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April 2, 2012
The NCAA tournament has produced a myriad of stars and moments over the years, and tonight the players on Kentucky and Kansas will have the opportunity to create a few more.
But 15 years ago, a 21-year-old Miles Simon had the March Madness spotlight shining on Arizona.
The lasting image of the all-Wildcats national championship game March 31, 1997 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis? The 6-3 guard collapsing over the ball as the final seconds ticked off the clock, and later a photo of the smiling Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four clutching the ball in both hands under his chin.
But it wasn't just any national championship, or a tournament run that people have forgotten over the years.
For the program, it was the first and only national championship.
In the history of college basketball, it was the first time a team defeated three No. 1 seeds en route to the title. The Wildcats, seeded fourth in the Southeast Region, knocked off top-seeded Kansas in the Sweet 16, North Carolina in the national semifinals and then Kentucky.
Talk about basketball royalty.
"Yeah, first and only time to ever do it," Simon, now 36, told GOAZCATS.com Sunday night from New Orleans, La., the site of this year's Final Four.
But the competition within the Pac-10 Conference during the regular season was tough, he added. Four teams - Arizona, California, Stanford and UCLA - ended up in the Sweet 16, and the Bruins and Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight that season.
"You've got to remember, the Pac-10 was really strong then," recalled Simon, whose Wildcats entered the field of 64 with a 19-9 record and 11-7 mark in conference play.
Once the tournament started, so did Simon's heroics.
In the opening round, the Wildcats erased a 10-point deficit with 7 1/2 minutes to play, defeating 13th-seeded South Alabama, 65-57, thanks to a 17-0 run highlighted by nine points from Simon.
Awaiting Arizona in the second round was another double-digit, second-half hole - this time against the College of Charleston. But Simon rose to the occasion once more with three baskets as part of a 15-5 spurt to propel the Wildcats to a 73-69 win.
"I'm a guy who loves the big stage and playing in the big moments," Simon said. "The bigger the game, the more I felt I needed to play well, that I would play well."
With two scares, you could say that Arizona's magical run nearly ended before facing its first No. 1 seed, Kansas.
So, a meeting with a Jayhawks team that entered the Sweet 16 as the tournament favorites with a 34-1 record - and featured future NBA players Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard, Jacque Vaughn and Billy Thomas - would only make the likelihood of victory that much tougher.
"We had to go through Kansas, who had been the best team in the country throughout the regular season," Simon said.
But despite a game-high 27 points from Pierce, the 10 1/2-point underdogs prevailed, 85-82.
A 96-92 overtime win over Providence later, and Arizona was in the Final Four - two wins away from the title.
"Never a doubt in our team's mind that we could win it all," Simon said without hesitation. "We were believers. We knew we had put in the hard work during the offseason and during the season, and that our talent level was something that was going to be very hard for other teams to deal with."
And the Wildcats' roster was far from just the Miles Simon Show.
For starters, there was a freshman whose big-game reputation started in that 1997 NCAA tournament.
Against Kansas, point guard Mike Bibby paced Arizona with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting and five assists.
"He was someone that was born for those situations as a high-level player in high school, and then on into college and obviously he's had a long NBA career," Simon said of Bibby. "He was just ready. He was born to make big shots and make big plays and come through in the clutch."
Two more future NBA guards, Michael Dickerson and reserve Jason Terry, surrounded Simon. In the paint was 6-10 center A.J. Bramlett.
Also on the team was walk-on freshman Josh Pastner, who would later join head coach Lute Olson's staff as an assistant and is now the head coach at Memphis. On the night of the national championship game, however, he may best be remembered for shouting, "We're number one!" into the TV camera.
"A super-talented group," said Simon, who added that most of the roster still has a "good connection" to this day.
The crowd for tonight's championship game at the Superdome will look like a giant wave of blue.
And it was two different shades of blue from a pair of "blueblood programs" that Simon said he remembers most about the atmosphere 15 years ago at the Final Four.
"A lot of blue in the stands," he said. "Because of Kentucky and it being so close to Indiana, and Carolina in the semifinals.
"But I know our Arizona contingent of fans came out strong and were just as loud as anybody."
The Simon-Bibby tandem combined for 44 points to lead the Wildcats to a 66-58 win over North Carolina's high-flying Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.
Suddenly, one more victory meant more than just the crowning of another national champion. Arizona had a chance to make the type of history that no other program could claim.
But there was no time for Simon and the 'Cats to stop and think about a brewing special achievement.
