I felt like I was locked away in there," says Arizona senior forward Michael Dickerson, pointing across San Francisco Bay toward Alcatraz. "It was like I was in jail, and no matter what I tried, there was no escape."
Considering the exhilarating conclusion to the Wildcats' 1996-97 season, when they upset No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky along their charmed path to the NCAA championship, Dickerson's words betray a shocking bitterness. It's as if he can't believe how his season, which began with so much promise, ended with him sentenced to the bench. It's as if he still can't reconcile the two Dickersons. In the beginning there was the Dickerson who lit up the Tar Heels for 31 points (including seven three-pointers) in the season opener, ascended as high as fourth in the nation in scoring, and kept the Wildcats afloat while Arizona's emotional leader, guard Miles Simon, sat out the first 11 games under academic suspension. Then there was the Dickerson who in the Final Four shot 1 for 10 against North Carolina and 1 for 8 against Kentucky. "My coach lost faith in me, and then I lost my confidence," Dickerson says. "Before every shot I thought, If I miss this, am I coming out? I was hurt, embarrassed and bitter and I'll always remember that."
When the Arizona publicity department passed out a questionnaire this fall asking for each player's memories of the Final Four, Dickerson wrote only, Sitting on the bench in crunch time. Because he feels he played virtually no part in Arizona's stunning victories, he has never worn his championship ring, which he gave to his grandmother, Ora. All the Wildcats want to return to the Final Four, but no one wants it more than Dickerson.
To that end he worked out tirelessly over the summer with Gary Payton, Dale Ellis, Detlef Schrempf and other NBA players in his hometown of Seattle, until he rediscovered his shooting touch. He also spent countless late nights this fall and winter launching shots in the McKale Center. Dickerson began shooting there alone at 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve but, consumed by his desire to be the first Wildcat to practice this year, missed the moment when 1998 actually began.
Dickerson's hard work is paying off. Entering Thursday's game against Washington, he had scored in double figures in 20 of 22 games and was leading the Wildcats in scoring, with 18.2 points per game. On Jan. 29 against Stanford, undefeated and ranked No. 4 at the time, he hit 11 of 15 shots, which helped lift Arizona to its 11th straight victory.
Defending their national championship hasn't been all hot shooting and winning streaks for the Wildcats. The off-season began with a summer tour to Australia, where they finished with a 5-4 record and lost twice to the Australian 22-and-under team. Then days before the opening of practice, an investigative report in The Kansas City Star accused the university of bending its rules to help Simon restore his eligibility in the fall of '96 after he had been academically suspended for getting a D average in the spring of '96. School officials deny any wrongdoing.
With all five starters back and ranked No. 1 in both the AP and the coaches' preseason polls, the Wildcats promptly lost twice—to highly ranked Duke and Kansas—in the first six games of the season. Then they stumbled into a brief Christmas break with a sloppy loss to Florida State, which left them at 7-3. "We started the year too cocky," junior guard Jason Terry says. "We thought we were too good to ever get beat, so those three losses were a tough reality check."
For the first time in his 15 years at Arizona, coach Lute Olson had begun the season employing a press for the full 40 minutes. Unfortunately the Wildcats' last line of defense, junior center A.J. Bramlett, repeatedly got into foul trouble, and the other players spent too much energy pressing to run the offense effectively. After some players groused about the strategy, the Wildcats went back to the suffocating half-court defense that helped them win the NCAA title. Since the loss to Florida State, Arizona (19-3, 9-0 in the Pac-10 at week's end) has won 12 straight games and regained its aura as the nation's most dynamic team at both ends of the floor. On Thursday night Arizona visited a Stanford team that had not been down more than five points anytime this season. The Wildcats trounced the Cardinal 93-75, committing just six turnovers and shooting 58% against the team with the Pac-10's best field-goal-percentage defense.
Though obscured by Arizona's All-America backcourt tandem of Simon and sophomore point guard Mike Bibby, Dickerson has sparked the Wildcats' surge, shooting 57% from the floor and 43% from three-point range. But hardly anybody has noticed. "When you're playing with two All-Americas, you're always in their shadow," Dickerson says. "I've had to accept that no matter what I do, I'll always be Michael who?"
Bibby is among the top 10 in the conference in scoring, assists and steals in what is likely his final audition for the NBA. Simon, a senior and last year's Final Four MVP, is among the Pac-10's top 10 in scoring and assists. Terry, a sixth man who could start for almost any other team in the country, is sixth in the conference in assists and eighth in steals. The 6'11" Bramlett already has five double doubles this season, and Olson says he has improved faster than any player he has coached. " Arizona just has so many weapons," said Cal coach Ben Braun after a 70-57 loss to Arizona last Saturday. "You can only dodge bullets for so long."