Prior to Arizona's national title, the UA under Lute Olson and Kansas under Williams were nationally viewed as tournament softies. When the chips were down, the perception was both programs would fold. And for awhile, they lived up to the billing. That is, until the UA went on its magical run. But to do so, it had to topple Kansas, the best team in the country. But had Arizona not won the title that year, the victory against Kansas would have been considered an afterthought, as opposed to the place it holds now as one of the truly great triumphs in UA basketball history.
Olson and Williams are great coaches. That's beyond argument. But without a national banner, the multitude of accomplishments is somewhat dampened. The run in 97 helped Arizona shed that tag, and ultimately allowed the program to run among the nation's elite, an accomplishment illustrated by its national, not just regional, success in recruiting circles.
At Kansas, Williams has been as maligned as Olson. He's that lovable, emotional, home-spun guy who can't get his troops motivated enough to go the distance. At least that's the ridiculous label. The reality is that under Williams, Kansas, like Arizona, is one of the nation's top programs. He just hasn't gotten the breaks in the heartless atmosphere that is the NCAA tournament.
Prior to the UA's victory over Kansas in 97, Arizona had beaten just one higher seed in its tournament history under Olson. That was West No. 1 Missouri in 1994. Under Williams, Kansas has been exactly the same way. But in 03, it finally pulled the stunner. KU showed heart and fought off two furious rallies from an opponent with superior talent and gutted out a three-point win (the third three-point decision in three tournament encounters between the two teams) to advance to the fifth Final Four in the Williams era, thus denying Olson his fifth Arizona Final Four in the process.
But Williams is in the same position Olson was six seasons ago. Again, had Arizona not beaten Providence, North Carolina and Kentucky, the Kansas game would have held less meaning, and folks would still be referring to the UA coach as the guy who couldn't win the big one. If Kansas wins the national title, it will look back at the Arizona game as perhaps the most important victory in the Williams era. If it loses, well Williams couldn't get it done.
Kansas has big work ahead, but its ability to reverse the tables opens the door for finally grasping the elusive jewel. Perhaps this is Kansas' year of destiny. If so, it's fitting that Arizona was keenly involved.
It's hard to think of a person off the court more influential to bringing the national spotlight to Arizona than Bill Walton. A fixture at many Wildcat games, Walton has been nothing short of remarkably amicable in light of his adoption by Arizona fans as a sort of surrogate resident. When in attendance, Walton seemed to spend as much time signing autographs and posing for photos as watching his son in action. I don't think he ever turned anybody down.
During the sub-regional in Salt Lake City my friend escorted his two boys down to Walton's location. And like a trooper, the big redhead signed both autographs. Conversely, the boys also approached John Stockton, in attendance watching his alma mater Gonzaga. Stockton refused to put ink to paper. On that basis alone, Arizona is cooler than Gonzaga.
Arizona basketball has made a lifelong friend in Bill Walton, and even though we won't see him in attendance nearly as often, his presence will be felt for many years to come.
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