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Arizona Basketball: Best Wildcats in the History of NCAA Tournament Play

Josh MozellContributor IIIJanuary 7, 2017

Arizona Basketball: Best Wildcats in the History of NCAA Tournament Play

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    Arizona basketball has been on an elite level since the late 1980s. Over that span, it has consistently manufactured some of the best players the country.

    These great players have produced in the NCAA tournament to the tune of 16 Sweet 16s, nine Elite 8s, four Final Fours and the national title in 1997.

    While a difficult task, this list sorts out and ranks the best Wildcats in the history of NCAA tournament play. To exemplify how difficult it was, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Terry, Andre Iguodala, Hassan Adams, Luke Walton, Richard Jefferson, Chris Mills, Sean Rooks and Steve Kerr are not on the list.

    But by measuring a player's big wins, and his role in these big wins, against the bad losses suffered in a career, the rankings are complete. Here are the top-10 Arizona player in NCAA tournament play.

10. Michael Dickerson

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    Record: 11-3

    Best Finish: Won Championship (1997)

    Disappointments: 1998, 1995

    Michael Dickerson was Mr. Smooth. His jump shot was picture perfect. Watching him play, when he was engaged, was a thing of beauty. His NCAA tournament career broke open during his sophomore year. Arizona made the Sweet 16 and he averaged 18.7 points a game.

    In 1997, while other players get most of the credit for the championship, Dickerson was a big part of the success. For example, in the third-round game against 33-1 Kansas, Dickerson was second on the team behind Mike Bibby with 20 points.

    The reason he falls so low on the list is that he averaged five points in the Final Four in 1997. In the loss to Utah in 1998, he scored only six points.

    His overall record, the championship in 1997, the Sweet 16 in 1996, and the deep run in 1998 cannot be ignored. Dickerson is the 10th-best NCAA tourney player for Arizona.

9. Derrick Williams

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    Record: 3-1

    Best Finish: Elite 8 (2011)

    Disappointments: None

    In the 2011 postseason, Derrick Williams was a man among boys. He looked like Superman with his block against Memphis that sealed the game. This came after a great performance of 22 points and 10 boards. He did it again against Texas, when he threw a shot up against the glass and somehow it went in.

    The Duke Blue Devils still have nightmares about this guy after the horror show he put them through. During the game he scored 32, making 5-of-6 threes, had 13 rebounds and his dunks can only be described as pure violence. Williams brutalized the field. 

    He dominated in every way possible. The freak of nature and a pleasure to watch for his very short time at U of A. He slides beyond two Arizona legends because instead of losing against teams that should have been beaten on the back of Williams alone, Arizona beat teams they shouldn't have.

    That team missed the Final Four by mere inches when Jamelle Horne's three missed in the final seconds against Connecticut. Williams was incredible.

8. Damon Stoudamire

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    Record: 4-4

    Best Finish: Final Four (1994)

    Disappointments: 1992, 1993, 1995 

    Stoudamire was one of the most exciting players in Arizona history and bridged the gap between the great teams of the late 80s and the great teams of the 1990s. In his junior season, along with his backcourt mate Khalid Reeves, he drove the Wildcats all the way to the Final Four. During that run he averaged 18 points a game including 27 in the Elite 8 matchup with top-seeded Missouri.

    The reason Stoudamire sits so low in the list is that, outside of 1994, he lost in the first round every other year. And the losses were bad: 1992 as No. 3 seed, 1993 as a No. 2 seed and 1995 as a No. 5 seed. His 4-4 record is the worst on the list.

    Stoudamire was always good, but not good enough to overcome the early 1990s Arizona curse.

7. Salim Stoudamire

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    Record: 8-4

    Best Finish: Elite 8 (2003), (2005)

    Disappointments: 2003 

    Salim is my favorite Arizona player of all time. His shooting was like no one else I have ever seen. His release was so quick and style so unique. He was also was a go-to guy on a couple of Arizona's great squads.

    In 2002-03, Arizona was the best team in the country from beginning. Stoudamire was the X-factor for that team. When he played well, they won. That happened the first three games of that tournament. He didn't play well in the Elite 8 game against Kansas, and they lost. 

    In the 2005 tournament, the Wildcats got to the Elite 8 after beating Oklahoma State on one of the most clutch shots in Arizona's history. Stoudamire was the one who knocked it down, of course. He scored 28 points the game before against OSU. Against Illinois, in the most painful loss ever, Arizona was up 15 points and four minutes away from the Final Four before the epic collapse.

    Despite the fact he never made a Final Four, he made two deep runs. At most other programs this resume puts him at the top of the list, but at Arizona he is seventh.

6. Channing Frye

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    Record: 8-4

    Best Finish: Elite 8 (2003), (2005)

    Disappointments: 2003

    Channing Frye was Stoudamire's classmate and therefore went to two Elite 8s as well. Frye gets the nod over Stoudamire simply because he played better. In their 12 career NCAA tournament games, Stoudamire outscored Frye only twice. On top of that, Frye was holding down the middle by blocking shots and grabbing boards. He was a more valuable piece on very good Arizona teams.

