of the season due to an academic suspension, were defiant in their play. People believed Arizona didn’t belong on the floor with Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team. They were out to prove a point and put the Arizona program on the map.
But Kentucky was game. They wanted to repeat as champions and had Nazr Mohammed and Jamaal Magloire snatching offensive rebounds left and right. The crowd made it sound like Rupp Arena as most of the 47,028 in attendance had made the short trek from Lexington to Indianapolis.
The two teams are going shot for shot. Kentucky is used to being the quicker of the two teams on the floor. They have no such advantage against UA. Arizona is used to running the floor whenever they please. Kentucky’s pressure slows Arizona and forces them into the half court.
Arizona led by one at half but leads meant very little in this game. The action is so dizzying, I can barely even register all the plugs about how good next week’s Everybody Loves Raymond is going to be and Pepsi commercials with dancing bears.
The final two minutes of regulation is a microcosm of the entire game.
With just over two minutes remaining, Kentucky leads 68-67. But in one minute, Arizona has scored five straight to go up 72-68. Big Blue has been silenced and a smattering of U of A chants echo throughout the RCA Dome.
With just 1:01 left, Tucson is dying to celebrate. Lute Olson is so close to his first National Championship, he can taste it. But a Ron Mercer three pointer cuts it to 1. A perfect Mike Bibby pass finds Bennett Davison for an easy bucket at the other end. Kentucky guard, Anthony Epps, coolly steps up to the three point line and drains a shot to tie the game with 12 seconds left.
An errant Miles Simon floater, a tough Kentucky rebound, a Jason Terry steal and last second heave clanks iron.
How did grown adults watch this live without having a heart attack?
In overtime, something Lute Olson’s teams were never known for, stepped up – defense.
The Wildcats held those other Wildcats to five points in overtime. Meanwhile at the other end, Arizona didn’t need to make a field goal. They would sink ten free throws in the overtime.
Of all the goofy puns and one-liners Jim Nantz has attempted to deliver in the final moments of National Championship games over the years, “Simon says: Championship” is his finest and most iconic.
And he did indeed. The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player scored 30 on the defending champ and the third 1-seed that the Wildcats vanquished.
Lute Olson, always among the most dapper coaches in the land, has his hair ruffled by Bennett Davidson as the clock hits zeroes. Among the many emotions you can see, the one that stands out is Olson’s relief. Finally, all those people that said he couldn’t win the big one know where they can stick their opinions.
And, in a way, as One Shining Moment kicks off and the trophy is raised in the air, that brings us full circle.
Following this year’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Xavier, Sean Miller, the man that resuscitated the program following Lute Olson’s retirement, has been getting crushed. He can’t win the big one. He can’t make the Final Four. And yes, it’s been 16 long, arduous years since Arizona’s last Final Four. And, now 20 since their lone National Championship.
But if anyone can understand the unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament, shouldn’t it be Tucson, Arizona? Because this city has seen many excellent teams come through. 1988, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2014, 2015. Any of those teams would be in the running for the finest team Arizona has ever put on the floor. None of those won the National Championship.
But for three weeks in March of 1997, a group of youngsters who were told they were “one year away” did the unthinkable. The Godfather of Tucson led a group of young men –- the basketball IQ of Michael Dickerson, the smoothness of Miles Simon, the maturity beyond his years of Mike Bibby, the leadership and unselfishness of Jason Terry, the uniqueness of Eugene Edgerson and the toughness of AJ Bramlett and Bennett Davison –- put it all together and made magic.
Are the 1997 Arizona Wildcats the best team in program history? Absolutely not. But they were responsible for the greatest run in NCAA Tournament history.
So is next year THE YEAR? There’s no way of knowing. But no matter your expectations, there’s always a chance that THE YEAR will be when you least expect it.