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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Arizona basketball makes history, Wildcats defeat three No. 1 seeds en route to 1997 title

The Daily Wildcat
Copy of the spors cover for the Arizona Daily Wildcat on Monday, March 21, 1997.

Editors note: The 1997 National Championship team will be in attendance at the Red-Blue Game in McKale Center on Friday for the 20th anniversary celebration of Arizona basketball’s lone title.

Three No. 1 seeds. That is the most a team can face in a single NCAA basketball tournament, and Arizona was faced with that very obstacle in 1997. The Arizona Wildcats faced No. 1 Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, No. 1 North Carolina in the Final Four and No. 1 Kentucky in the National Championship.

This task would normally be too much for teams to handle, but not for the ‘97 ‘Cats. They were unfazed by college basketball royalty, instead cementing their own place among the blue bloods of NCAA hoops.

The Wildcats faced NBA prospects Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Ron Mercer. All with high national praise, all with more notoriety and all expected to be first-round NBA draft selections. That mattered very little to a team that boasted its own NBA prospects and NCAA legends in Miles Simon, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Michael Dickerson and A.J. Bramlett, all of whom were drafted in the NBA and were all underestimated heading into the 1997 Sweet Sixteen.

No other team in NCAA history has beaten three No. 1 seeds in a single tournament. No one. Ever.

Related: Arizona knocks off No. 1 Kansas in Sweet Sixteen–1997

Quite a feat for a team that was trying to find its identity halfway through that same year. Simon was academically ineligible until the second half of the season, and the Wildcats had to maneuver to find the right chemistry. Everything happens for a reason, as the old saying goes, and Arizona proved just that—gelling at the perfect time for a championship run.

Simply saying the Wildcats beat three No. 1 seeds doesn’t do the Herculean feat justice. They beat the three winningest basketball programs in NCAA history. Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina are the crème de la crème of the college basketball world and have been for a very long time—each school rich in basketball tradition and royalty. Antoine Walker and Adolph Rupp from Kentucky, Wilt Chamberlain and James Naismith from Kansas and of course Michael Jordan and Dean Smith from North Carolina. All part of legacies that were thwarted by a program desperate to belong among the elite.

Each team posed a different threat, proving the 1997 Arizona team to be not only the most talented, but the most versatile in program history.

Related: Michael Dickerson: The forgotten man on 1997 Championship team

Kansas came with a stifling brand of zone defense and transition offense. Arizona countered with great shooters and even better transition defense. Bye Jayhawks.

North Carolina was fierce and athletic with tremendous high fliers like Vince Carter and All-American post player Antawn Jamison. Arizona was even better, able to dictate the tempo after falling behind early, and neutralizing Jamison with Bramlett and Bennett Davison. The Wildcats were better at guard than anyone had given them credit for, and Bibby had his coming out party. Bye Tar Heels.

Kentucky was a full court press juggernaut under head coach Rick Pitino. They had outside shooting and playmakers at every position and were led by Ron Mercer, consensus first team All-American and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Arizona neutralized his impact and forced everyone else to beat them. The Wildcats also had the perfect remedy for Pitino’s press: guard depth. With Simon, Bibby, Dickerson and Terry at the helm, Kentucky couldn’t cause enough chaos to rattle the ‘Cats and subsequently lost the title. Bye other Wildcats.

In short, the 1997 Arizona Wildcats did the impossible—the reason this team and its program are so revered 20 years later.

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.

Video Courtesy of NCAA on demand via Youtube.

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