THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON UNHERALDED FROM THE START, THE YOUNG WILDCATS EXCEEDED EVERYONE'S EXPECTATIONS BUT THEIR OWN BY WINNING THEIR FIRST NATIONAL TITLE

April 06, 1997

Asked what it was that lifted them to their unlikely 1997 NCAA
national championship--the first men's basketball title in
school history and the first for Lute Olson after 24 years as a
college coach--the Arizona Wildcats spoke of the tight bond that
united the team. But explaining the nature of this unity proved
to be another matter entirely. Junior forward Bennett Davison
tried his best: "A team of individuals does not win," he said
before the Wildcats' 66-58 Final Four victory over favored North
Carolina. "But a team of teams, uh, of a group, uh, a team of
players is a winning team. Oh, you know what I mean."

Don't worry, Bennett. The championship trophy says it all.

Arizona's title was a stunning achievement, considering that
this young team looked to be at least a year away from making
really big noise. Just one starter--junior guard Miles
Simon--returned from last year's Sweet 16 squad, and this
season's eight-man rotation included no seniors. The loss of
five seniors from last year deprived the Wildcats of nearly 63%
of their scoring and 65% of their rebounding. And the 1996-97
schedule was downright brutal, with contests against powerhouses
North Carolina, New Mexico, Utah, Texas and Michigan, plus some
formidable Pac-10 foes. When it was learned that Simon would
miss the first 11 games because he had received an F in a math
class, the Final Four certainly wasn't on anybody's mind in
Tucson.

It was ironic, then, that in the first two months of the season
Simon's absence from the lineup seemed to pull this team
together and that a freshman point guard, Mike Bibby, emerged as
a team leader. Ten minutes into the regular-season opener
against North Carolina, Bibby sensed that his team was
struggling, so as he ran down the court he directed traffic and
continuously shouted to his teammates, "Relax! Relax!" Heeding
the advice of the precocious freshman, the Wildcats settled down
and pulled off an 83-72 upset. Bibby scored 22 points.

By mid-December the Wildcats had victories over teams ranked No.
3 (Utah), No. 7 (North Carolina) and No. 13 (Texas) and a narrow
road loss to another Top 25 team, 19th-ranked New Mexico. Said
Olson, "It's been a great run for a young group of guys. They
gain a little more confidence every day." Junior forward Michael
Dickerson, who picked up some of the scoring load in Simon's
absence, said the club's youth was more of a help than a
hindrance: "With almost everybody on the team being so young, we
have to depend on each other, and I think it's helped us jell
quicker. We're so young that a lot of guys don't even know that
we shouldn't be beating these teams. We're just winning and
saying, That's good, that's fine."

Several hoops pundits, including Utah coach Rick Majerus, argued
that the Wildcats were better without Simon. Olson scoffed at
the notion. "Even when he couldn't play, Miles was our best
leader," the coach said. Simon traveled to every Arizona road
game at his family's expense (perhaps with assistance from his
brother-in-law, baseball star Darryl Strawberry, who is married
to Simon's sister Charisse) and never missed a practice.

In the Pac-10 opener against Cal on Jan. 2 at Arizona's McKale
Center, Bibby, the first freshman to start for the Wildcats
since Sean Elliott in 1985, again showed how vital he was to his
team. With the Cats down by one, Bibby went to the line with 3.6
seconds left in the game. Before his first attempt, he looked up
at the video screen and saw his mother, Virginia--a picture of
anxiety, twisting her hands as if working a Rubik's Cube. The
poised freshman put her mind at ease by calmly sinking the two
free throws to give Arizona an 81-80 win.

In the next game, at McKale against Stanford, Davison--who had
transferred from West Valley Junior College in Saratoga,
Calif.--tipped in an errant attempt by reserve guard Jason Lee
in the closing seconds as Arizona beat the Cardinal 76-75. But
in those two one-point wins, the Wildcats looked vulnerable:
They blew big leads before escaping with victories. Olson said
his team needed leadership. It needed Simon.

