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The One To Watch

Arizona, With All Five Starters Back, Puts Up a Strong Case in Its Defense of the NCAA Championship

March 12, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Last year, it was about respect.

This year, it's about history.

Let's see, there was the Walton Gang of UCLA and the Grant Hill-Christian Laettner-led Duke Blue Devils of the early 1990s.

Since UCLA's streak of seven national championships was ended by North Carolina State in 1974, only Duke, in 1991 and '92, has been able to defend a national title.

Simon says Arizona can do it. Bibby says it too.

The Arizona Wildcats enter tonight's West Regional game against Nicholls State at Arco Arena with perhaps the most legitimate shot at defending a title since Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels raced full-speed into the 1991 tournament before being derailed by Duke in the national semifinals.

Arizona returns all five starters and its top three bench players off the team that defeated three top-seeded teams en route to last year's championship.

You want to pick against that?

The Wildcats did it with a freshman at guard, Mike Bibby, and largely without offensive contribution from their top scorer, forward Michael Dickerson, who had a miserable tournament.

Since Arizona cut down the nets in Indianapolis last spring, sophomore Bibby has developed into the nation's top point guard--he was named a first-team All-American this week--while Dickerson sizzled down the stretch in the Pacific 10, scorching UCLA for 30 points in his last pre-NCAA tuneup.

"Looking back at the game, I think it was one of the best that Mike Dickerson has ever had," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said.

Last year, getting out of the first round was an accomplishment for Arizona, Olson's impressive resume in Tucson tainted by first-round NCAA upset losses in the 1990s to Santa Clara and Miami of Ohio.

After surviving early-round scares from South Alabama and College of Charleston, the Wildcats defeated Kansas, Providence, North Carolina and Kentucky to win the title.

This year, the first round is no longer a proving ground.

"I feel that anything less than getting to the Final Four could be considered a failure," senior forward Bennett Davison said this week.

What's this? Davison already looking ahead?

"I would like to see Duke in the final," he said. "I would like to have another chance against them and see if we could beat them this time."

Davison was referring to Arizona's eight-point, early-season loss to Duke in the Maui Invitational.

Arizona has reason to be cocky. The Wildcats seem perfectly cast for NCAA tournament play. They have the best backcourt trio in the country in Bibby, Miles Simon and sixth man Jason Terry, complementing a tall, quick and athletic front court that gives plodding opponents fits--ask last year's Kansas team about this.

"The pressure is not on us, I don't think," Bibby said. "We just have to go out, stay loose, have fun, and get our running game going. The pressure is going to be on the other teams to try and beat us."

But what about that late-season loss to USC at the Sports Arena? Wasn't that a sign that Arizona can be beaten?

Maybe, but remember that Arizona was swept by Stanford and California leading into last year's tournament.

Dickerson says Arizona is ready to rumble.

"It can be hard to get up for some of the games," Dickerson admitted. "We have been on both sides of the fence. We used to leave in the early rounds of the tournament. But then last year, we had the chance to beat a lot of the teams and go further in the tournament."

Arizona figures to easily advance out of Sacramento to next week's regional games in Anaheim, where more interesting possible matchups--Maryland in the semifinal; then perhaps Cincinnati in the final--await.

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