Arizona came to Indianapolis seeking its first national championship. Kentucky was looking to repeat. It was Dean Smith’s swan song at North Carolina and Minnesota’s high point. Here’s a look back on the road all four teams took to the 1997 Final Four.
Lute Olson’s team played below their potential most of the season. The Wildcats were loaded, with future NBA players Mike Bibby and Jason Terry—and neither of them were even the two leading scorers. Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon each averaged 18ppg. But Arizona lost seven games in the Pac-10, nine overall and then were less than impressive in surviving South Alabama & College of Charleston to open the NCAA Tournament.
The regionals in Birmingham was where everything changed. Kansas was the top-heavy favorite to win the national championship and led by Paul Pierce. Arizona overcame 27 points from Pierce by forcing twenty turnovers and getting a combined 58 from Bibby, Dickerson and Simon. The 85-82 upset rattled the entire bracket. The Wildcats then survived 10-seed Providence. In spite of blowing an 85-78 lead in the final 1:15 of regulation and going to overtime, Arizona ultimately got it done. Simon dropped 30 in the 96-92 win that earned Olson his third Final Four appearance.
The defending NCAA champs were led by Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson who each averaged 18ppg. Anthony Epps and Wayne Turner ran the show. This season wasn’t like the 1996 coronation ride. Kentucky never rose higher than #3 nationally and finished behind South Carolina in the SEC regular season. But these Wildcats turned it on in March and it started with blowing through the conference tournament and getting the 1-seed in the West.
Kentucky continued to roll through the first four rounds. They were challenged only by Iowa in the Round of 32, but survived thanks to a strong defensive effort—holding the Hawkeyes to 40 percent shooting and forcing 18 turnovers in a 75-68 win. In the regional final, Kentucky coasted past a Utah team that had future pro players in Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller. The 72-69 win gave Rick Pitino his third Final Four in Lexington and fourth overall as a head coach.
Dean Smith had another well-stocked roster. Antwan Jamison averaged 19 points/9 rebounds and Vince Carter was good for 13/5. Shammond Williams kicked in 14 more and ran the offense. North Carolina finished second in the ACC, but beat Tim Duncan’s Wake Forest en route to a conference tournament title that got them the #1 seed in the East.
The Tar Heels did not play well early in the tournament. None of their first three wins, over Fairfield, Colorado and Cal were impressive, but the win over Colorado came against a team with Chauncey Billups in its lineup and it made Smith the winningnest head coach in college basketball history. UNC put it all together against Louisville in the Elite Eight, with six players hitting double figures in a 97-74 rout. Dean was going to his 11th Final Four in what would prove to be his final season.
Clem Haskins was the most successful coach Minnesota ever had and already the only one to even take the program to a regional final, back in 1990. This was Clem’s best team. They were well-balanced, with Big Ten MVP Bobby Jackson leading the way at the point with 15 points/6 rebounds/4 assist per game. The Gophers blew away the field in their conference and coasted through two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Things got hairy at the regionals in San Antonio. Minnesota coughed up multiple leads in the Sweet 16 against Clemson, then fell behind by six in overtime. With Jackson pouring in 36 points, the Gophers ultimately survived 90-84 in double OT. Minnesota balance carried the day against 2-seed UCLA. Jackson’s 18 points was first-among-equals and after spotting the Bruins a five-point halftime lead, the Gophs took over and won 80-72. They were going to what remains the only Final Four in their history.
INDIANAPOLIS: THE 1991 FINAL FOUR
Arizona-North Carolina opened the proceedings and defense was the story, with both teams shooting below 35 percent from the floor. The stars for both teams—Bibby & Simon for Arizona, Carter & Jamison for Carolina, were productive, but Arizona’s duo was a little bit better, scoring a combined 44 points to 36 for the Tar Heel twosome. That matched the margin of victory in the 66-58 Wildcat win.
Minnesota-Kentucky could have been a New Year’s Day bowl game in the way it matched Big Ten power against SEC speed. The Gophers controlled play inside the arc and on the glass. The Wildcats forced turnovers and were much better from the three-point line. Kentucky won 78-69.
Early in the all-Wildcats championship game, CBS analyst Billy Packer said that the two teams could play for a long time with very little separation showing. He was prophetic. The game was tight all the way and went to overtime. The difference was Simon, who dropped 30 points. Arizona finally had a national championship and they remain the only team to defeat three #1 seeds along the way to a title.