On Jan. 10, Simon had a final exam in a class called Family
Studies 401. If he passed, he would be in uniform the following
day against Arizona State in Tempe; if he flunked, his season
would be over. That night he studied until 1:30 a.m. Worried
about oversleeping and missing the test, he watched the clock
until morning. The vigilance paid off: Simon got an A and was
cleared to return to the team.

Other issues would surface, however. Heading into the Jan. 16
game against USC in Los Angeles, Bibby was constantly asked
about his relationship with his father, Henry, the Trojans'
coach. Father and son had been estranged for a decade, ever
since Henry and Virginia separated after Henry left the family
to fulfill his coaching aspirations. Before this game, it had
been a year since Henry and Mike had even spoken, the last
contact coming the day Henry phoned to offer Mike a USC
scholarship, an offer Mike promptly rejected.

There would be no happy reconciliation this day. The Bibbys
never made eye contact during the game, and Mike had his worst
game of the young season, scoring four points in USC's 75-62
victory. Forty minutes after the contest, Henry sent one of his
assistants to the Wildcats' locker room to ask if Mike would
speak to him. The two Bibbys shook hands in the hallway, and
Henry, sounding more like a coach than a father, whispered, "You
played a good game. You played hard. Keep working and you'll be
great." Mike nodded, and the two exchanged uneasy hugs.

In February, Arizona's front line played like Mildcats. With two
frail 6'11" sophomore centers, 210-pound Donnell Harris and
222-pound A.J. Bramlett, along with the inexperienced Davison,
the Wildcats had a Grand Canyon-sized hole in the middle. Said
Olson at the end of the month in which his club fell to
Washington, UCLA and Oregon, "We talked to the big guys and told
them that they will determine how far this club goes. We have to
have them step up and be aggressive."

The message sank in, and its effects were there to be seen in a
headline in the March 3 Arizona Republic: WILDCATS AVENGE LOSS
TO HUSKIES; UA BIG MEN DOMINATE INSIDE. In the 103-82 victory
the Cats' front line manhandled Washington's 7-foot, 280-pound
center, Todd MacCulloch. And when Bramlett shattered a glass
backboard in practice in late February, he also shattered his
lightweight image, emerging as a rebounding machine and a
scoring threat. Said sophomore guard Jason Terry on the eve of
the NCAA tournament, "Ever since he broke that backboard he's
been more confident. All he's needed anyway is confidence." Said
Olson before the Final Four, "I've been in coaching 40 years
now, and A.J. has improved more from the start of the season to
the end of the season than any player I've ever had." Though the
Wildcats lost the final two games of the regular season, against
Stanford (by one point) and California (by two), the front
line's sturdy play boded well as they headed into the postseason.

As did Arizona's experience in close games. Though the Cats'
19-9 record and their fifth-place finish in the Pac-10--the
team's worst since 1983-84, Olson's first season in
Tucson--didn't impress many prognosticators before the
tournament, the Wildcats were pressure-tested. During the
regular season Arizona lost just one game by more than seven
points. The Cats, the fourth seed in the Southeast Regional,
weren't turning up on any lists of likely Final Four candidates
because of the team's youth and the school's nagging reputation
as a first-round flameout.

But in the first two rounds of the tournament, the Cats beat
gritty South Alabama 65-57 and booted the Cinderellas from the
College of Charleston 73-69. And what did that get them? A
regional-semifinal matchup against top-ranked Kansas, a team so
impressive that it had been all but awarded the national title
before the tournament even began.

Nevertheless, Dickerson, who led the Wildcats in scoring this
season with a 19.8 average, was so confident of his team's
chances that he not only complained about Arizona's being made
an underdog to the 34-1 Jayhawks but also advised his father,
Willie, to skip the regionals and make reservations for
Indianapolis instead. Said the Bible-toting gym rat, who after
two years of playing a supporting role emerged as a star, "We
believe."

