The next day, before diving into a meal at the Milano Inn, an Italian restaurant in downtown Indianapolis, the Wildcats were so loose that they started a food fight as soon as their appetizers arrived, pelting each other with ice, breadsticks and sundry antipasti. When they noticed that Jaleel White, the actor who plays the geeky Steve Urkel on Family Matters, was dining in the same joint, they hurled calamari projectiles at him in true haze-the-nerd fashion. "I thought maybe we should have clamped down on that a little, especially when that green pea almost hit Lute," said assistant coach Jessie Evans.
By Sunday they were loitering in the hotel lobby, ranking the Pac-10 cheerleaders, and that night Terry actually slept in his jersey, socks and sneakers. It's hard to get uptight at the prospect of playing for the collegiate championship when you act like you're still in junior high. "You can't make this larger than life," said Olson. "Keep them cooped up in a hotel room, and they'll come out so tight they can't do anything right."
Their coach has a reputation for being like the principal who sends truants to detention. Instead he spent the weekend reproaching unreconstructed "negativists" who still dwelled on Arizona's various early tournament exits. But he did so gently. "If I talk about respect, then I become a whiner," Olson said. "All I've tried to do is say, Look at the facts. Over the past 10 years Arizona has the best winning percentage of any team in America." He's right. The Wildcats' .812 mark is the nation's best over that span.
In the March 27, 1952, edition of the Purple and While, the student newspaper at St. Leo's High in Minot, N.Dak., a columnist named Dale Brown chose one Luke Olson, then a forward at Grand Forks Central, as St. Leo's "Best Opponent Player." For the record, that's the same Dale Brown who just retired as coach at LSU, and that was no typo—Lute went by Luke in those days, thanks to a baseball coach who thought he played with a style reminiscent of Luke Easter. Brown, a master of stream-of-consciousness even then, listed Olson's virtues as "rugged rebounder, plenty of scrap and good team man."
If you thought Brown's retirement meant you'd never hear another college-coach-growing-up-in-North Dakota story, you're out of luck. Born on a farm, Olson was five when his father suffered a stroke and died. Lute would help his mother at the cafe where she worked, and he'd get a free breakfast for filling napkin holders. While this isn't quite as hardscrabble as Brown's tale of using popcorn boxes from the local movie house to cover the holes in the soles of his shoes, "it wasn't," Olson says, "a silver spoon existence."
After his team beat North Carolina, Olson found himself at the wheel of a vehicle that bespeaks prosperity, a golf cart. He was driving Simon, Bibby and Dickerson through the catacombs of the RCA Dome to the postgame press conference when he turned to Simon in the backseat and asked. "Do you feel sale. Miles?"
"What have I got to fear?" Simon replied.
Well, there was the Kentucky press. It had so frustrated Minnesota in Saturday's other semifinal—a 78-69 Kentucky victory—that the Gophers coughed the ball up on their first four possessions and reached their goal of turnovers for the game, 15, by halftime. But Arizona's profile is much like that of the three teams that beat Kentucky this season—Clemson, Mississippi and South Carolina. None has an All-America, and all are amply deep, balanced and quick.
Pitino knew that, and thus he hadn't intended to press Arizona. "I looked at the film and knew they would handle the pressure," he would say. "We wanted to make sure of our half-court man-to-man defense." But Kentucky shot so poorly at the game's outset that Pitino decided his Wildcats needed the press to generate some offense, so four minutes into the game he ordered up a full-court trap. From that point on, Arizona turned the ball over only twice while trying to advance it into the forecourt.
Meanwhile Olson's Wildcats showed that they had some defensive tricks of their own. They ran two defenders at any Kentucky perimeter player who had the ball, with Mercer getting particular attention. He could get off only nine shots, and he committed five turnovers. Dicker-son, Arizona's leading scorer on the season, ended up shooting 2 for 18 in the two games in Indianapolis, but he was the man most responsible for frustrating Mercer. "I figured if I couldn't hit anything," Dickerson said, "he wasn't going to hit anything, either."