The Arizona Wildcats wouldn’t be a nationally recognized college basketball program today if not for Lute Olson, who for some strange reason left a really good thing at Iowa in March 1983 to take over a team that had won four games the previous season.
But by the end of his second season he had the UA in the NCAA tournament, the start of a 23-year run of postseason bids, within five years he was in the Final Four and in 1997 led the Wildcats to their one and only national championship.
Cutting down the nets in Indianapolis after an overtime win over defending national champion Kentucky was one of the greatest moment in UA basketball history, but it’s just one of many memorable games during Lute’s 24-year reign in Tucson.
Follow along as we take a trip down memory lane and relive the big ones, both good and bad. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
First win vs. ASU
Arizona went 11-17 in Lute’s first season in 1983-84, which nowadays would be grounds for running the coach out of town but back then was a huge improvement. Previous coach Ben Lindsey went 4-24 in his only season, while the final three years of the Fred Snowden era were also below .500.
Yet the Wildcats started 3-11 under Olson, losing their first four Pac-10 games before rival ASU came to McKale Center on Jan. 20, 1984. It was a time of mourning within the program, as the father of sharpshooting freshman Steve Kerr had been killed two days earlier in a terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon.
Kerr responded by scoring 12 points in 25 minutes off the bench, leading the UA to a 71-49 win, the first of Olson’s 43 vs. the Sun Devils against only six defeats.
Great Alaska coming out party
After three consecutive trips to the NCAA tourney, Arizona began the 1987-88 season ranked for the first time in school history. That ranking would be put to the test during a Thanksgiving trip to the Great Alaska Shootout, which back then was one of the premier preseason tournaments.
The UA scored a school-record 133 points in the first game against Duquesne, then knocked off No. 9 Michigan for its first win over a top-10 opponent in eight years, setting up a showdown with No. 1 Syracuse for the title on Nov. 30.
By Dec. 1—those games started super late—Arizona had an 80-69 victory over the Orange for the program’s first win against a top-ranked opponent. And when the next Associated Press poll came out the Wildcats had jumped to ninth, another program first and a sign of things to come in the ensuing months.
First trip to the Final Four
A 12-0 start to 1987-88 was followed by a streamroll through the Pac-10, going 17-1 with the lone loss coming at Stanford in late January, then a breeze to the first of four conference tournament titles under Lute. But the NCAA tourney was a different story, as Arizona’s previous three trips ended with first-round exits against higher-seeded opponents.
Not this time. As the No. 1 seed in the West, the UA started out in Los Angeles, where they nicely beat Cornell and Seton Hall by a combined 69 points. Seattle was the site of the West Regional that year, and neither No. 5 Iowa (99-79) or No. 2 North Carolina (70-52) were a match for the Wildcats as they reached the Final Four for the first time in program history.
Arizona’s run ended in the national semifinals in Kansas City, with Oklahoma taking an 86-78 win and leaving the Wildcats with a stellar 35-3 mark.
Darn you, Steve Nash!
The UA proved it wasn’t a one-year wonder by winning eight NCAA tourney games over the next three seasons, reaching the Sweet 16 twice along the way. But then came a return to the first-round follies in 1992, albeit as the favorite and not the underdog, when as a No. 3 seed in the West the Wildcats were shocked 87-80 by No. 14 East Tennessee State in Atlanta.
That marked the seventh straight year a 14 beat a 3 in the tourney, so maybe it was just a blip on the radar for the Wildcats.
Fast forward a year, though, and turns out it wasn’t. Despite a 24-3 record and another 17-1 beatdown of Pac-10 foes, the second-seeded Wildcats ran into a buzzsaw in the form of No. 15 Santa Clara in the 1993 first round in Salt Lake City.
Or, rather, they ran into the hero ball of future NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash, who scored 10 points off the bench including the game-clinching free throws at the end of the Broncos’ 64-61 upset.
Redemption Tour of ‘94
What have you done for me lately, right? It didn’t matter that Lute had won a second straight Pac-10 title or six of the last seven, the 1988 Final Four was a distant memory made all the more painful by the back-to-back embarrassing upsets in the 1992 and 1993 NCAA tourneys. Hard to believe, but there were some people calling for Olson to be fired prior to the 1994 tournament, which had Arizona as a No. 2 seed in the West.
There would be no first-round stress this time, however, or in any of the first four games as the Wildcats won by an average of 17.8 points on its way back to the Final Four. The 92-72 win over No. 1 seed Missouri in the Elite Eight was over by halftime, as the three-guard lineup of Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Reggie Geary combined for 67 points.
Never one to pass on holding a grudge, Olson called out Arizona’s “fair-weather fans” who had soured on him after the first round upsets. “I have a very good memory. I remember the people who were with us. I remember the people who were not. I am bitter.”
A 91-82 loss to Arkansas in the Final Four in Charlotte took some luster off the run, as did another first-round upset to Miami (Ohio) a year later.
Down goes Kansas!
If you went back and looked at all of Lute’s teams and ranked them based on regular season performance, it’s very likely the 1996-97 squad wouldn’t be in the top half. At 19-9 it was Arizona’s most losses before the preseason in a decade, and the fifth place finish in the Pac-10 (including getting swept in the Bay Area at the end) was the Wildcats’ worst since Olson’s first year.
Shipped to Memphis as the No. 4 seed in the South Region, the Sweet 16 seemed like a high ceiling for this club. Narrow victories over No. 13 South Alabama and No. 12 College of Charleston only furthered this notion.
That put Arizona in a Sweet 16 matchup with top overall seed Kansas, which had a bunch of the players back from the team that beat the Wildcats in the same round in 1996. The Jayhawks were 34-1 and overwhelming favorites to win the title with four future NBA players in the starting lineup.
