Arizona fans are understandably melancholy these days. After all, this year’s Arizona squad entered the 2022 NCAA Tournament among the favorites to win it all, a definitive #1 seed that carried a 28-3 mark and high hopes into March Madness. In the Sweet Sixteen, though, the Cats never led during a 72-60 loss to Houston. It’s now 21 years and counting since the program’s last Final Four appearance.
But take solace, Zona fans. You’ll always have 1997.
Jump back 25 years and an Arizona squad led by Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, and Jason Terry penned one of the most memorable stories in NCAA Tournament history – a journey that included knocking off three blue-blooded #1 seeds and their Hall of Fame coaches, toppling two superstars who would complete their basketball careers near the top of the NBA’s all-time scoring list, and draining the defending national champs to claim Arizona’s first – and still only – national title.
Marching into March
A top 20 team to start the 1996-1997 season, Arizona finished the regular season 19-9 and fifth in the Pac-10 with an 11-7 conference mark, splitting their final eight games.
In the NCAA Tournament, Arizona settled in as a #4 seed behind Kansas, Duke, and Georgia and stood eager to erase a checkered tourney history. While Arizona boasted a Final Four appearance and one Sweet Sixteen run in its previous five March trips, it also had three first-round exits, including losses to a #14 seed (East Tennessee State, 1992) and a #15 seed (Steve Nash and Santa Clara, 1993). The Cats seemed jinxed.
“Before the Wildcats contend with another first-round opponent, they first must compete with ghosts of the past. What other college basketball team is so cursed? So ridiculed?” Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen wrote before the start of 1997’s Big Dance.
The Wildcats opened the NCAA Tournament in Memphis against South Alabama, an upset-minded 23-6 group guided by former NBA coach Bill Musselman. Arizona needed a late 17-0 run to overcome a 10-point deficit, outlasting South Alabama 65-57 and avoiding another early March exit.
“The thought going through my mind was I didn’t want to go home,” Simon said.
In the second round, Arizona faced 29-2 College of Charleston, a sexy Sweet Sixteen pick that had dispatched #5 Maryland in the first round and seemed poised to kill a second giant in Arizona. Once again, the Cats flirted with failure, falling behind by double digits in the second half before Bibby scored 13 points in the final 7:16 to lift Arizona to a 73-69 win.
“This is a competitive group of guys, and they’re not going quit,” Olson beamed of his team.
Final Four bound
The victory over Charleston set up a date with #1 Kansas, a 34-1 squad with six future NBA pros, including Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce. The mighty Jayhawks, the overwhelming pick to win the title, entered the game against Arizona a 10.5-point favorite. Many doubted Arizona’s ability to survive and advance.
“You watch television, read the newspapers, no one had us going anywhere,” Simon said. “But what happened in the past with the University of Arizona has nothing to do with this team.''
When a flurry of game-tying three-point attempts from Kansas in the closing seconds all failed to connect, Arizona celebrated an 85-82 win and a trip to the Elite Eight. CBS announcer Jim Nantz heralded the Wildcats’ victory as “the biggest upset of the tournament.”
“Kansas that year, they were the best team in America. There was no question they were the best team, but they got us on that Friday night in Birmingham, and we were really good that night,” then-Arizona freshman (and current Georgia Tech coach) Josh Pastner recalled.
With a spot in the Final Four on the line, Arizona faced a Providence squad led by the nifty handles of God Shammgod and the inside-outside game of Austin Croshere. In a high-flying, back-and-forth affair, Arizona escaped with a thrilling 96-92 overtime win.
And the Wildcats were hungry for more. “I’ll guarantee you one thing: This team is not going to be satisfied just to be [at the Final Four],” Olson promised.
Completing the journey
At the Final Four in Indianapolis, Arizona was the only squad without a #1 beside its name.
While Kentucky matched up against Minnesota on the one side of the bracket, Arizona faced a 28-6 North Carolina squad headlined by Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. Bibby and Simon scored a combined 44 points in leading the Wildcats to a 66-58 triumph over the Heels, one that concluded the career of legendary UNC coach Dean Smith.
“As many Final Fours as [North Carolina has] been to and as many times as you’ve seen them playing on TV in the championship, all the good players that have come through, I’m just glad it’s Arizona's time now,” Simon said.
In the title game, head coach Lute Olson’s squad stared down another #1 seed – and another one of college basketball’s bluebloods. Defending national champion Kentucky strut into the national championship game tilt a confident squad and a 7-point favorite. For its part, Arizona had learned to embrace the underdog role and found motivation in the naysayers.
“The first thing I look at is how much we’re going to lose by,” freshman forward Eugene Edgerson said. “Nobody at all picked us, but it just motivates us to play better.”
In front of a largely blue-clad Kentucky crowd at the RCA Dome, Arizona and Kentucky traded big shot after big shot, ending regulation deadlocked at 74. Though the Wildcats didn’t make a single field goal in the extra session, they drained 10 free throws in overtime to clinch an 84-79 win and the program’s first national title.
The Wildcats celebrated and rattled Olson’s coiffed hair while Nantz delivered a one-liner for the ages: “Simon says, ‘Championship,” a nod to Simon’s 30-point outing.
“I still have difficulty believing this happened,” Olson said. “It’s kind of like a dream.”
And after the Wildcats and their fans endured a long history of March Madness nightmares, they needed this kind of dream.