Editor's Note: This article was originally published in April. On Wednesday, Arizona announced that Simon will have his jersey recognized in the McKale Center. The official jersey recognition will take place during a ceremony at the McDonald’s Red-Blue Game on Friday, Oct. 14. In honor of that ceremony, we have decided to republish the following article.
It’s easy to imagine the national sports media’s mounting skepticism at the 7:30 mark of the second half of Arizona’s 1997 first-round NCAA tournament matchup against South Alabama.
Down by 10, No. 4 seed Arizona faced the very real possibility of losing to a double-digit seed for the fourth time in six years.
For a program lacking a national championship, the narrative for underachieving when it mattered most was creeping dangerously close to the inner fabric of this proud program.
A key contributor for the Wildcats as a freshman and sophomore, shooting guard Miles Simon was one of the most intense alpha male competitors in program history.
Ruled academically ineligible for the first semester of his junior season, Simon posted solid scoring numbers upon his return, but the team nonetheless struggled, finishing in a tie for fifth place in the Pac-10 Conference.
Yet, with everything on the line against South Alabama, Simon lived at the free throw line, outscoring the entire South Alabama team in the closing minutes of a 65-57 Wildcat victory.
The next five contests witnessed a historic run where UA knocked off three No. 1 seeds while Simon outlasted the likes of Paul Pierce, Vince Carter and Ron Mercer.
To be fair, it was far from just Simon. Mike Bibby connected on an untold number of huge buckets while Jason Terry played a jack-of-all-trades role, handling the ball, converting big shots and employing his trademark pesky defense.
The big man quartet of AJ Bramlett, Bennett Davison, Donnell Harris and Eugene Edgerson outperformed expectations as well.
But with leading scorer Michael Dickerson mired in a career worst slump from the Elite Eight on, it was Simon who picked up the slack to the tune of 28 points per outing during that three-game stretch.
Simon scored his points not by skying over defenders or with slick crossover moves, but off pump fakes, up and unders or merely contorting his body off the dribble in such a way that enabled him to get a step on his defender.
This “old man-type game” resulted in Simon shooting 38 free throws in the last three tournament games, including 17 in the national title game.
It was only proper that Simon collapsed to the ground with the ball in his hands when the buzzer sounded on Arizona’s 84-79 overtime win over Kentucky in the National Championship game.
There was also no debate as to who would be named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Far from a six-game wonder, Simon returned stronger the following season. Where the 1997-98 team is mostly remembered for the Elite Eight destruction courtesy of the triangle and two defense deployed by the Utah Utes, the Wildcats still finished 30-5 (17-1 in conference) while earning a No. 1 seed in the process.
Simon averaged 17 points and 5 assists, and was selected first-team AP All American, an honor that only four other UA players (Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, Bibby and Terry) have garnered. With the exception of Elliott, Simon is the second most decorated Arizona Wildcat of all time.
In the 18 years since Simon hung up his UA jersey, a number of all-time UA greats have had their jersey retired.
Miles Simon is not one of them.
Policy instituted in the late 90s states that for an Arizona basketball player to have their jersey retired, the player in question must win a National Player of the Year award of some sort.
Evidently, a Final Four MOP doesn’t count as a Player of the Year award under these curiously confined parameters.
Yet, a most inspirational player of the year (Steve Kerr) or Frances Pomeroy award winner for the best player six-feet or shorter (Jason Gardner), or the now niche media entity (Basketball Times) National Freshman of the Year for Bibby qualifies.
The instituted criterion appears tight and unnecessary. At universities like Duke, it is preferred that a player is honored with a legitimate Player of the Year award before seeing their jersey retired, but that criteria isn’t required.
Basically, the mantra at Duke and many other universities is this: You know the deserving players when you see them.
It’s understandable that less than two years after being declared academically ineligible, and on the heels of a messy 1998 lawsuit filed against the university, the athletic department wasn’t pleased with Simon.
But since someone connected to UA orchestrated the unprecedented move of releasing Simon’s transcripts to the Kansas City Star, it’s difficult to place blame on Simon for the ensuing mess.
Now, it is a new day at UA with a different athletic department and athletic director.
The irony of Simon’s academic trials is that instead of pouncing at an NBA opportunity after his junior season --where he would be selected was up for debate, but he was destined to be a first-round pick-- he returned for his senior season with a focus on winning the university its second basketball national championship.
And sure, Simon believed another year at UA would improve his NBA stock, though he would be mistake.
Before the magical 1997 run, Simon was one of the more precocious players of the Olson era, but hardly a legend.
Those six games in the NCAA Tournament forever altered the equation. If Elliott put Arizona on the map as a high caliber basketball entity, Simon shot through the last barrier facing the program.
Certainly, Simon was blessed to play with three of the best perimeter players in UA history, but there has only been one Wildcat continuously entrusted to get crunch time baskets for an eventual national champion.
Winning a National Player of the Year award is fine for a loose guideline to jersey retirement, but it shouldn’t be the only factor at stake.
There’s already plenty of precedent to tweak the guidelines. The UA worked through back channels to allow Terry to receive his deserved honor in 2015, despite Terry admitting to taking money from an agent. Part of his agreement initially stated he could not have his jersey retired.
In an odd way, Simon is his own special legacy, a glaring omission likely due to politics.
With the 20th anniversary of UA’s national title season upcoming, now seems an ideal time to celebrate that accomplishment with the appropriate gesture from the athletic department.
Until that happens, the absence of Simon’s No. 34 jersey looking down on Lute and Bobbi Olson Court diminishes the credibility of the entire jersey retirement process.