Sometimes the favorites do win

Arizona's 1997 national title run is among the lore that makes the Big Dance the greatest event in sports. When Cinderella actually claims the trophy prince after the music has stopped, it's the stuff of which dreams are made. However, this UA team has a better chance of standing at the end.

It's simple math really. Sure, the NCAA tournament is filled with early-round upsets. Personally, after the first weekend of play, I'm often somewhat disenfranchised because then it's a battle of behemoths. The Cinderellas have generally called it a night. As a result, unless the team with which we have invested time makes a fabulous run, we tend to forget the squads who cut down the nets at the end, only to remember those feats by virtue of the record books.

But we don't forget North Carolina State in 1983. We don't forget Villanova in 1985. Kansas in 1988. Or Arizona in 1997. And it's simple, because usually when the smoke clears, one of the teams considered to have a shot at winning the NCAA title actually does.

Arizona's run was really the last of the Cinderellas. Since then, high-seeded teams have prevailed. The closest one could come to a major upset was UConn's victory over prohibitive tournament favorite Duke in 1999.

Fortunately for Arizona, it has many of the same ingredients that propelled most of the recent champs to their designated goal.

Take 1999, for instance. Savvy guard Khalid El-Amin anchored a team that also featured star forward Rick Hamilton and inside presence Jake Voskuhl. Mateen Cleaves overcame a couple close-but-not-quite tries and finally helped Michigan State get over the hump with a comfortable win against upstart Florida in 2000.

The national player of the year, Shane Battier, was instrumental in Duke's win over Arizona in 2001, a game where current Wildcat point guard Jason Gardner was the starter, and where Luke Walton struggled with a injury.

Last season, Juan Dixon guided a veteran Maryland team to the big prize.

There's no telling how this tournament will shake down, but if things play to recent form Arizona has an opportunity to hang banner No. 2.

First, there's the senior factor. Gardner and Walton have played on the big stage, and know what it feels like to get oh so close. Michigan State and Maryland went through very growing situations. The Spartans advanced to the Final Four in 1999 before claiming the title the next year. The Terrapins were in the Final Four in 2000.

That said, it's a formula that could also conceivably benefit Kansas and Oklahoma, both of which lost in the Final Four last season. Both of which have memories, like Arizona, of tasting greatness only to have it turn sour.

If the desire to achieve is greater among those who understand the rigors only to be denied at the end, then the Wildcats could have added incentive to celebrate in April. Arizona is already the most talented team in the land; extra motivation is the last thing the opposition wants from the UA.

And if that motivation carries Arizona the distance, it won't have the magic of the first time, but title No. 2 will still taste sweet.

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