I felt like I was locked away in there," says Arizona senior
forward Michael Dickerson, pointing across San Francisco Bay
toward Alcatraz. "It was like I was in jail, and no matter what
I tried, there was no escape."
Considering the exhilarating conclusion to the Wildcats' 1996-97
season, when they upset No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina and
Kentucky along their charmed path to the NCAA championship,
Dickerson's words betray a shocking bitterness. It's as if he
can't believe how his season, which began with so much promise,
ended with him sentenced to the bench. It's as if he still can't
reconcile the two Dickersons. In the beginning there was the
Dickerson who lit up the Tar Heels for 31 points (including
seven three-pointers) in the season opener, ascended as high as
fourth in the nation in scoring, and kept the Wildcats afloat
while Arizona's emotional leader, guard Miles Simon, sat out the
first 11 games under academic suspension. Then there was the
Dickerson who in the Final Four shot 1 for 10 against North
Carolina and 1 for 8 against Kentucky. "My coach lost faith in
me, and then I lost my confidence," Dickerson says. "Before
every shot I thought, If I miss this, am I coming out? I was
hurt, embarrassed and bitter and I'll always remember that."
When the Arizona publicity department passed out a questionnaire
this fall asking for each player's memories of the Final Four,
Dickerson wrote only, Sitting on the bench in crunch time.
Because he feels he played virtually no part in Arizona's
stunning victories, he has never worn his championship ring,
which he gave to his grandmother, Ora. All the Wildcats want to
return to the Final Four, but no one wants it more than Dickerson.
To that end he worked out tirelessly over the summer with Gary
Payton, Dale Ellis, Detlef Schrempf and other NBA players in his
hometown of Seattle, until he rediscovered his shooting touch.
He also spent countless late nights this fall and winter
launching shots in the McKale Center. Dickerson began shooting
there alone at 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve but, consumed by his
desire to be the first Wildcat to practice this year, missed the
moment when 1998 actually began.
Dickerson's hard work is paying off. Entering Thursday's game
against Washington, he had scored in double figures in 20 of 22
games and was leading the Wildcats in scoring, with 18.2 points
per game. On Jan. 29 against Stanford, undefeated and ranked No.
4 at the time, he hit 11 of 15 shots, which helped lift Arizona
to its 11th straight victory.
Defending their national championship hasn't been all hot
shooting and winning streaks for the Wildcats. The off-season
began with a summer tour to Australia, where they finished with
a 5-4 record and lost twice to the Australian 22-and-under team.
Then days before the opening of practice, an investigative
report in The Kansas City Star accused the university of bending
its rules to help Simon restore his eligibility in the fall of
'96 after he had been academically suspended for getting a D
average in the spring of '96. School officials deny any
With all five starters back and ranked No. 1 in both the AP and
the coaches' preseason polls, the Wildcats promptly lost
twice--to highly ranked Duke and Kansas--in the first six games
of the season. Then they stumbled into a brief Christmas break
with a sloppy loss to Florida State, which left them at 7-3. "We
started the year too cocky," junior guard Jason Terry says. "We
thought we were too good to ever get beat, so those three losses
were a tough reality check."
For the first time in his 15 years at Arizona, coach Lute Olson
had begun the season employing a press for the full 40 minutes.
Unfortunately the Wildcats' last line of defense, junior center
A.J. Bramlett, repeatedly got into foul trouble, and the other
players spent too much energy pressing to run the offense
effectively. After some players groused about the strategy, the
Wildcats went back to the suffocating half-court defense that
helped them win the NCAA title. Since the loss to Florida State,
Arizona (19-3, 9-0 in the Pac-10 at week's end) has won 12
straight games and regained its aura as the nation's most
dynamic team at both ends of the floor. On Thursday night
Arizona visited a Stanford team that had not been down more than
five points anytime this season. The Wildcats trounced the
Cardinal 93-75, committing just six turnovers and shooting 58%
against the team with the Pac-10's best field-goal-percentage
Though obscured by Arizona's All-America backcourt tandem of
Simon and sophomore point guard Mike Bibby, Dickerson has
sparked the Wildcats' surge, shooting 57% from the floor and 43%
from three-point range. But hardly anybody has noticed. "When
you're playing with two All-Americas, you're always in their
shadow," Dickerson says. "I've had to accept that no matter what
I do, I'll always be Michael who?"
Bibby is among the top 10 in the conference in scoring, assists
and steals in what is likely his final audition for the NBA.
Simon, a senior and last year's Final Four MVP, is among the
Pac-10's top 10 in scoring and assists. Terry, a sixth man who
could start for almost any other team in the country, is sixth
in the conference in assists and eighth in steals. The 6'11"
Bramlett already has five double doubles this season, and Olson
says he has improved faster than any player he has coached.
"Arizona just has so many weapons," said Cal coach Ben Braun
after a 70-57 loss to Arizona last Saturday. "You can only dodge
bullets for so long."
Says Simon, "I'd pick any one of our four perimeter guys in a
game of one-on-one against anybody else in the country. So if
you play us, who do you choose to stop?"
Arizona has averaged 96.5 points during its 12-game streak,
winning every game by 10 or more points. Although No. 1 Duke and
No. 2 North Carolina were scheduled to butt heads this week, the
best team in the nation might not be in Chapel Hill that night.
"We still don't get any respect nationally, but we've come to
relish the role of underdogs," Bramlett says. "I guess we proved
at the beginning of the year that maybe we're better off not
being the favorites."
No current Wildcat has been on a Pac-10 championship team, but
talk has recently turned to an undefeated '98 conference season,
which would require a victory at UCLA, where Arizona has not won
since '93. With a cast clearly more potent than last year's,
Arizona, which was once identified with ignominious first-round
failures in the NCAA tournament, is aiming to become the first
repeat champ since Duke in 1992. "I daydream all the time about
winning this year's title game, and the only fuzzy part is who
we beat," Bibby says. "I want to repeat so that maybe people
won't call us lucky anymore, so they'll talk about Arizona in
the same sentence with Duke and Kentucky."
Bibby wants recognition. Bramlett wants respect. Dickerson wants
redemption. Olson just wants respite. As coach of the defending
national champs, Olson has been swamped with requests for his
time. He has been so busy that only once has he stolen a moment
to watch a tape of the '97 championship game. Suffering from
insomnia five days after his greatest triumph, he rose from his
bed at 3 a.m., walked to the family room and eased into his
favorite chair. He viewed the game not like a coach but like a
nervous fan who didn't already know the outcome. "When it was
over and I watched us celebrating the championship, I
experienced this pure joy," Olson says. "I thought about all my
years coaching high school and junior college, and then I
thought, How in the world did I ever get here? Even now I'm not
sure winning the NCAA title has really sunk in yet. Maybe after
this season's over, I'll have some time to think back on that.
Olson doesn't dare finish the sentence. He coached 40 years for
one championship It's too soon to speak of another, isn't it?
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SIMON SAYS Last year's Final Four MVP scored 15 as Arizona pounded previously unbeaten Stanford 93-75. [Miles Simon and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER A MAN POSSESSED Determined to atone for his meltdown late last season, Dickerson is leading Arizona with 18.2 points a game. [Michael Dickerson and opponent in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER POINT OF ATTACK Only a sophomore, Bibby is playing beyond his years and may turn pro after this season. [Mike Bibby in game]
"I daydream about winning this year's title game, and the only
fuzzy part is who we beat."