Column: Anaheim a cursed city for 'Cats
Luke Walton reacts to Arizona’s Elite Eight loss to Kansas in 2003 in Anaheim, Calif.
Disneyland may be “the happiest place on Earth”, but for Arizona men’s basketball fans, Anaheim, Calif., has been a city of sorrows.
There’s few better examples of how fickle the NCAA tournament is than the 1997 and 1998 Big Dances. In 1997 Arizona shouldn’t have won the national championship, but it did and in 1998 it should have, but its dreams died in Anaheim.
Obviously, Arizona had a great team in 1997. Miles Simon was named the NCAA tournament’s’s Most Outstanding Player. Mike Bibby and Jason Terry would enjoy long NBA careers and Michael Dickerson was drafted 14th overall.
However, the Wildcats finished fifth in the Pac-10 and entered the tournament as a four seed after losing their last two games of the regular season in the Bay Area (there wasn’t a Pac-10 tournament then).
In the NCAA tournament however, the Wildcats beat three No. 1 seeds: Kansas, the overall No. 1, North Carolina (in Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith’s last game) and Kentucky, who won the national championships in 1996 and 1998.
In 1997-98, Arizona returned all its key contributors and, naturally, UA fans expected a repeat after a 27-4 regular season, and the Wildcats easily earned the coveted No. 1 seed in the West and a trip to Anaheim for the Regionals weekend.
The Wildcats ran into a buzz saw in No. 3 seed Utah, who beat the UA 76-51. The loss was shocking, as then mid-major Utes used a triangle and two defense to stymie Arizona’s superstars.
“They played a great game,” said Arizona sophomore point guard Mike Bibby in a New York Times story. “They beat us good. We knew it was going to be a tough game. They beat us every way possible.”
Arizona remained a national power after the loss and after losing the 2001 national title game, entered the 2002-03 season as the preseason No. 1.
In late Jan. 2003, Arizona rallied from a 20-point deficit at then-No. 6 Kansas to win 91-74. It was a performance worthy of recognition in the archives of the Jedi Order.
The Wildcats again earned the No. 1 seed in the West and a chance to play in Anaheim before a pro-UA crowd. For Arizona fans, the trip to Anaheim was a nice chance to go to Disneyland before the Final Four in New Orleans and the Wildcats’ second national championship.
However, Kansas avenged the 1997 and regular season loss with a 78-75 win at the Arrowhead Pond.
The loss was so unexpected that the headline in the Arizona Daily Wildcat on March 31, 2003 read: “No longer Big Easy-bound.”
Arizona senior point guard Jason Gardner, who was the floor general on the 2001 runners-up, missed a 3-pointer to tie the game. The loss was so shocking that UA fans — I was there — lingered for minutes afterwards staring in shock, instead of racing to the parking lot like they usually do after losses.
“Getting this far is hard,” said Arizona senior forward Rick Anderson to the Daily Wildcat after the game. “It was a pretty great career with Luke [Walton] and Jason. The finality is the hardest thing, isn’t it?”
Forget the Ides of March — beware the Agony of Anahiem.
—Follow James Kelley @JamesKelley520