    While Frye never blew anyone away with his numbers, he was a consistent force down low for the Wildcats during four NCAA tournament appearances. He was a solid NCAA tournament performer on two Arizona teams that went on deep runs.

5. Khalid Reeves

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    Record: 6-4

    Best Finish: Final Four (1994)

    Disappointments: 1992, 1993

    No player in Arizona history was hotter on the way to the Final Four than Khalid Reeves in 1994. He was on fire. He scored 32 in the first round, 30 in the second, 29 in the third, 26 in the Elite 8 and then 20 against Arkansas in the Final Four.

    He and Damon Stoudamire led a great Arizona team on a run that got them out of the funk of the previous two years of disappointments. If not for those losses he would have been higher on the list, but the sting of 1992 and 1993 remain.

    With that said, his ridiculous run in 1994 gives him a suitable place on the all-time Arizona list.

4. Jason Gardner

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    Record: 11-4

    Best Finish: Championship Game (2001)

    Disappointments: 2000, 2003 

    Gardner can claim as many victories as the guys at the top of this list, he just didn't reach the top of the mountain. As a brief recap: In his freshman season, Arizona was a No. 1 seed but lost in the second round to Wisconsin.

    In 2001 the Wildcats went to the title game to play Duke. In 2002 the Cats went to the Sweet 16 and in 2003 to the Elite 8. Gardner, from his freshman season on, was the leader on these stacked Arizona teams. He could score, pass and defend, but his best attribute was his ability to keep a cool head. I can't ever remember him being anything but completely steady.

    This resulted in 11 wins and several deep runs. While he never won a title, Gardner always showed up when it counted. He is the fourth-best player in Arizona NCAA tournament history.

     

    *This was a true heavyweight matchup. Duke's lineup featured Shane Battier, Chris Duhon, Mike Dunleavy, Jason Williams and Carlos Boozer. Arizona's had Gardner, Loren Woods, Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, Gilbert Arenas and Luke Walton. Could you imagine these teams playing the teams from today? The lineups of old show how much the college game has suffered because of early departures.

3. Sean Elliott

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    Record: 6-4

    Best Finish: Final Four (1988)

    Disappointments: 1989

    Sean Elliott is undeniably the best player in Arizona basketball history, but he is third on this list. The reason for his finish is that he lost in the first round twice, although on not-so-great teams, and had a disappointing loss in the 1989 tourney.

    While early exits happened in his freshman and sophomore seasons, it had nothing to do with his play. He scored 20 and 26, respectively.

    But in 1988, he was a man on a mission. While putting Arizona on his back on the way to the 1987 Final Four, he averaged 23.2 points per game overall and 26.7 in the final three games. In the Final Four loss to Oklahoma, Elliott scored 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. He was awesome.

    In his senior year, the No. 1-ranked Wildcats fell to fourth-seeded UNLV in the third round. Elliott again held up his end of the bargain, scoring 27, 25 and 22 in his three games.

    Overall, in 10 NCAA tournament games, Elliott averaged 21.6 per game. When it mattered most, Elliott was at his best. Unfortunately the team around him couldn't perform at the same level and it holds him back from the top spots on this list.

2. Mike Bibby

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    Record: 9-1

    Best Finish: Won Championship (1997)

    Disappointments: 1998

    Bibby won an incredible 90 percent of his NCAA tournament games while at Arizona. During those games he scored 13 or more in all but the very last, the debacle against Utah.

    Outside of that, Bibby was magic. In his freshman year, he was taking over games against seniors like All-American Jacque Vaughn and God Shammgod. He was scoring, throwing no-look passes and had a confidence that could not be shaken. On the championship run, he averaged 18 points in six games.

    The next year he scored 19 in round one, 19 in round two and 26 in the Sweet 16. At this point in his career he was 9-0. Utah finally slowed Bibby and the Cats down in the Elite 8, but not before he had a second solid season under his belt. Bibby was an all-time great performer at Arizona and without him there definitely would not have been a championship in 1997.

1. Miles Simon

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    Record: 11-3

    Best Finish: Won Championship (1997)

    Disappointments: 1998, 1995

    Miles Simon was the best player on the only championship team in Arizona history. But his stellar NCAA tournament play did not begin in 1997. During his sophomore season Simon averaged 18 points a game en route to Arizona's Sweet 16.

    Then came 1997. As the tournament went on, he got better and better. Once Arizona reached the Elite 8, he was unstoppable. He scored 30 against Providence and then 24 against North Carolina in the Final Four. In the title game against Kentucky, he poured in another 30. He stepped up at the biggest of moments.

    In 1998, Simon again played well, but the Wildcats ran into the worst matchup in the tournament when they met Rick Majerus and his Utah Utes. It was a disappointing way to end an incredible run for this group of Wildcats, but they still advanced to the final eight competitors. 

    Simon, without a doubt, is the best Wildcat of all-time in NCAA tournament play.

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