No sweat. The Wildcats would win 83-80, holding off a late Kansas surge to reach the Elite Eight where it would outlast upset-minded Providence en route to Indianapolis.
Simon says championship
Turns out, getting to the Final Four was the easy part. The UA only had to beat one No. 1 seed to reach Indy, with two more waiting in the wings.
First was North Carolina, whom Arizona dispatched 65-58 to reach its first-ever national title game. There waited another No. 1, Kentucky, the reigning champion that would go on to win the 1998 title as well. All that stood in the way of that potential three-peat was a Wildcat team that caught lightning in the bottle and was the epitome of what March Madness is all about.
An extra five minutes was needed to decide this one, as if UA fans weren’t already stressed enough, but in the end it was an 84-79 victory that brought Arizona its one and only national championship. Also, the only known occurrence of someone—Bennett Davison—messing up Lute’s perfect silver hairdo.
Below is One Shining Moment from the 1997 tourney. No, I’m not already crying, you’re already crying!
The Triangle and 2 Nightmare
As defending champs, Arizona took the extra attention that came with that in stride during a pre-tournament performance that saw it go 27-4 overall and 17-1 in the Pac-10 once again, winning 19 straight at one point. As the top seed in the West the Wildcats with their first three foes, setting up an intriguing showdown with No. 3 Utah in the Elite Eight in Anaheim.
Utah, then just a darling mid-major from the Mountain West, featured a pair of future NBA first-round picks in guard Andre Miller and big man Michael Doleac. But it was the Utes’ coach, Rick Majerus, who would prove to be Arizona’s nemesis.
Majerus, who won 500-plus games at four schools, was a disciple of Marquette coaching great Al Maguire. While he had plenty of talent over the years, his ability to develop schemes to neutralize opponents’ strengths was one of the things he was best known for.
Enter the Triangle and 2, a zone defense that is meant to frustrate a team’s top two scorers by denying them the ball as much as possible. Majerus unleashed this on Arizona, which saw Mike Bibby and Miles Simon go a combined 4 of 24 from the field and 0 for 10 from 3-point range in a 76-51 loss.
The UA shot 28.3 percent, far below its season average of 48.8 percent, scoring its fewest points in 13 years.
Jason Gardner was fouled!
Back in the Final Four in 2001, Arizona crushed defending champ Michigan State by 18 in the semifinals to make its second title game appearance. Awaiting the Wildcats was Duke, a team they hadn’t faced since the 1997 Maui Invitational.
The Blue Devils led 35-33 at the half and extended to an 11-point edge early in the second half only to see the UA rally several times to get within three. Ultimately, Duke would pull away and win 82-72, though who knows what would have happened if the below image was actually called what it was.
That schedule, tho
Among the many things Lute was known for during his time at Arizona, aggressive non-conference scheduling was high on the list. The UA would often play a non-league opponent during one or both of the weeks during Pac-10 play when ASU was on the schedule, and it was rarely a creampuff foe.
That was the case in 2001-02, when the UA hosted a ranked Connecticut team in late January. The Wildcats would fall 100-98 in overtime.
That ended up being one of seven ranked teams Arizona would face outside of the Pac-10, where it met another nine ranked opponents. All told the Wildcats would 10-7 against ranked foes in 2001-02, including losing to No. 3 Oklahoma in the Sweet 16.
How about the 2001-2002 schedule:— Ryan Hansen (@uaryno) August 28, 2020
Maryland - W
Florida - W
@ Texas - W
Kansas - L
Illinois - W
Purdue - W
@ Michigan St - L
Valparaiso - W
UCONN - L
*Only 1 team missed the NCAA Tournament (Purdue - coached by Gene Keady)
The scoreboard point
If Twitter existed during Lute’s coaching career, there’s a very good chance he’d troll haters on there. Particularly those wearing maroon and gold.
Rivalries bring out the worst in people, and ASU fans never held back when going after Lute and/or his players. After all, this is the fan base that once made fun of Steve Kerr’s dad getting killed during pre-game warmups and later mockingly asked “Where’s Bobbi” during a 2001 game after Olson’s wife had recently died of ovarian cancer.
Somehow, Lute made it almost his entire career without firing back as the Sun Devil faithful. Almost.
In January 2004, during the Pac-10 opener in Tempe, Arizona was on its way to a convincing 93-74 win when Lute, finally fed up with hearing profanity from the crowd, simply pointed to the scoreboard as a reminder of what was happening on the court.
Game respect game, Coach.
Up 15 with with 4 minutes left, what could go wrong?
The last four years of Olson’s run with the Wildcats were mostly average, with each team making the NCAA tourney but three of those doing so as No. 8 seeds or worse and two flaming out in the first round. That includes Lute’s final game as UA coach, an unmemorable 72-63 loss to Purdue in New Orleans.
The 2004-05 team, though, was that last great squad under Olson. And it really looked like they were going to get him back to the Final Four one more time.
Following a last-second win over Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16, Arizona was neck and neck with No. 1 Illinois for much of their Elite Eight matchup in suburban Chicago. But then a patented Olson-team run put the Wildcats up 75-60 with four minutes left and it seemed like the UA was headed for St. Louis?
How much did it look that way? Yours truly booked his flight during the final TV timeout of regulation. So it’s probably my fault what happened next.
Illinois stormed back to force overtime, only after Arizona had two shots to win it in the final seconds, then the Fighting Illini took over in OT and won 90-89.
Fifteen years (and several close calls) later, Arizona is still trying to make it back to the Final Four.