The Arizona Wildcats had been knocking on the door of a national championship for at least ten years, under the building of Lute Olson, one of the great architects in college basketball history when it came to building a program from the ground up.
The Wildcats made the Final Four in 1988 and 1994, but lost in the national semifinals both times. They suffered bitter disappointment in losing as a #1 seed in the 1989 Sweet 16, and then taking first-round upsets in 1992 and 1993.
For Olson, the almost-but-not-quite phenomena went all the way back to his days at Iowa, when he rebuilt the Hawkeye program, took them to the 1980 Final Four, but lost in the national semis.
Arizona didn’t have a great season in 1997. They went 19-9 overall, and their 11-7 record in the Pac-10 left them fifth in their own conference. The Wildcats had some excellent backcourt talent in Mike Bibby and Jason Terry, who would each enjoy distinguished NBA careers, along with Miles Simon, but they weren’t dominant and they were a #4 seed in the Southeast Regional of the 1997 NCAA Tournament.
Maybe not having the pressure of the high seed was exactly what Arizona needed. When they advanced to the Sweet 16 in Birmingham, the pressure was squarely on the shoulders of top-seeded Kansas. The Jayhawks were coached by Roy Williams, led by future NBA star Paul Pierce, and were the heavy favorite to win the national championship.
Pierce looked the part of the likely Hall of Famer he is, scoring 27 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, but Arizona countered with a complete team effort that shocked the nation. They got contributions from people like Michael Dickerson, who scored 20 points, and A.J. Bramlett, who pulled down 13 boards. Arizona pulled the 85-82 upset and the region’s #1 seed was gone. It was just the start of the Wildcats’ giant-killing spree.
One of the giants was not Providence, but it was the 10th-seeded Friars who stood in the way of Lute and another trip to the Final Four. Providence’s best player was God Shammgod, whose name had captured the national media’s imagination for obvious reasons, with the irony of him playing for a Jesuit college not lost on anyone.
He could also play some hoops and scored 23 in the regional final, a game that Providence appeared to have won at least twice. Simon was electric for Arizona, scoring 30 points and the Wildcats won an extraordinary basketball game, going to overtime to take it 96-92. Simon was named the region’s Outstanding Player.
The 1997 Final Four was in Indianapolis, and the top seed in the East awaited Arizona. In what would be the final game for North Carolina legend Dean Smith, the Wildcats ousted the Tar Heels 66-58 as Simon and Bibby combined for 44 points and outplayed UNC’s own future NBA player, Vince Carter.
No team in the history of the NCAA Tournament had ever beaten three # 1 seeds, and if Arizona was going to be the first, the biggest dog was still out there. Kansas might have been the favorite, North Carolina might have had Dean on the sidelines, but Kentucky was the defending national champion.
The NCAA final was a classic and one of just three championship games in the post-John Wooden era to go to overtime (1989 and 2008 being the others). Neither team shot well from the floor, but Arizona consistently got to the line, outscoring Kentucky 34-9 from the charity stripe, as UK launched thirty shots from three-point range.
Simon scored 30 points, Arizona won 84-79, and the incredible March journey was complete. After years of heartache as a high seed, the Wildcats had made history in beating three straight #1 seeds. And everyone in college basketball–including defeated Kentucky coach Rick Pitino in the postgame interview–was happy that Lute Olson finally got to cut down the nets on Monday night.