You may have read that it snowed on Christmas Day in Tucson. First time ever. Don't believe it. That was surely just freeze-dried confetti being scattered over the desert in honor of the Wildcats' achieving a No. 1 ranking in college basketball. The Arizona Wildcats. In Tucson. First time ever.
And after Arizona blew down Duke on Dec. 30 to win the ultraglamorous Fiesta Bowl Classic right there in Tucson, the forecast called for continuing flurries of snow jobs about how good the Cats are; how deep, balanced, adaptable, cohesive; how they might even bang some people around on occasion; how much fun they are to watch.
Believe it this time. The Wildcats may be even better than all that. While the fun of being No. 1 lasted only until last Saturday night, when Arizona suffered its first loss, a 61-59 stumble at New Mexico, these Cats figure to keep their noses near the top long past George Washington's birthday—whether or not the Honorable Evan Mecham, Governor, rescinds that holiday, too. (He wiped Martin Luther King's day off the state's holiday roster last year.)
O.K., so coach Cool Hand Lute Olson's Wildcats have rolled up their 12-1 record by beating, among others, a young Michigan team, a resting-on-its-laurels Syracuse outfit, an unsuspecting Iowa crew and a not-quite-ready-for-prime-upset Duke club. The point is that Arizona has done more than anyone expected of it so far. And last week the Cats offered up another bonus: the soft-spoken, multifaceted homeboy and swingman Sean Elliott, who, in an instant All-America performance, scored 31 creative points in Arizona's 91-85 Fiesta championship victory over the Blue Devils and looked as if he could have eased in 31 more.
January 11, 1988
"The best I've ever guarded," said Duke's stellar defender, senior Billy King. "Like Len Bias. Not as great a leaper, but the same versatility and skills. And Sean's arms are so long you can never get a piece of his shot." Elliott's performance included nine rebounds and five assists, and with center Tom Tolbert, who finished with 19 points, he quelled a Duke rally that threatened the Wildcats' late 14-point lead.
"How good is Arizona?" said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, still piqued over some jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o home cooking by the crew of Pac-10 referees who obviously weren't accustomed to dealing with one, much less two, raging, clawing defenses. "The question is, How much better can the Wildcats get? By March all the other top teams will have been through World War III, while Lute's problem will be how to simulate this kind of competition."
Ouch! Will somebody please remove the dagger from the ribs of the miserable Pac-10? But please note, too, that Arizona pulverized Washington 110-71 and Washington State 89-55 the week before the Fiesta—and both were road games for the Wildcats. Indeed, given that all the Cats' key victories had come on foreign floors, the Fiesta, played in Tucson's McKale Center, was a sort of combined welcome-home and coming-out party for a team that had never been ranked higher than No. 10.
Fiesta basketball started in Tempe, Ariz., 11 years ago, but the tournament was never much more than a rumor there and died in 1983. Upon his arrival at Arizona in '83, Olson pushed for an on-campus Christmas tournament. "The best one. No cupcakes," he said. So the Valley National Bank came up with lucrative guarantees, the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort supplied posh digs at cut-rate prices, and in three years the Fiesta has become the elite of holiday hoopathons. Noncupcakes Florida and Michigan State filled out the field last week; Pittsburgh and Purdue are lined up for future Christmases.
Considering the accommodations, no team is likely to decline an invitation. How often does a college kid get to stay in a hotel room with a TV in the John? The host hotel makes even the lowliest pine-timer feel like royalty, what with the string quartets, high tea, and king-sized bathtubs complete with plastic champagne bottles full of bubble bath. "There's nothing like lying in my champagne bubbles scouting some opponent on TV," said Duke forward Danny Ferry.
And there were some opponents in the Fiesta. All of the tournament coaches had been to the Final Four, and two had won national championships—Michigan State's Jud Heathcote and Florida's Norm Sloan (when he was at N.C. State). With Arizona, Duke and Florida inhabiting most everybody's Top 10, Olson called the field merely "the best anywhere, ever."
Perhaps to keep up with the silver-haired Olson, who always looks as if he stepped out of a tuxedo ad, the Reverend Warren Anderson of the Gideon Missionary Baptist Church in Tucson dressed and spoke in the spirit of the occasion. In a white sport coat and a pink cravat, Anderson closed his invocation at the pretournament luncheon thusly: "And we pray, Lord, that these same four teams will meet again in Kansas City." K.C. hosts the 1988 Final Four.
"This might be a Final Three. I really don't know what we're doing here," said Heathcote, who has gone from coaching Magic Johnson to Legerdemain Papadakos. There certainly weren't many Spartan fans to be found in Arizona; they were all in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. "I had a hard time convincing my own wife and daughter to come here," said Heathcote. "I'd like to be in a tournament where we have a chance to win at least once."
On opening night, Elliott scored 24 against the Spartans in a 78-58 Arizona victory. During a 15-0 run by the Cats in the second half, a furious Heathcote called timeout, marched onto the court and punched Papadakos in the stomach. Twice. Perhaps once for each basket scored during the game by the 7-foot transfer from Syracuse. Michigan State compounded that rout by losing 83-59 to Florida in the third-place game.
