To borrow a cliché, there was a buzz in the air. In a place that saw Naismith coach, Chamberlain play and gave Dean Smith his start, you might expect the fans to be a bit jaded. When the inventor of the sport is the only losing coach in your school's history, you could understand if the fans would not get overly excited. But that was not the case at all. Quite the opposite actually. There was a hype for the game in Tucson, in Kansas it was hysteria.
I had to fly into Kansas City and wasn't off the plane five minutes before the talk started. My brother was proudly displaying an Arizona ball cap and within seconds someone walked by and said, "should be a good one."
The talk continued. Family members from the area said that the game had been a major topic of conversation for days. The checkout guy at the supermarket would discuss it with anyone who stood in line long enough to listen. An uncle and KU grad kept prying for details about Arizona's team, almost as if he was trying to gather info to relay back to Roy Williams.
The hype was getting infectious. By Saturday morning I was feeling the nervous energy usually associated with a first date or job interview. I was excited to go to Allen Fieldhouse. I was excited about No. 1 vs. No. 6. I wanted to see how good these fans really were, how good this place was for a college basketball game. I expected a great scene for college basketball, but I quickly found out that I really had no idea.
I was in Allen Fieldhouse an hour before the game. The media room was packed. Many familiar names in journalism were present. ESPN's Andy Katz and Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick were there, as was Frank Burlison of FoxSports.com. Writers from the New York Daily News, USA Today and Sports Illustrated mingled and worked.
Space was limited, so I decided to enter the arena and find a seat. I walked through the same entrance the Jayhawks would use ten minutes later, and as soon as I hit the floor I could feel the buzz. With over 7,000 students in their seats, the electricity and emotion was apparent.
The hype for the game had been building for days. While fans in Tucson were still wondering if ASU was for real, Kansas fans licked their chops for a shot at knocking off No. 1. For many the loss at Colorado meant that the Jayhawks were preparing more for Arizona. By overlooking the Buffs, the Jayhawks would be ready for Arizona.
The pregame shows were unusual in their tone. I filled the 45-minute drive from Kansas City to Lawrence with a Kansas sports talk station. The broadcast was essentially a tribute to Lute Olson and Roy Williams. Neither broadcaster had an ill word for either program. No mention of Arizona's slow starts or Kansas' thin bench. The only negative mentioned was Jason Gardner's decision to test the pro waters two years ago.
Both broadcasters picked the Jayhawks to win, and then sounded apologetic for doing so. It was almost as if they were talking themselves into believing Kansas could win. They also pleaded for the Jayhawk fans to be loud. They asked older alumni to have the same energy that the students do.
Allen Fieldhouse is Amazing. It looks and feels historic. It isn't a new arena. It somehow holds 16,000, but is a one level structure that gradually climbs to the rafters. They actually added 100 seats for the game in a corner near the roof. When the newly retired jersey of Paul Pierce was unfurled at halftime, the 100 Arizona fans crammed into the corner could nearly touch it.
The arena reeks of history. It IS college basketball. Just looking at the jerseys in the rafters was amazing. The arena, though in great shape, looks old, but feels like college basketball should.
The arena was completely full 20 minutes before game time, and was ¾ full an hour before the game, with only a handful of reserved seats still open. They allowed extra students into the game and equipped them with thundersticks. The sight of 3,000 blue-clad students beating the inflatable noisemakers together in unison was incredible. The din generated by the students behind each basket was as intimidating as it was exciting.
Of course if 16,000 screaming Jayhawk fans were supposed to be intimidating, someone forgot to inform Jason Gardner. Gardner's expression didn't change the whole game. From the minute he stepped on the floor until the final buzzer, the Arizona senior was a stone-faced assassin. Only once, with Arizona down 20, did I see him grimace, as much from exhaustion as frustration. The Wildcat leader logged 40 minutes and keyed the comeback.
The crowd whipped themselves into a frenzy. When KU took the early 5-4 lead, they went bezerk. They cheered their players and jeered the refs. When Williams screamed for a travel call, they screamed for a travel call. When Roy was upset, they were upset. They heckled Olson and chanted "Walton sucks". Even obvious calls against Kansas incited their wrath.
By the middle of the first half the energy was simply amazing. You could literally feel it, like a weight hovering over you. The collective felt they were back. Kansas was the preseason No.1 team, not a club with four losses. They were pummeling No.1. Even as the Cats whittled lead, they were still pumped. Only after Gardner hit two free throws seconds before half time did you feel their confidence wane.
I was a little late getting back into the arena. It took me a minute and a half into the second half to find my seat and the energy was lacking. When Walton hit the three to take the lead you could feel the electricity leave the building as if Olson and the Cats opened the door that was holding it all in.
After trailing by ten the Jayhawks cut the lead to four on a number of occasions. The crowd was loud, but the confidence was lacking. They were still optimistic, but they could see that Keith Langford's legs were tired and that Kirk Hinirch's shot was off. They could see that Jeff Graves was in foul trouble and they felt that Aaron Miles lacked confidence.
Most of all you could see that Salim Stoudamire has the same ice water in his veins that Gardner does. He has the same scowl, the same fight and the same ability to hit the big shot. At one point he was so exhausted that he could hardly stand in the huddle, but waved Hassan Adams away when the freshman checked to see if he needed a blow.
Hinrich hit a three, giving the Jayhawk faithful one last ray of hope. They were still down seven, but with a high-powered offense hope still remained. Rick Anderson nailed a three on the next possession and that was it. That was the dagger. The Kansas fans went silent and slowly started to leave. Reality hit the student section and even those with painted faces realized that today was not their day.
For an hour they were the best team in the land, but when the smoke cleared it was apparent that work still had to be done.
* * *
That night my brother and I celebrated the win with a beer and a couple of games of Golden Tee. We met several Kansas fans who were more than willing to discuss the game. They were courteous and complimentary but their bitterness was apparent.
They reminded us that Wayne Simien was hurt. They asked if we noticed a few missed travel calls. They occasionally mentioned the refs.
My brother and I just smiled and agreed. Occasionally we'd mention that three Wildcats still had ankle injuries, but for the most part we resisted mentioning the missed illegal screens or that Gardner's spinning move to the hoop was in no ways a travel. Mostly we praised the arena and reassured them that the Jayhawks would be tough in March.
Privately we relished the day. We rejoiced in witnessing one of Arizona's best wins ever, in one of college basketball's greatest venues.
Of course, Kansas got the last laugh when the beat Arizona two months later in the Elite Eight. Arizona had the big regular season win, but it was Kansas who went a small way in exorcising the demons of 1997.