A little more than 15 months ago, Utah and Arizona met on the same Arrowhead Pond Arena floor where the two teams will do battle today at 1:40 p.m. MST.
In that game, a preseason ditty called the John Wooden Classic, the Wildcats over-came an 11-point halftime deficit to defeat the Utes, 69-61.Much more will be on the line today when the Utes and Wildcats meet in the televised contest on Channel 2. The Wildcats will be looking to get to the Final Four for the second year in a row to defend their national title, while the Utes will be looking to get in the Final Four for the first time in 32 years.
In order to accomplish that goal, the Utes will have to do something they couldn't accomplish in that December '96 game - contain Arizona's guards. The Utes dominated the game until the Arizona guards took over in the final 12 minutes and propelled the Wildcats to victory.
In senior Miles Simon and sophomore Mike Bibby, the Wildcats possess the premier guardline in America. A couple of weeks ago the two of them were named to the Associated Press first team, a tremendous accomplishment, considering just five players were named to the team. It was the first time in history two guards from the same school made first team AP all-America.
Utah coach Rick Majerus says, "Mike Bibby is the best guard in college basketball. If you ask anyone in the NBA, they'll tell you he is the consensus best point guard. Nothing overall stands out; he's just a very solid player. He's a terrific point guard."
Arizona coach Lute Olson concurs and tells what makes Bibby, the son of former NBA player Henry Bibby, so good.
"I've said many times that Mike has a feel for the game that you can't teach," he said. "He's improved in two areas - he's quicker in getting his shot up and defensively does a solid job of containing the penetration."
A lot of folks expect Bibby to leave early for the NBA, although he hasn't said what his plans are.
In Simon, the Utes will face a three-year starter who is also a solid NBA prospect. He averages 17.5 points per game after averaging 18.4 points as a junior. The son of former Utah player Walt Simon ('68), he was the MVP of last year's Final Four.
The natural matchups are Bibby vs. Andre Miller, who are both 6 feet 2 inches, and Simon vs. Drew Hansen, a pair of 6-5 players. However, at Friday's press conference, Arizona revealed that 6-5 forward Michael Dickerson, a better defensive player than the two guards, will take Miller, likely leaving Bibby for the low-scoring Hansen and Simon for Alex Jensen.
But Utah will likely go with Miller on Bibby and Hansen on Simon.
"I'm really looking forward to it," said Miller. "Last year when we played them, I was a little out of shape, and they took advantage of it. Whether we're scoring against the press or slowing them down, I think we have a good chance."
"They're able to shoot outside and drive to the basket, so hopefully our big guys can help us out," said Hansen.
Majerus acknowledges that his team lacks the speed and quickness of Arizona.
"If we lined up in a track meet, we'd be lapped," he said. "If we played five one-on-one games, we'd lose them all."
But even though Majerus keeps saying the Utes will be facing a full-court pressure team for the fourth straight game, Arizona followers say the Wildcats have rarely played a full-court press during the latter part of the season.
Inside, the Utes will have a size advantage with 6-11 Michael Dol-eac and 6-10 Hanno Mottola going against 6-11, 217-pound A.J. Bramlett and 6-8 Bennett Davison. A key could be how well the Utes are able to contain the 6-5 Dickerson, who plays like a guard.
Although the Utes know they are underdogs, they aren't acting intimidated by the Wildcats going into the game. They held a light practice Friday and mainly went over some film and talked about strategies.
"All of our games have been tough; we have been here before," said Majerus. "The kids are confident, and they deserve to be here. We are hoping all the hard work and dedication will pay off. We want to go on and just play the game."
When: Today, 1:40 p.m.
Where: Arroshead Pond, Anaheim, Calif.
TV: CBX, Ch. 2
Utah vs. Arizona
All time - Utah leads 27-18
Under Lute Olson - Arizona is 3-2
Under Rick Majerus - Utah is 0-3
Last five games
1996 - Arizona 69, Utah 61
1993 - Arizona 88, Utah 81
1992 - Arizona 78, Utah 64
1986 - Utah 68, Arizona 67
1985 - Utah 76, Arizona 68