Even back in 1997 this was a historic matchup between two elite college coaches. Lute Olson was already known as a good coach from his Iowa days, but he created his own ecosystem down in Tucson when he made Arizona perennial contenders. Meanwhile, Roy Williams was entering his ninth season as a head coach, and had taken Kansas to two Final Fours already, and kept the program afloat as a Midwestern juggernaut. Going into this Sweet Sixteen game, the Jayhawks had only lost 1 game out of 35–giving them a deceiving 34-1 record. The Big 12 wasn’t cracking as a basketball conference yet, with a Chauncey Billups led Colorado finishing second in the standings with 4 losses, and a six loss Tom Penders coached UT squad that was in its final run as an exciting upstart team ( Penders would be gone after the following season). Neither coach had won a National title yet (although Roy was an assistant on the ’82 UNC title team), so this had all the makings of a classic with a bit of tension woven into the Sweet Sixteen storyline.
Arizona would go on to win the game 82-79 and at the time, I remember the media pushing this as another Roy WIlliams’ collapse to fit the narrative that his Kansas teams underachieved during the post season. There may be some truth to that, of course history is much kinder to Roy after he won multiple titles over in Chapel Hill. But in the 90’s, it felt like the media enjoyed those post game press conferences of Coach Roy Williams crying into the microphone, lamenting his players’ lost seasons. But after watching this game the other night, it is obvious that not only did Roy not get outcoached by Lute Olson, but maybe perhaps this 34-2 Jayhawk team may have overachieved. Hear me out for a second.
- That Kansas team was not that deep to begin with and had battled injuries the entire year with their star players. Both Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard had missed games throughout the season, and going into the tournament guard Jerod Haase was playing basically one handed. When Scot Pollard got into foul trouble early in the 2nd Half (Probably the only real in game mistake Coach Williams made–leaving Pollard in too long after he picked up third foul–4 fouls with 17:50 remaining), it was obvious the Jayhawks were in for an uphill battle.
- This was the perfect storm for Arizona, a team with a lot of depth in both their back and front lines. Jason Terry, Miles Simon and Mike Bibby had a field day, creating penetration at will, and no one to guard them. Other than Vaughn (who had his own problems guarding Bibby), there was no one to help out on the perimeter defense. Once Vaughn picked up his 4th foul at 9 minutes, the Arizona guards went on attack mode getting bucket after bucket in the paint. Kansas couldn’t get stops during winning time and Bibby, Terry, and Simon took advantage of no Pollard in the paint and foul stricken Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn. No one that Coach Williams brought off the bench could guard anyone in the Wildcats’ backcourt.
- Kansas got outrebounded by Lute Olson’s rotating front line of A.J. Bramlett, Donnell Harris, Michael Dickerson, Eugene Edgerson, Bennett Davison. The Zona guards also got their fair share of rebounds, crashing the glass and somehow catching loose balls and caroms, providing second chance possessions that almost always led to points. The quickness of the Arizona players allowed them to jump the passing lanes (Jason Terry broke the team’s season steal records with 85 thefts) and create turnovers. Kansas had 12 turnovers in the first half alone, some unforced, but Arizona’s pressure defense created a lot of problems for Kansas’ thin backcourt.
- Kansas’ best players had their worst games of the season. Pollard was rendered ineffective with foul trouble and only attempted a handful of shots at most. Raef LaFrentz only got four first half shots and finished below his season average for scoring. Jacque Vaughn played well, but not as well as the team needed him to play. There were many posessions where Vaughn needed to penetrate and create scoring opportunities, but instead gave the ball up early to a perimeter shooter (even during the final possession). Paul Pierce balled out, keeping the team in the game with timely shots, blocks, and steals. He even created two turnovers during the final stretch of the game when Kansas was down by 10 and clawed their way back to within 1 point.
- Bringing me to my next point: Kansas could’ve laid dwn after going down by 10 with 2 minutes to go, but they kept fighting and gave themselves a chance to go into overtime with the final possession. Role players like Billy Thomas and Ryan Roberson hit timely 3 pointers to trim down that big Arizona lead, and had it not been for a blown (wide open) layup by B.J. Williams, and a missed alley-oop by LaFrentz, history might look at this Jayhawks post season run differently.
Kansas really just ran into the perfect storm with a deep and well coached (Olson coached the perfect game and arguably a perfect tournament run) young Arizona team. On paper, it may look like an upset, but Arizona beat 3 #1 seeds to win that tournament–led by a Freshman point guard in Mike Bibby. Providence proved to have been seeded too low with the legendary God Shammgod and a veteran front line of future professional NBA players. Carolina had Vinsanity and Antawn Jamison and Ed Cota. Kentucky was coming off a championship season and had only lost a couple players from their title team. This is one of the best NCAA tournaments of all time and it could’ve gone either way. Even if Kansas had beaten Zona, the road to a title was not a cakewalk by any means.
This game featured a lot of future professional players. With Bibby, Pierce, and Terry (future teammates for a spell in Boston and Brooklyn) making respective their marks in the NBA. Vaughn, Pollard and LaFrentz would take journeymen roles and Michael DIckerson made a little noise in his brief NBA career. Simon, Bramlett, Robertson, and Thomas would have a cup of coffe and catch some balls in the league for a spell as well. This Sweet Sixteen game stands the test of time and is one of the Good Ass Games of Good Ass Games for many reasons. It is worth investing the 1 hour and 20 minutes it will take to watch it. But don’t take my word for it; click on the link and find out for yourself.