The mood was more March than November, and so was the championship game between Arizona and Arkansas in the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The two teams went after each other as if the national title were on the line, as it may well be when they meet again, and nowhere was the intensity more electric than on the perimeter, where Todd Day, the Razorbacks' spindly 6'8" junior All-America, went head-up against Wildcat sophomore Chris Mills, the sloe-eyed 6'6" transfer who promises to be the catalyst that will elevate this Arizona team to new and special heights.
The players were old foes, going back four years to when they were constant combatants on the summer-camp trail. Only last summer they had been roommates while competing for the same position on the U.S. national team that played in the Goodwill Games and world championships. Day eventually won the job, at least partly because Mills was still a bit rusty after a year's layoff necessitated by his transfer from Kentucky. But when they met again on Friday in New York City, it was Mills who won their personal battle during Arizona's throbbing 89-77 comeback victory and who caused Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson to offer a personal tribute. "He showed me what a big-time basketball player can look like," Richardson said.
Mills also showed a national television audience—and the UNLV Rebels, the reigning national champs, in case they happened to be watching—and an enthusiastic crowd of 12,507 just how much he has lifted this Arizona squad, which now has every right to begin thinking about the Final Four next spring in the Indiana Hoosier Dome. All Mills did against Arkansas was score 29 points, rip off 13 rebounds and hold the explosive Day, who had scorched the Wildcats for 18 points to lead the Hogs to an eight-point halftime margin, to one point—one!—during the entire second half.
Day is a trash-talker who is brash when things are going his way, but he became so frustrated during his anemic second-half nonperformance that he got whistled for a technical during an unnerving, game-breaking 20-2 Arizona run in which the Wildcats transformed a 57-49 deficit into a 69-59 lead with 6:12 remaining. Also during the surge, Oliver Miller, the Razorbacks' 6'9", 290-pound center, was slapped with a T for popping off to officials after receiving his fourth personal foul. Moments later, Miller, who must earn to avoid referees as well as refrigerators, angrily tossed his gum on the floor as he stalked to the bench, proving that he at least learned something about New York etiquette during his visit.
While the Razorbacks were losing their cool right out there for everyone to see-prompting Richardson to threaten Day and Miller with one-game suspensions-Mills was holding the traditionally fragile Wildcats together with a dazzling array of treys, drives, rebounds and dish-offs. And, of course, there was Mills's defense, which, to put it bluntly, simply took Day out of the game. But perhaps Mills's most important contribution came in the locker room during intermission, when he joined coach Lute Olson in a vociferous verbal butt-kicking session that prompted the player's 6'11" comrades in the front-court, Brian Williams and Sean Rooks, to eave their normal passivity behind and become wild Cats in the second half.
"They made it clear that the big men had to upgrade our performance," said Rooks, who ended with 31 points and 10 rebounds.
"That's impressive," interjected Olson, laughing during the postgame news conference as he sat alongside Rooks and Mills. "Did you hear that, Chris? 'Upgrade their performance?' Is that what we said, Chris?"
No, it wasn't. It was much more graphic than that. As Mills put it, "There weren't any chairs thrown, only voices." If the Wildcats can continue to get that kind of leadership from Mills, to go with the inside dominance of Rooks and Williams, the solid backcourt efforts of the matching Matts, Othick and Muehlebach, and one of the most talented cast of reserves in the nation, then the Wildcats might finally have found the one ingredient they seemed to lack during the years when the teams were built around Sean Elliott, the smooth, All-America swingman now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA.
Those Arizona squads never were able to win the really big one. Actually, they never even reached the big one. The Wildcats got to the Final Four in 1988, Elliott's junior year, only to be erased by Oklahoma in the semifinals. The next season, when they were ranked No. 1 for much of the year, Arizona was upset by UNLV in the regional semis, a defeat that was particularly galling to Olson, whose contempt for Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian is well documented.
At least Arkansas, which plays UNLV in Fayetteville on Feb. 10, will get a crack at the defending champs. The only way Arizona will get its shot at the Runnin' Rebels is if the NCAA somehow buys UNLV's desperate attempt to plea-bargain its way out of its current suspension from this season's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats and the Rebels, who had played each other five times in the last five seasons, don't meet in '90-91 because of the animosity that arose between the two teams last season in the wake of UNLV's 95-87 victory. Olson, in a huff, discontinued the series, charging that among other unpleasantries, UNLV guard Anderson Hunt had repeatedly cursed him and his staff throughout the game. Tarkanian countered by saying that Olson is a phony. "He gives this saint's image," said Tarkanian, "but that's false."
Of course, Olson has more important matters to worry about these days than the Shark's bite. Since Arizona's voters rejected a proposal to have a paid state holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the state has been under siege. It has become the object of several threatened boycotts and various retaliatory acts, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue's recommendation that the NFL owners move the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix. One estimate has it that Arizona already has lost more than $309 million in convention business as a direct result of the no-holiday vote, and Olson has reason to wonder if the issue will hurt the Wildcats' recruiting.
As the NIT began with eight games at various sites around the country, Olson tried to distance his program from the controversy, pointing out that Arizona has eight black players on the basketball team, that he personally supported the King holiday and that Tucson, where the university is located, recognizes the third Monday in January with an observance in King's honor. Considering the heated level of the controversy, the Wildcats probably were happy to get out of the state for a few days. The trip was especially welcome for Khalid Reeves, the Wildcats' gifted 6'3" freshman point guard from Queens, whom Olson unabashedly describes as "the best incoming guard at Arizona" in more than a decade.
