After capping off a storied high school basketball career with a state championship in 1996 at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, Mike Bibby hit the road a couple of hours south to Tucson to continue his career at the University of Arizona. “I wanted to play basketball at the University of Arizona. First of all, it was close to home without being home. Just the basketball program that U of A had, Coach Olson, Coach Evans that recruited me from there. I thought I fit in pretty good going there, and playing on a high caliber team for a hall of fame coach.” Bibby said.
The 1996-97 Arizona basketball team headed into the season with no seniors among its top 8 players. The squad was led by juniors Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson, and also returned sophomores Jason Terry and A.J. Bramlett, who both played sparingly the previous year. “The expecations we had for 1997 was to just play basketball. I don’t think anybody really expected us to do anything until the year after.” Bibby said. The freshman from Phoenix was the Wildcats starting point guard from day one. “I was a confident player coming in. Coach Olson started me out of the gate. I worked hard going out there. I didn’t expect anything different and I prepared myself.”
Arizona gained valuable confidence early in the season beating 2 teams ranked in the top 10, North Carolina and Utah. The Cats staggered to the finish though in Pac 10 (now Pac 12) play. They lost their last 2 games and finished with a conference record of 11-7 for 5th place, and an overall mark of 19-9. “I remember we were just hoping to get into the tournament.” Bibby said. Lute Olson, U of A’s head coach, told me back in 2011, ”we felt like we were going to get a bid, but we were a little nervous after the two losses to Stanford and California on the road to end the season.”
Arizona made the big dance as the number 4 seed in the Southeast Region, but were battling the stigma of being underachievers in March Madness, having lost in the first round 3 of the previous 5 years, despite being highly ranked.“A few years before I went there, they had 1st round downfalls. A lot of people got on me about that when I chose Arizona.” Bibby said.
In the opening round of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, after trailing by 8 points with 6 minutes to go, Arizona beat the number 13 seed South Alabama 65-57. In the 2nd round, U of A held on for a 73-69 victory over the College of Charleston. That set up a Sweet 16 showdown with the #1 seed Kansas, the top ranked team in the country. The Jayhawks featured future NBA players Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard, and Jacque Vaughn.
Arizona was confident though, having lost to Kansas by just 3 points in the Sweet 16 the previous year. Behind Bibby’s 21 points, the Cats avenged that loss and knocked off the Jayhawks 85-82. “Coach Olson pulled me to the side, I remember to this day, and told me to be more aggressive, shoot the ball, and that’s what I did.” Bibby recalls. U of A moved on to the Elite 8 where they slipped past a pesky Providence team in overtime 96-92, to make their way to the Final 4 in Indianapolis. “When I went to the Final 4, walking into the gym, we were playing in a football stadium. 60, 70, 80 thousand people, it was overwhelming just being in that situation my freshman year.” Bibby said.
Awaiting the Wildcats in the semifinals was a rematch with #1 seed North Carolina, whom Arizona defeated earlier in the season. U of A shook off a sluggish start, trailing the Tar Heels 15-4, and stormed back to claim a 66-58 victory. “The feeling after we beat the Tar Heels was one more to go.” Bibby said. That win sent Arizona to the title game where they would face another #1 seed in Kentucky, the defending national champions. The blue blood program from the Southeastern Conference featured 5 players that would play in the NBA. “The national championship game going out there, I remember we felt like we belonged. Nobody expected us to be there, let alone win it, but we got hot at the right time. Coach Olson let us play to our strengths and we just played basketball.” Bibby said.
The championship game was tied on 20 different occasions and the lead changed hands 18 times. No team led by more than 7 points, and the tightly contested game would go to overtime tied at 74. “I just told our guys the toughest team is going to win this thing, so you determine whether they’re tougher than you or you’re tougher than they are.” Olson said.
In overtime Arizona scored all 10 of their points on free throws, and behind the play of Bibby, who scored 19 points and grabbed 9 rebounds, and Miles Simon, who led U of A with 30 points, Arizona won the school’s only basketball national championship by a score of 84-79.
U of A also became the first and only team to beat three number one seeds, the most a school can face in a single NCAA Tournament. “When they say 1997 national champion, I think it was one of the best college teams in history. You had Jason Terry coming off the bench. Michael Dickerson a great one on one player. Miles Simon a do everything guy. A.J. Bramlett our post up and rebound guy. Bennett Davison could jump out of the gym. Everything that we had complimented each other and made us a good team.” Bibby said.
For Bibby, he won a high school state championship and then a college national championship in back to back years. “Not many people get a chance to even win a high school championship, but to go to Division 1 and win a National Championship is off the charts.” Bibby was named to the all Final 4 team and became the first true freshman starting point guard to guide a team to the national title. “To take part in March Madness, I wouldn’t give it away for anything.”
Bibby, who spent 14 seasons in the NBA, is now back at his alma mater, Shadow Mountain high school, as the head basketball coach. He recently led the Matadors to its 3rd straight state championship and a top 25 national ranking.
Make sure you tune in to Yurview’s comprehensive coverage of the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament with the Eye On The Alamo show. Eye On The Alamo will start the day after selection Sunday, and will keep you up to date on all things March Madness leading up to the NCAA Championship Game. Eye On The Alamo will be hosted by Kate Longworth and former Arizona State great Eddie House. House also spent 11 seasons in the NBA, and won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Eye On The Alamo can be seen at the following times:
- Monday, March 12th, 19th, 26th at 9:00 pm
- Tuesday, March 13th, 20th, 27th at 7:30 pm, 10:00 pm
- Wednesday, March 14th, 21st, 28th at 8:30 pm
Also, make sure you tune in for our Eye On The Alamo special NCAA Championship Game Preview show which airs at the times listed below:
- Sunday, April 1st at 5:00 pm, 6:00 pm, 10:30 pm
- Monday April 2nd at 4:30 pm