Faith slam-dunked the skeptics at the 1997 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship. Not once, mind you, but three times.
Arizona, perhaps the most unlikely champion ever, became the first team to defeat three No. 1 seeds when it upset tradition-rich Kentucky, 84-79 in overtime at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
It gave Arizona a national championship in its third advance to the Final Four under coach Lute Olson. The others were in 1988 and 1994.
Nobody could have predicted it.
Nothing about the Wildcats' trip to the tournament gave the slightest hint they would proceed through the championship. But like a fierce summer wind burning across the Sonoran Desert, Olson's kids made believers of a nation of basketball fanatics.
Kansas, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, fell to these Wildcats on March 21 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in Alabama. Clawing their way to the Final Four, the Wildcats then toppled North Carolina. And in the title game, they beat their more illustrious Wildcat opponent, Kentucky, in overtime. Just like that! Three top seeds fell to a bunch of sprouts.
Arizona started a freshman point guard (Mike Bibby), a sophomore center (A.J. Bramlett), and three juniors (shooting guard Miles Simon, wingman Michael Dickerson and power forward Bennett Davison).
"This is one tough group of Cats," said Olson, his famous silver thatch of hair hidden by a "National Champions" ball cap slightly askew. "All along, we tried to impress upon them that the strongest will survive, that the toughest group of players out there would get the job done."
The final game was a microcosm of the season.
There was a point when it looked as if the Arizona bubble might burst. Kentucky had forced overtime when Anthony Epps hit a three-pointer with 13 seconds left. Shots by Simon and Bibby had rimmed out.
"When Kentucky tied it up, though, I looked in everybody's eyes and I knew we'd come up with a victory," said Arizona guard Jason Terry, one of the best sixth men in America.
"Coach Olson told us that the strong would survive."
Only three and a half weeks earlier, though, there were those who wondered if Arizona would even be invited to the championship. The Wildcats were 19-9 and had just lost both games on a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, 81-80 at Stanford and 79-77 at California. But Olson saw things differently.
"Those are two very tough teams, extremely hard to beat on their home courts," he said. "We had chances to win both games, and I think that's a 'positive' we can take into the postseason."
Just the same, te losses dropped Arizona to fifth place in the Pacific-10 Conference, with an 11-7 record. Ahead of the Wildcats in the final standings were champion UCLA (15-3) and three schools who tied for second place with 12-6 records, Stanford, California and Southern California.
Simon, the soul if not the heart of the team, had sat out the first 11 games, on academic suspension. When the team rolled up an 8-3 record during that time, at least one media critic, wandering down an unpaved side road, speculated that the Wildcats might be better off without Simon. Olson laughed out loud at the suggestion. Simon went on to become the NCAA championship's Most Outstanding Player.
For Arizona in 1997, the way to the NCAA tournament was nowhere near as amazing as the stay there. The "toughness" Olson spoke of was never more evident than in the opening round, against a splendid South Alabama team. With less than four minutes left in that first-round game, Arizona trailed South Alabama by 10 points. Somehow, the Wildcats rallied to win, 65-57.
From that point on, there was no stopping Olson's version of the "Desert Swarm" a nickname given to a particularly rugged Arizona football team earlier in the decade.
College of Charleston, a fearsome bunch of outstanding athletes, followed South Alabama. But Arizona won again at The Pyramid in Memphis, 73-69.
Then came the upset that stunned the nation: Arizona's 85-82 victory over top-ranked Kansas. If it wasn't the biggest win in the history of Arizona basketball, it was the greatest effort.
Kansas trailed by 13 with 3:28 remaining but put on a finishing kick that cut Arizona's lead to a single point, 83-82, with 21 seconds left. But a pair of free throws by Bibby, the coolest and probably best Wildcat freshman since Sean Elliott, clinched the shocking upset.
"This wasn't the biggest win," Olson said, perhaps prophetically. "The biggest win is the one that gets you to the Final Four."
Two nights later, Arizona toppled a rugged, physical Providence team, 96-92, and advanced to the Final Four. North Carolina fell on March 29, 66-58, setting up the national championship game against the Kentucky Wildcats.
Cornell coach Scott Thompson, a long-time assistant to Olson, said he thought Arizona's national championship began one cold, dismal night 14 years earlier, in Kansas City. Olson was coaching Iowa at the time and Thompson was on his staff.
The Hawkeyes had just lost a heartbreaker to Villanova, 55-54, in the Sweet 16 at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Into the Iowa locker room came a fellow named Cedric Dempsey. He said he was from Arizona and wanted to talk to Lute Olson.
Dempsey, later the president of the NCAA, was at the time Arizona's athletics director. He was looking for a basketball coach, a man to take over a team that had just gone 4-24 for the season, 1-17 in the tough Pacific-10 Conference.
Thompson said when Olson strolled into the Iowa basketball offies a week or so later and announced he had decided to accept the offer at Arizona, "I thought he had lost his marbles."
Seven Pacific-10 championships and three trips to the Final Four later, Olson was on top of the basketball world with an NCAA championship. His decision was validated.
"It is Lute's vision that has built the program," Thompson said.
"I went with him from Iowa, and when we first got to Tucson, honestly, I could not believe a program could be so terrible. I remember going with Lute to dormitories and fraternities, trying to get support from the students. When we first got there, people looked at us like we were crazy when we told them what our goals were. They told us they took recruits to hockey games rather than basketball games, because there was some excitement at hockey. The Arizona baseball team always drew more fans than basketball. The first season, at our games, there couldn't have been more than 3,000 people in an arena that seats nearly 15,000.
"Lute and I looked at each other like, 'What did we get ourselves into?' Now look at it: National champions!"
Olson's family-approach to his program had a lot to do with winning the NCAA title.
"When we talk with the team on what makes champions, the first thing we discuss is family," Olson said. "Trust is the second, and team-support is right there, too.
"The first thing I do each day is check to see how Kenny Lofton (Cleveland Indians outfielder and former Arizona basketball player) did in baseball ... how Sean and Steve and Jud and Damon and Khalid (Reeves) did in the National Basketball Association. They are still Wildcats. That never ends."
Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said Arizona's victory was no fluke. "This is a great basketball team," he said. "Arizona just got better and better as the season and the tournament wore on."
It was a six-game winning streak in the NCAA, of course, that launched the Wildcats into the winner's circle. But interestingly enough, that was the longest winning streak of the season for Arizona.
Written by Corky Simpson
Reprinted with the permission of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (c) MMI