If that's so, then it's just another way to measure the current talent level at Arizona, because Reeves so far hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup. He comes off the bench to replace one of the Matts, while 6'8" Wayne Womack and 7-foot Ed Stokes are the main subs up front. But no matter who else is on the floor for the Wildcats at a given time, Mills is the athlete who always seems to make the play the team needs most, whether it's a feathery trey from the wing, a tough drive or rebound in traffic, or a critical steal or defensive stop.
"I hesitate to compare him with Sean Elliott," says Muehlebach, who played with Elliott for two seasons. "Sean did so many things for us for so long. But like Sean, Chris is the type of guy who can do it all—and he does it in big games, not just against the weaker teams."
This is the same Mills, of course, who two years ago was college basketball's most notorious freshman. When $1,000 was found in an Emery Worldwide envelope that was addressed from then Kentucky assistant Dwane Casey to Mills's father, the incident touched off an NCAA investigation that led to a three-year probation for the Lexington Wildcats and Mills's transfer to the Tucson Wildcats. This was an especially gratifying coup for Olson, because when Mills had decided to attend Kentucky, one of the also-rans in the hunt was UNLV.
Since arriving in Tucson last year, Mills has kept a fairly low profile, not the easiest of achievements considering that he drives a late-model sports car with CMILLS vanity plates. During his year off, Mills worked hard on his game, especially his long-range shooting, while Olson constantly defended himself against charges from rivals that if he were as clean as he wants everyone to believe him to be, he wouldn't have taken the supposedly tainted Mills.
Mills started the NIT with a pedestrian 17-point effort against Austin Peay in the opening round, then scored just eight points against pesky East Tennessee State, but the Wildcats won both games at their home arena, running their McKale Center winning streak to 49. Olson got Mills's attention by demoting him to the second team for a practice or two. Properly chastened, Mills came to New York and promptly hit his first three shots in the Wildcats' semifinal against Notre Dame's zone, two of them treys, to give Arizona an 8-0 lead. Predictably, it soon became a Wildcat clinic, as Arizona began toying with the overmatched Irish. After slamming down a couple of textbook alley-oops in the second half, Mills sat down with 25 points in only 21 minutes. The Wildcats' 91-61 victory put them in the championship game against Arkansas, which manhandled Duke 98-88 in the other semifinal.
Although Duke has a marvelous freshman in 6'7" Grant Hill, the Blue Devils are short on height, experience and shooting skills. Nevertheless, they took the lead against favored Arkansas, only to surrender meekly when the Razorbacks headlocked the Blue Devils with their signature pressure defense. "We're like a time bomb," is how Richardson describes his charges. "We can be going along just fine, and then all of a sudden we explode." The detonation against Duke occurred late in the first half when a 15-6 Arkansas run changed the game for good.
"At times in the first half we seemed surprised," said 6'11" junior Christian Laettner. "We were saying to ourselves, What are we doing beating Arkansas?' We were just waiting for them to come back and beat us." In the absence of Miller, who was plagued by fouls, the Arkansas hero against Duke was Isaiah Morris, a 6'8" juco transfer who came off the bench to knock down 19 points, most of them from inside the paint. The first time Morris touched the ball, however, he uncharacteristically canned a three-pointer. "I was making it in practice," said Morris, "so I thought, Why not?"
To help offset Arizona's size advantage in the final, Richardson wisely put Morris in the starting lineup, replacing 6'7" forward Ron Huery. Still, the Razorbacks fell behind by as many as eight in the early going before the slick, quick Hogs finally began to bother the Cats with their relentless defensive pressure late in the first half. A 14-4 run was capped when guard Arlyn Bowers made a steal with :03 on the clock and nailed a jumper to send Arkansas dancing into the locker room with a 45-37 lead. But this was when Olson and Mills jumped on the big men—"It was just sort of spontaneous," Mills says—and when Olson also ordered his team to scrap the zone it had used during most of the first half and take the Hogs on man-to-man. The key assignment, of course, was Mills on Day.
The Razorbacks still led 55-46 with 12:40 remaining in the game when Mills buried a three-pointer, and the run was on. During the next five minutes, Mills humbled Day, forcing him into committing two turnovers, once stripping him and another time making Day dribble the ball off his knee. On the other end, Mills scored on an alley-oop jam from Muehlebach and soon thereafter lofted one to an appreciative Womack, who responded with a slam of his own.
Despite the breakdown, what really bothered Richardson were the T's on Miller and Day. After opening his post-game remarks by congratulating "coach Lou Holtz and his basketball team" (no offense, Lute), Richardson was fuming. "Those two T's caused the game to go into a mental lull, and we couldn't play out of it," he said. "We lost our rhythm and we never could get it back. We can't tolerate having players lose their cool. It's up to me to get the technicals and get thrown out of the game."
In the long run, of course, the loss could be good for the Razorbacks—remember, UNLV was blown out by Kansas in last season's NIT semifinals—and Richardson knows it. "If we had won this game," he said, "I might not have ever been able to get their attention." As for Arizona, the main challenge facing Olson will be to keep his team from being distracted by the King furor, which shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon. Maybe Mills can help there, too. During his freshman season at Kentucky, he grew accustomed to dealing with controversy. On the road, hecklers waved dollar bills and air-freight packages at him. Somehow, Mills developed the mental toughness necessary to focus on the job at hand, which is one reason he was standing outside the Arizona locker room late Friday night, holding the NIT's MVP trophy.
"My chance finally is here," Mills said.
And, just maybe, so is Arizona's.