When the 2001 Arizona basketball team began the season, they and Duke were circling each other like heavyweight fighters. The Wildcats were the preseason #1 and the Blue Devils at #2.
The head coach was the legendary Lute Olson, and his wife Bobbi passed away. Lute spent three weeks away from the team on bereavement, and it took ‘Zona some time to really find its rhythm. They started 8-5 and fell to as low as 20th in the polls, before charging hard down the stretch, winning 20 of their last 23.
It was enough to get them second place in a competitive Pac-10 race ultimately won by Stanford, and including NCAA Tournament teams in UCLA, USC and Cal. And the strong finish was noted by both the pollsters and the tournament seeding committee. The latter slotted Arizona #2 in the Midwest. The AP poll might have been just for show, but Arizona’s #2 finish nationally was ironic—with Duke at #1, everything had come full circle between mid-November and Selection Sunday.
Arizona had future NBA players on their roster, led by guard Gilbert Arenas. He was more known in the pros for his troublesome personality, but at the college level he was a stud. Richard Jefferson was a forward who could score inside and out, and Loren Woods was a steady rock in the post, scoring, rebounding and blocking shots. Jason Gardner and Michael Wright were skilled on the wings. The team had the talent, it was peaking and it had the motivation, having dedicated the season to Bobbi.
The Pac-10 made a big impact on the 2001 NCAA Tournament and the Wildcats came out of the gate strong, taking care of business against Eastern Illinois and 10th-seeded Butler. Of the five conference teams in the tourney, only Cal failed to advance to the Sweet 16, giving further credibility to Arizona’s 15-3 league record.
That credibility shot up further in the regional semi-finals. Arizona beat #3 seed Ole Miss in San Antonio, taking the game over in the second half and winning 66-56. Defense keyed the win, as Olson’s team held the Rebels to 34 percent shooting from the floor and getting the win even without hitting a single three-point shot.
While UCLA lost to Duke, Stanford and USC both advanced to regional final action and the Pac-10 could dream of pulling a West Coast version of 1985, when the Big East captured three of the four spots in the Final Four.
Arizona had a tough matchup ahead with Illinois, the #1 seed in the Midwest and led by current Kansas coach Bill Self. The game was tight throughout, but the ultimate key was the extraordinary ability of Arizona to get to the foul line. They got 56 free throw attempts to Illinois’ 25.
Granted, Illini fans might see something other than “extraordinary ability” in that numerical disparity, but the numbers that show that Illinois launched 27 treys while Arizona limited itself to 14 and went inside, a style of play that will clearly get you more free throw attempts. Woods dominated defensively, blocking seven shots. Arenas knocked down 21 points and after the 87-81 win was named the regional’s outstanding player.
These awards both in the regional and in the Final Four tend to be about the final game, but if we look at both games in San Antonio, it’s hard to argue against Wood, with his combined 34 points, 16 rebounds and the defensive tour de force in the final, whereas Arenas was a non-factor against Ole Miss. Either way, Olson was going to his fourth Final Four and surely none were more bittersweet.
It would up to the Wildcats to carry the conference’s banner in Minneapolis, as the ACC took out the Pac-10 otherwise, with Duke beating USC and Maryland ousting Stanford. The ACC rivals were scheduled to play in the late semi-final on Saturday, while Arizona played the early game against defending national champion Michigan State.
Arizona-Michigan State was even at halftime, but Olson’s team completely took over the second half, blowing it open right after intermission and winning 80-61. Gardner had 21 points, Jefferson kicked in 17 and Arizona made seven three-pointers to Michigan State’s two. After Duke put on a stunning display against Maryland, turning a 22-point first half deficit into an 11-point win, the table was set for the Monday night showdown between the two teams that had been circling each other since November.
If the perimeter game helped Arizona through on Saturday it was the source of their ultimate demise on Monday. They tried 22 treys and only made four. Gardner just couldn’t find his rhythm, going 0-for-8, while Arenas missed his four shots from behind the arc.
In spite of this, it was a two-point game at the half and it took of all Duke’s considerable firepower to eventually prevail 82-72. Mike Krzyzewski had a loaded team with future NBA players of his own, with Carlos Boozer, Shane Battier—both still playing key roles in the NBA playoffs going on as this article goes online—and Jason Williams, soon to be a top five pick.
There was no shame in coming up short to such a team. The 2001 Arizona basketball team had done its coach proud and gave the fans much to cheer about.