Long and surprising NCAA Tournament runs can make you a legend. Miles Simon‘s play in 1997 definitely helped cement his legacy in Arizona. While leading his No. 4-seeded Wildcats to an NCAA Championship, doing it by becoming the only team to ever beat three top seeds in the same tournament, Simon was named the Most Outstanding Player. The one-man performance still resonates 15 years later.
With March Madness in full swing, we recently got a chance to catch up with Simon to talk about this year’s tournament, as well as reminisce on one of our favorites college teams of all time, the 1997 Arizona Wildcats.
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What are your thoughts on the NCAA Tournament so far?
“It has been really interesting in the fact that it has kind of gone chalk. In each region three of the top four seeds are still alive. I don’t know how often you see that nowadays. You still have a couple of Cinderella stories with Ohio (Bobcats) and D.J. Cooper. N.C. State the last team that was announced to make the tournament, I thought they were going to be in, but happened to be about where they were going to be positioned. The storyline of Syracuse has been great throughout the year and then Fab Melo is ineligible right before the Tournament. And then can Kentucky and John Calipari with all his great underclassmen finally break through and win that National Championship? There are a lot of great storylines.”
What about mid-majors?
“Doug (Gottlieb) is a good friend of mine, but I would disagree in the fact that if you look at the rankings throughout the year the Top 10 once it got solidified in January it kind of stayed the same. Michigan State propelled themselves into the Top 10, Syracuse, Kentucky, Baylor, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, those were the teams. It didn’t fluxuate a lot. In a different sense I thought it was going to be a top heavy Sweet 16 and into the Final Four. I thought that was how it was going to go and it played itself out that way.”
On a potential bracket re-set.
“Wow. I had (North) Carolina winning it all. Now things change without Kendall Marshall. We don’t know when he will play or if he is going to play or what his situation is going to be. Kentucky’s has to be the odds-on favorite. I had Vanderbilt. I fell to their trap after winning the SEC Championship and the Fab Melo thing. I thought maybe they would get there and now I would have to shift back to Syracuse. To answer the question I have to go with Kentucky, Syracuse, and I still have to roll with North Carolina. I somehow think Marshall will play at some point… maybe it is not in the next game, maybe it is the Elite 8. I like Marquette. They were my first instinct to go, then I looked at the numbers and Missouri changed my mind. In a bracket reset I have to go with DJO (Darius Johnson-Odom) and Jae Crowder and what they have been doing.”
How would you attack a “weakened” North Carolina if you are D.J. Cooper and Ohio?
“I’m feeling really confident, but I don’t want to get overly confident. I want to make sure I am in attack mode if I have Stilman White or Justin Watts guarding me. If I have to guard them on the other end I want to pressure them and make them feel as uncomfortable as possible. They are thrust into the spotlight and all eyes are on them or whoever is going to play point for North Carolina. If I can make them a little bit tighter than they already might be after the ball is tipped up then that is to my advantage.”
Can Ohio beat North Carolina?
“Anything can happen. This is why Roy Williams recruits guys like Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller that regardless if you have Kendall Marshall those guys should be able to put up 18-25 points apiece somewhere in a game and dominate a game in light of not having one of your better players.”
You are pretty familiar with being an underdog, what would your message be to an Ohio, N.C. State, or Xavier in the locker room before the tip?
“Just believe. Have great confidence in yourself, your teammates, and your coaching staff. Confidence is a big thing in basketball and if you come out tentative or with any doubt you already put yourself behind the eight ball in that game. Just believe and know in your abilities and what you are capable of that got you here to this point.”
PowerAde is really pushing that message and you are a part of that. How did that come about?
“I am involved with PowerAde and have been fortunate enough to team up with them. PowerAde is the official sports drink of the NCAA Championship and they personify the underdog. Inspiring athletes to so called ‘power through.’ We are celebrating the 15-year anniversary of my Arizona Wildcats 1997 National Championship team as you mentioned before. We are the first and only team to ever beat three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Our team just fits their motto. Fifteen years ago nobody gave our team a chance to win at all after we finished fifth in the PAC-10. We did not have any kind of momentum going into the NCAA Tournament, but we had known how hard we had worked and that we had ‘powered through’ a lot of adversity during that season. I was suspended earlier in the year because of academics and to be able to bring that first National Championship, and play that underdog role is something that everyone can follow and believe in. That is how I was lucky and able to team up with PowerAde and get on this ‘power through’ campaign.”
What inspired your individual performance in the 1997 NCAA Tournament?
