When Miles Simon and the 1997 Arizona Wildcats beat powerhouse Kentucky in the national championship, they became the first and only team to ever beat three No. 1 seeds in a single tournament. Simon -- who was awarded as the Most Outstanding Player -- would become a second-round pick of the Orlando Magic in the 1998 NBA Draft.
Fifteen years later, he is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN and spokesman for the Powerade "Power Through" campaign. The Huffington Post recently caught up with Simon to relive his favorite memories of 1997 and talk about this year's Final Four.
What was your experience like dealing with the blitzkrieg media during the Final Four?
It was probably a whole lot different than it is now, without social media. I think a lot of the time, because the game was over, guys just wanted to get the questions over with and get back to the hotel and get back to playing video games as much as possible. I really think the players embrace it now because of social media and people are tweeting things they are saying. Obviously there were some characters back in our day -- I'll take Jason Terry, for example -- he would have been great.
Did not being a tournament favorite alleviate pressure?
I think so, because nobody thought that we were going to win. Everyone thought that we were a year away because we had no seniors. We just happened to gel at the right time. So yeah, it took a lot of pressure off, because we could just go in and have fun and play loose because we weren't expected to really even make a run.
What was [then-head coach] Lute Olson like behind the scenes during pressure circumstances?
He's intense; practice times are very intense. Great X's and O's coach, great preparation coach for games. I think he knew he had something special, and so he really believed in us and instilled a lot of confidence going into the tournament, regardless [of the fact] that we had a mediocre record at 19-9 and had lost two in a row.
How much stock do you put in teams getting hot before the tournament? Obviously Connecticut helped parlay it last year but Kentucky lost in the SEC Final.
I don't think you can put a lot of stock into that. Kentucky lost; and then look at Vanderbilt, a team that won it. Everyone kind of wanted to pick them: They were ranked in the top ten [preseason], finally living up to expectations -- and then they flame out in their second game. I don't know that it matters as much. UConn would probably claim that last season's Big East Tournament championship springboarded them to the national championship. But I think it's just a little bit of luck, the matter out of getting the right draws and a team clicking at the right time.
Is it more intimidating to play a marquee program like a Kentucky in the Final Four?
No, I don't think so. I think it's extra motivation. You want to beat the teams that are at the top; some kids might take it as "I wanted that national program to recruit me and they didn't." This is maybe a chance to show them that they missed out on a great player. I think it's more motivation, but players can get nervous or intimidated if that team jumps on them early, and they're like, "Wow, this is Kentucky and they're the real deal. Anthony Davis will be the No. 1 pick." It can be intimidating in that sense, but I think more players want to rise to the occasion, and I think with AAU ball, you've seen a lot of these players and have usually played against them [before college].
As you entered the NBA, how much did you think about your Final Four pedigree? Did it help kickstart your career?
I never thought about it in that sense, that it could help or hurt me. I enjoyed the moment for what it was. But I don't think, as far as professional-wise, that I thought about it. I played in many different countries, such as Italy, Israel and Turkey; it just made people more conscious of who I am and what my accomplishments were in college.
Do you put more value on quality guard play or big men in the tournament?
Guard play. Guards just have the ability in the tournament to control the game on both ends of the floor. Anthony Davis can do that because he's a "once in a lifetime"-type player, but I think guard play. You look at [Ohio State point guard] Aaron Craft -- he can change the game in an instant, controlling the game and not turning the ball over. Defensively setting the tone a little bit earlier in the half court or full court, like Louisville will do with their full-court pressure. I'd put a high value on guard play to win an NCAA Tournament, and I think Kemba Walker last year obviously embodied that.
Why has the Pac-12 endured such dramatic struggles, and is it a league on the way back?
It's a league that's been hurt by the draft in the last three or four years. They either have the first- or second-most draft picks, I think since 2008, many of those being underclassmen. And I'll take a recent example of UCLA: they lose Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee to the draft. Those guys are essentially riding the pine in the NBA, and they could have been stars at the college level this year, could've really made a name for themselves and probably played themselves into the first round this year. You look at Arizona: They lose Derrick Williams, the No. 2 pick in the draft. You couldn't have projected, when he was coming into college, that in two years he would go that high. But I think the league is going to be back sooner rather than later. Arizona and UCLA are the two teams that annually need to be good for the league to be good, and they are both bringing in phenomenal recruiting classes. Arizona is No. 1 pretty much across the board, and UCLA is top five or top ten.
Do you have one specific one memory from 1997 that stands out as extra special?
I think the Sweet 16 really stands out. The game against Kansas was a game where they had pretty much been the best team in the country and really dominant with four future pros on their team. There wasn't a lot of hope by people outside of the Arizona basketball family that they could be beaten, and for us to win that game. We were up double digits in the second half. I remember going to jump on the media table with my teammate and my grandmother after the game.
What teammates have you remained in touch with over the years?
I talk to [former Cleveland Cavalier] A.J. Bramlett and [Memphis head coach] Josh Pastner quite a bit. I see Jason Terry every once in a while.
Where is your national title ring right now?
It's actually in a drawer in my bedroom right now, underneath the TV.
Do you wear it?
I don't. I actually tried to put it on a couple of months ago, and it does not fit. It is too small, so it will be staying in its case for the rest of time.
Email me at email@example.com or ask me questions about anything sports-related @206Child.
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