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Curry Kirkpatrick
January 11, 1988
Arizona's Wildcats, wimps no more, beat Duke to win the glamorous and grand Fiesta Bowl Classic
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January 11, 1988

Top Cats Who Are Tough Cats

Arizona's Wildcats, wimps no more, beat Duke to win the glamorous and grand Fiesta Bowl Classic

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You may have read that it snowed on Christmas Day in Tucson. First time ever. Don't believe it. That was surely just freeze-dried confetti being scattered over the desert in honor of the Wildcats' achieving a No. 1 ranking in college basketball. The Arizona Wildcats. In Tucson. First time ever.

And after Arizona blew down Duke on Dec. 30 to win the ultraglamorous Fiesta Bowl Classic right there in Tucson, the forecast called for continuing flurries of snow jobs about how good the Cats are; how deep, balanced, adaptable, cohesive; how they might even bang some people around on occasion; how much fun they are to watch.

Believe it this time. The Wildcats may be even better than all that. While the fun of being No. 1 lasted only until last Saturday night, when Arizona suffered its first loss, a 61-59 stumble at New Mexico, these Cats figure to keep their noses near the top long past George Washington's birthday—whether or not the Honorable Evan Mecham, Governor, rescinds that holiday, too. (He wiped Martin Luther King's day off the state's holiday roster last year.)

O.K., so coach Cool Hand Lute Olson's Wildcats have rolled up their 12-1 record by beating, among others, a young Michigan team, a resting-on-its-laurels Syracuse outfit, an unsuspecting Iowa crew and a not-quite-ready-for-prime-upset Duke club. The point is that Arizona has done more than anyone expected of it so far. And last week the Cats offered up another bonus: the soft-spoken, multifaceted homeboy and swingman Sean Elliott, who, in an instant All-America performance, scored 31 creative points in Arizona's 91-85 Fiesta championship victory over the Blue Devils and looked as if he could have eased in 31 more.

"The best I've ever guarded," said Duke's stellar defender, senior Billy King. "Like Len Bias. Not as great a leaper, but the same versatility and skills. And Sean's arms are so long you can never get a piece of his shot." Elliott's performance included nine rebounds and five assists, and with center Tom Tolbert, who finished with 19 points, he quelled a Duke rally that threatened the Wildcats' late 14-point lead.

"How good is Arizona?" said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, still piqued over some jalapeño home cooking by the crew of Pac-10 referees who obviously weren't accustomed to dealing with one, much less two, raging, clawing defenses. "The question is, How much better can the Wildcats get? By March all the other top teams will have been through World War III, while Lute's problem will be how to simulate this kind of competition."

Ouch! Will somebody please remove the dagger from the ribs of the miserable Pac-10? But please note, too, that Arizona pulverized Washington 110-71 and Washington State 89-55 the week before the Fiesta—and both were road games for the Wildcats. Indeed, given that all the Cats' key victories had come on foreign floors, the Fiesta, played in Tucson's McKale Center, was a sort of combined welcome-home and coming-out party for a team that had never been ranked higher than No. 10.

Fiesta basketball started in Tempe, Ariz., 11 years ago, but the tournament was never much more than a rumor there and died in 1983. Upon his arrival at Arizona in '83, Olson pushed for an on-campus Christmas tournament. "The best one. No cupcakes," he said. So the Valley National Bank came up with lucrative guarantees, the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort supplied posh digs at cut-rate prices, and in three years the Fiesta has become the elite of holiday hoopathons. Noncupcakes Florida and Michigan State filled out the field last week; Pittsburgh and Purdue are lined up for future Christmases.

Considering the accommodations, no team is likely to decline an invitation. How often does a college kid get to stay in a hotel room with a TV in the John? The host hotel makes even the lowliest pine-timer feel like royalty, what with the string quartets, high tea, and king-sized bathtubs complete with plastic champagne bottles full of bubble bath. "There's nothing like lying in my champagne bubbles scouting some opponent on TV," said Duke forward Danny Ferry.

And there were some opponents in the Fiesta. All of the tournament coaches had been to the Final Four, and two had won national championships—Michigan State's Jud Heathcote and Florida's Norm Sloan (when he was at N.C. State). With Arizona, Duke and Florida inhabiting most everybody's Top 10, Olson called the field merely "the best anywhere, ever."

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