“In high school I won three championships and I never had the belief that I would lose a game. I had supreme confidence in the sense that no one that was ever put in front of me on the court was ever better than I was. I just believe that with the hard work I put in that I was going to win and I think that carried over to my teammates. Jason Terry and Mike Bibby were both winners in high school also. We just had that ultimate belief that we were a match-up problem because of our guard play with Terry, Bibby, (Michael) Dickerson, and myself that who could guard us if any two or three of us were on in any game. It would be pretty hard to stop us and it all clicked at the right time, which is a huge difference maker in the tournament. It all clicked for us during that three week run.”
How important is guard play in the NCAA Tournament?
“I think it is the biggest. You have to have great guards that can control the game, control the pace on both ends of the floor setting the tone defensively. Jason Terry ended up (I think) becoming the all-time steals leader. Michael Dickerson was a great on-ball defender. We played great team defense and it was all started by the guards. We were a team that wanted to run as much as possible and we didn’t necessarily play all four guards at the same time, but our rotations were so good. Myself, Bibby, and Dickerson starting, and Terry coming off the bench to relieve any one of us and he was so versatile playing both guard spots, the point or the two. It just presented so many match-ups because each of us were so unique in our own way. Michael Dickerson was an elite scorer and a sweet jump shooter. Mike Bibby could pass that ball like nobody else with no-looks and had such big hands and could get in the lane whenever. Jason Terry was super energetic off the bench and then myself, I felt I was the toughest of the group and did things in a different way that others couldn’t. It was just a unique thing that Lute Olson was able to recruit all four of us and have us all on the same team at the same time.”
Arizona always has good teams, but you were the only National Champions. What made that team so special?
“I think he (Lute Olson) had a belief in us that he knew our team could be special. We were a little ahead of time. If you remember, we were all underclassmen. I think the plan was to have a year of maturity together because we would return the following season and the next year would be our year. Like I said we just gelled at the right time late in the season. He was the great motivator in the sense and told us to go out there and play, have fun, and he wanted to know who was going to be the toughest team on the floor every time we were out there on the floor and we needed to show we were the toughest team.”
Of South Alabama, College of Charleston, Kansas, Providence, North Carolina, and Kentucky which was the toughest game?
“Probably… the first two games were the most nerve racking because we had to come from behind against South Alabama and College of Charleston. People forget that Charleston had the longest winning streak in the country going into the NCAA Tournament. They had Anthony Johnson and a young man named Thaddeus Delaney who was an excellent big man. We had to comeback with less than 10 minutes to go in both of those games so I would say they were the most nerve racking.
“The Elite 8 game against Providence was really a unique game. We fouled out Austin Croshere who ended up being a lottery pick. Then we had to just hold on in overtime and actually had to survive a last second shot from (I think) Joey Wright for Providence or we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”
It is a little bit down, but what happened to the Pac-12 Conference recently?
“I think you have to look back to the last three or four years and look at the NBA Draft. I’m not 100 percent sure on the numbers, I did it earlier this year, but either the first or second most draft picks in the past four years have been from the Pac-10/Pac-12, many of those being underclassmen. UCLA losing many of those and also many transfers from UCLA. Arizona losing Derrick Williams, the No. 2 pick in the draft. I think it has been depleted by that in that sense, but the league will turn around. Arizona has the No. 1 class coming in and UCLA has a top 5-10 class coming in next year. Once those two programs are good, because historically those have been the two best and there was like a 20-year span where Arizona or UCLA shared or won the outright title, then you are talking about the league being great again.”
What has Sean Miller done to keep Arizona relevant during a shaky time?
“Sean Miller is awesome. He plays an excellent brand of basketball and recruits at a high level. I think this year the expectations were too high losing their top two scorers in Derrick Williams and MoMo Jones. With what they have coming in next year and what they are returning, expect Arizona to be back at the top of the heap very quickly.”
The transfers seem to be happening at an alarming rate lately. Is this a new thing, a Pac-12 thing, what is going on?
“Man, I don’t think you can just classify this to the Pac-12. It is a national trend. You see high school guys transferring at alarming rates to different schools all the time. Some guys are playing for three high schools in four years or five years. Guys leave their AAU programs on almost daily basis and play. There is not a sense of loyalty anymore, maybe. I don’t think you can just categorize this to the Pac-12 I think you have to look across America and see it is happening everywhere.”
At ESPN you have a lot of former great basketball players. We are celebrating your 15-year anniversary of winning the National Championship. Who has studio bragging rights as the best “ESPN Baller?”
“(Laughs) Unfortunately we are never in the same spot. I don’t know, I’m probably right up there and you have to say Jay Williams is right there. He was the No. 2 pick in the draft, National Player of the Year, and won a National Title. Doug is â€“ Doug was an assist machine in college, couldn’t shoot a lick, but he could do some other things. Jay Bilas had a good career. Hubert Davis had a long NBA career. There is a lot of talent and I would love to get them all out there. Let’s even get Dickie V, Digger Phelps and Bob Knight on the floor too and see what they could do.
What do you remember about that Arizona team?
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