Originally created 04/01/97

Something clicks in Arizona's variety of Wildcats



INDIANAPOLIS - Yeah, college basketball is in real trouble all right.

Yeah, we hear what you're saying, all those high school kids going straight to the NBA has sucked the talent pool dry, has diminished the quality of the product.

The game will never be the same. The luster is long gone. Pretty soon ESPN will go back to televising rodeo from Mesquite, Texas. And 9-ball tournaments from Reno. In prime time.

It's obvious, isn't it?

Just look at what we were forced to endure Monday night at the RCA Dome.

With a national championship on the line, we got stuck with Kentucky and Arizona.

No Kansas. No North Carolina. No Utah.

No Stephon Marbury or Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant. No Rasheed Wallace or Antoine Walker or Ray Allen.

Woe was us.

With 47,000 fannies in the seats - some of them actually closer than Valparaiso - two teams did their best to entertain.

And you know what? They weren't half bad.

There was Wayne Turner, the Kentucky point guard, rising up, up, up to block the shot of Bennett Davison, a power forward.

There was Ron Mercer, Kentucky's splendid forward, tossing up this impossible double-clutch, over-the-shoulder shot ... and getting it to bank in off the glass.

There was Miles Simon, navigating smoothly through the teeth of Kentucky's defense and tossing in sweet little runners.

There was Mike Bibby, too cool to really be a freshman, tossing in clutch 3-pointers and breath-stealing free throws with the game on the line.

There was Mercer again, with his team down four in the final minute of regulation, taking - and making - a huge 3-pointer that kept hope alive.

There was Bibby again, expressionless, breaking down the Kentucky defense and dishing off to Davison for a layup with 18.6 seconds left.

There was Anthony Epps, the high school football star who walked on at Kentucky, knocking down the biggest shot of his life, a 3-pointer that tied the game with 12.1 seconds left in regulation.

There were two impassioned teams playing feverishly, admirably and into overtime in an NCAA final for the first time since 1989. It was just the sixth time ever than an NCAA title was decided in overtime.

In the end Arizona prevailed, 84-79.

Watching them now it's incredible to think they lost nine times this year. Maybe they just bloomed late. Maybe the Pac-10 was far better than we realized. Maybe it takes a team without any seniors in its nine-player rotation that long to work out the kinks.

Whatever, Arizona finally did it.

For 14 years Lute Olson has toiled in the desert, amid the cacti and the iguanas. He built a program practically from scratch, nursed it to the Final Four in Year Five, then watched in horror as his clubs kept flopping in the NCAA Tournament.

Three times in four years, the Wildcats went home after just one round.

East Tennessee State sent them home in 1992.

Santa Clara sent them home in 1993.

Miami of Ohio sent them home in 1995.

It nearly happened again this year. Crazy Bill Musselman and his South Alabama bunch had Arizona down 10 with seven minutes to play 2« weeks ago. Arizona easily could have folded, could have pointed with promise to next season instead.

Something clicked. Something made them claw back. Something made them win.

They didn't stop winning until they extricated their coach from a king-size hook.

We don't have Lute Olson to kick around anymore.

Nobody can call this a fluke. Nobody can say Arizona backed into this thing.

To be the best you're supposed to beat the best. Arizona beat three No. 1 seeds in this NCAA Tournament. The only one they missed was Minnesota.

Yeah, college basketball is in real trouble all right. After this, we hear they may not even bother to play next year's tournament.