Relying on an unshakable faith in each other--not to mention
superior quickness--the Wildcats scored the upset of the
tournament, knocking off Kansas 85-82. Arizona got All-America
point guard Jacque Vaughn (3-of-10 shooting, five turnovers) and
forward Scot Pollard (no points, five rebounds) into foul
trouble, shut down center Raef Lafrenz with its swarming
interior defense and hit its free throws down the stretch. Bibby
scored 21 points, Dickerson added 20, and Simon, who would be
named the region's most valuable player, had 17.

The night before Arizona was to face Providence in the regional
final, Terry was full of unbridled energy. At the team's hotel
in Birmingham, he ran from door to door shouting, "Turn the
clocks forward! Let's play the game!" He jumped up and down on
his bed. He watched a tape of Providence's second-round victory
over Duke. Finally, when he wound down, he got undressed, pulled
his team jersey out of his gym bag, suited up--socks, shorts,
shoes, the whole outfit--and climbed into bed. "I've never done
that before, but I wanted to wake up ready," Terry explained.

He was ready, all right. The team's indefatigable sixth man and
its best defender scored five of Arizona's final nine points and
finished with 11 points and five assists. After the 96-92
overtime win, he talked about what had gotten his team to that
point. Sure, the Wildcats had exceptional quickness at every
position. Sure, a demanding schedule full of nail-biters
prepared them for the tough road to the final. But it was the
team's closeness--consider that not a feather was ruffled when
Terry handed over his starting role after Simon became eligible
in January--that made the difference. "We have tremendous
confidence that comes from our inner strength," he said, still
in the uniform that had doubled as pj's the night before.

The unheralded Wildcats then proceeded to topple two of the most
storied programs in college basketball. First they took down
North Carolina in the Final Four semis by hitting their outside
shots and bottling up the Tar Heels' inside game, then they
felled defending champion Kentucky 84-79 in the national title
game (page 28). In both games, togetherness proved to be
Arizona's greatest asset. Because this group had grown so close;
because all season a player was rarely seen on campus without a
teammate at his side; because this team spent Friday nights
together shooting around in what they considered their family
rec room, McKale Center; and because this team, in the end,
really believed it would win, the Wildcats wildly exceeded all
expectations. As Terry put it after the Providence win, wearing
one of the nets around his neck, "We stick together, feed off
each other. Just like family."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Davison helped Arizona upend third-ranked Utah in an early test. [Bennett Davison and six others in game] COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT WACHTER The Wildcats used the floor savvy of Bibby (left, versus Arizona State) and the sixth-man spark of Terry (versus USC) to offset their inexperience. [Mike Bibby and opposing player in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above--Jason Terry and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN In the NCAA opener Bramlett (42), Terry (31) and Eugene Edgerson joined forces to close out South Alabama. [A.J. Bramlett, Jason Terry, Eugene Edgerson, and other in game] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MANNY MILLAN (2) After Olson and Bibby directed the first-round win over the Jaguars, Davison (center) and Bramlett (right) overcame Charleston. [Mike Bibby and Lute Olson on sideline; Bennett Davison, A.J. Bramlett, and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Dickerson backed up his brash pregame talk by netting 20 points in a shocking upset of Kansas. [Michael Dickerson and others in game] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BOB ROSATO (2) Simon (above, left) crowed after beating the Jayhawks, then fried the Friars with a 30-point performance in the regional final. [Miles Simon, Bennett Davison, Eugene Edgerson, and Jason Terry standing on scoring table and inciting crowd; Miles Simon and two others in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH A typically united effort lifted Harris (left), Bibby and the Wildcats over the Tar Heels and into the championship game. [Donnell Harris, Mike Bibby, and two others in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Miles Simon formed a V, for victory and most valuable player, after he led the Cats to the title.

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