"As a player, when you're 19, 20, 21, 18 you're just focusing on the games and you don't know about three No. 1 seeds and history like that," Simon said. "You're focusing on just winning the title and knocking off the opponent that's in front of you."
The last hurdle was no pushover.
Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino had his star-studded Wildcats seeking back-to-back national championships.
"A lot of those guys had won the title the year before," Simon said. "They had Ron Mercer, Scott Padgett, Jamaal Magloire, Nazr Mohammed, Wayne Turner. So they had pros on their team."
But like his demeanor at the free-throw line later that night, Simon said he most remembers "just being relaxed" and "totally dialed in" hours before tipoff.
"A few butterflies, but that's normal before a game," Simon continued. "But then once the ball goes up, that kind of goes away."
As for his teammates?
Terry's superstitions came to light in the tournament. The quirky guard slept in his uniform the night before the showdown.
Bibby, whose 19 points in the championship game was second only to Simon's career-high 30, was not rattled.
"The saying is 'ice water in your veins,' and Mike Bibby brought it - in both the semis and the finals," Simon said.
And it was a fearless approach that helped offset Pitino's pressure defense, as Arizona took a 33-32 halftime lead into the locker room.
It was more of the same in the second half, as Simon scored on a series of floaters and trips to the foul line. By the end of the night, Simon shot as many free throws (17) as the entire Kentucky team.
Defensively, the combination of Simon, Dickerson and Terry hounded Mercer - who made 5 of 9 shots and finished with 13 points and six assists, but eventually fouled out. Before doing so, however, Mercer and Anthony Epps drilled huge 3-pointers inside the final 51 seconds of regulation to erase a four-point deficit and force overtime.
Undeterred, Simon said his only thought going into the extra five-minute session was: "Just win."
"We kind of gave it away maybe in regulation," Simon said. "Just still felt that the game was ours."
In overtime, the message in the huddle was simple. Simon said Olson was not preaching X's and O's or drawing up any masterful plays.
Instead, Simon said, the Hall of Fame coach stressed that "the toughest team was gonna win."
"That was it. That was his statement, the toughest team was gonna win," Simon said.
It was at the free-throw line where Arizona displayed its mental toughness. Four different players - Donnell Harris, Bennett Davison, Terry and Simon - connected on 10 of 14 free throws in overtime for the Wildcats, who missed all four of their field goal attempts.
With a four-point lead and 41 seconds to play, Simon calmly knocked down the final four free throws.
"I felt pretty relaxed at the line," said Simon, who made 14 of 17 from the line. "I was the type of player that - win or lose - I want to be the guy with the ball in my hands and be the decision-maker."
All that was left was for the final 6.4 seconds to run off the clock. Fittingly, the inbounds pass went to Simon, Kentucky elected not to foul and the guard dropped to his knees over the ball as the horn sounded.
Final score in overtime: Arizona 84, Kentucky 79.
CBS analyst Billy Packer said it all: "Simon says championship."
"Ultimate dream come true," Simon said. "I had gone to Final Fours as a kid, probably six or seven, from middle school all the way through high school. It was just an unbelievable feeling. Probably words really can't describe the emotions and the happiness and the exhilaration that everybody felt.
"Just a total, tremendous team accomplishment. A totally focused group and a team that just came together at the right time. Glad we were able to win it for Tucson, for Arizona, for Lute Olson and for my teammates."
Simon, now a college basketball analyst for ESPN, still has people come up to him and say they remember the 1997 Arizona Wildcats. Even as someone who prefers to stay "more in the background," Simon said the words from fans can't help but "always make you feel good."
With his broadcasting duties, Simon gets assigned to call an Arizona game every now and then. This season, he provided the color commentary for the Wildcats' opener against Valparaiso and the NIT loss to Bucknell.
Both times, those in charge of the videoboard above the floor at McKale Center have cut to a shot of Simon courtside with the headset on. He waved both times out of respect, but Simon said he did not actually notice the volume of the rousing ovation.
On that same videoboard just before player introductions, clips of some of the most memorable moments and players in the history of the program are put on display.
Of course, there's a shot of Simon clutching that basketball under his chin with that wide grin on his face.
"I think I have a newspaper clipping somewhere," Simon said with a laugh. "I don't know if I have a photo of it. I don't think I do, as a matter of fact.
"But it's just kind of an indelible, unforgettable moment."
He still has his game shoes and box score from the game. And that's all he needs. The broadcast of the game itself is something that Simon said he would "never sit down and watch."
"I just let the great memories live in my head," Simon said.
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor
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