What were the Gators, the Big Apple NIT champs, doing in the consolation game? Trying to atone for an abysmal 93-70 loss to Duke. Blue Devil defenders King and Ferry had bottled up Florida's 7'2" center Dwayne Schintzius and terrific guard Vernon Maxwell well enough to account for some of the stunning margin. But it was the failure of the Gators' monster freshman forward, the 6'8", 240-pound Livingston Chatman, that was so disappointing. Florida's high-low sets depend on crisp entry passes to Chatman, but the frantic Duke defense resembled a football blitz and prevented the Gators from finding the powerful rookie who had wowed New York audiences. Unlearned in moving without the ball, Chatman, who had averaged 18.7 points a game, made only four baskets against the Blue Devils and two against the Spartans. In barely a month Chatman has gone from a look-alike J.R. Reid to an I.M.N. Need.
It didn't help Florida that Schintzius had gained 12 pounds over a three-day Christmas break. "Lots of Gator Go [a diet supplement] and Gator turkey," he said. No wonder Duke cocaptain King summed up the Blue Devils' easy victory this way: "We were hungrier."
Whereas Duke arrived in Tucson on Dec. 28, the day before the tournament began, Sloan checked the Gators into Ventana Canyon on Christmas Day. "They looked hotel-weary," said Krzyzewski. "What's the point in coming out so early? How many cactuses can you look at?"
How many Elliotts did the Blue Devils look at in the championship game? Too many. Duke is a wonderfully balanced, athletic amalgam of fit-in fellows, but the Blue Devils don't have an Elliott, and he was the difference in a raw-nerved, defense-dominated final.
Not that Elliott was a stranger to Duke. He had played with King and Ferry on the U.S. team, coached by Krzyzewski, in the World University Games in Yugoslavia last summer. "I got to know all the Duke guys," Elliott said. "It's kind of like facing our own selves in the mirror. They're so similar to us. Even off-court. You know, they're nice guys."
For years the rap sheet on Arizona has elucidated the obvious: The Wildcats were mostly California kids, which meant they were laid-back, finesse-minded wimp-outs and too darn nice. Even now Elliott is the Cats' lone Arizonan. a local from Cholla High who worked as a cook before he decided to emulate his mother, Odiemae, an Arizona graduate. Until now the Wildcats' gizzards have been nationally suspect. Auburn blasted Arizona out of the NCAA tournament in 1986. Georgetown and Illinois pushed the Cats around unmercifully last season. Even Olson railed at his team's "soft" style.
In the off-season Olson suggested that his players work not only on their bodies but also on their minds—and play practice games without calling fouls. Something must have helped. By the fall, the Arizona frontcourt—skinnies Elliott and Anthony Cook and the lug-legged Tolbert—had toughened up. Against Duke they combined for 17 offensive rebounds, including one humongous—and revelatory—hook jam by Cook over three Dookies. That shot, surmised Elliott, "would automatically rephrase our soft rep."
But it was Elliott himself who grabbed the contest early and made it a personal showcase. The 6'8", 195-pound junior spent a week last summer at Michael Jordan's camp in Wilmington, N.C., playing nightly one-on-ones against the proprietor. (Jordan phoned Elliott with congratulations when Arizona became No. 1 in the Associated Press poll on Dec. 21. The Cats later got the nod from UPI.) Against Duke, Elliott was positively Jordanesque in slashing for nine points as Arizona burst to a 21-10 lead.
That was an unhappy turn of events for the Blue Devils, who knew before the game began that they would be playing by the Book—that is, by the whistle of Booker Turner, a notoriously Western-leaning official. When Duke guard Quin Snyder was virtually tackled by the Wildcats' Steve Kerr on a loose ball, the foul was called on Snyder. On another occasion, Tolbert got away with an awesome elbow hold. Krzyzewski went bananas. "East, West, Canada, Mexico, Russia—that's a hook anywhere in the world!" he bellowed at Turner. Ultimately Turner whistled K for a T.
At one point, Ferry called to Olson, "We're getting homered!" Upon which Olson screamed at Ferry. Upon which Krzyzewski screamed at Olson. Upon which Turner brought the coaches together where they could scream face-to-face. The fact that the two are the prime contenders to be coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team only added spice to the confrontation. "Who's the professional? Who's the kid?" Coach K said later. "I would never yell at an opposing player."
In any case, Ferry apologized to Olson at halftime—"a class act from a class kid." said Olson—before scoring 18 points in the final 20 minutes, giving him 25 for the game.
It didn't matter. Refs or no, Duke was not going to stop Elliott. When the Blue Devils' aggressive overplaying shut down the passing lanes and rendered Kerr, who shot 1 for 5, relatively helpless, Elliott took charge. "In that case, you either open up the game and create or you get killed," Elliott said. So down the middle he came, along the baseline, running to the wing.
"Arizona's the type of team you look at and say, Yeah, it's easily beatable," said Ferry. "But it's not. You have to play your best for a full 40 minutes, and we got in about 25 tonight. Arizona reminds me of our team two years ago."
Does anybody need to be reminded that the 1985-86 Blue Devils lost the national championship to Louisville by three points? Not in Tucson, where snow jobs are likely to continue, followed by sunny skies.