Of course, Olson has more important matters to worry about these days than the Shark's bite. Since Arizona's voters rejected a proposal to have a paid state holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the state has been under siege. It has become the object of several threatened boycotts and various retaliatory acts, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue's recommendation that the NFL owners move the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix. One estimate has it that Arizona already has lost more than $309 million in convention business as a direct result of the no-holiday vote, and Olson has reason to wonder if the issue will hurt the Wildcats' recruiting.
As the NIT began with eight games at various sites around the country, Olson tried to distance his program from the controversy, pointing out that Arizona has eight black players on the basketball team, that he personally supported the King holiday and that Tucson, where the university is located, recognizes the third Monday in January with an observance in King's honor. Considering the heated level of the controversy, the Wildcats probably were happy to get out of the state for a few days. The trip was especially welcome for Khalid Reeves, the Wildcats' gifted 6'3" freshman point guard from Queens, whom Olson unabashedly describes as "the best incoming guard at Arizona" in more than a decade.
If that's so, then it's just another way to measure the current talent level at Arizona, because Reeves so far hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup. He comes off the bench to replace one of the Matts, while 6'8" Wayne Womack and 7-foot Ed Stokes are the main subs up front. But no matter who else is on the floor for the Wildcats at a given time, Mills is the athlete who always seems to make the play the team needs most, whether it's a feathery trey from the wing, a tough drive or rebound in traffic, or a critical steal or defensive stop.
"I hesitate to compare him with Sean Elliott," says Muehlebach, who played with Elliott for two seasons. "Sean did so many things for us for so long. But like Sean, Chris is the type of guy who can do it all—and he does it in big games, not just against the weaker teams."
This is the same Mills, of course, who two years ago was college basketball's most notorious freshman. When $1,000 was found in an Emery Worldwide envelope that was addressed from then Kentucky assistant Dwane Casey to Mills's father, the incident touched off an NCAA investigation that led to a three-year probation for the Lexington Wildcats and Mills's transfer to the Tucson Wildcats. This was an especially gratifying coup for Olson, because when Mills had decided to attend Kentucky, one of the also-rans in the hunt was UNLV.
Since arriving in Tucson last year, Mills has kept a fairly low profile, not the easiest of achievements considering that he drives a late-model sports car with CMILLS vanity plates. During his year off, Mills worked hard on his game, especially his long-range shooting, while Olson constantly defended himself against charges from rivals that if he were as clean as he wants everyone to believe him to be, he wouldn't have taken the supposedly tainted Mills.
Mills started the NIT with a pedestrian 17-point effort against Austin Peay in the opening round, then scored just eight points against pesky East Tennessee State, but the Wildcats won both games at their home arena, running their McKale Center winning streak to 49. Olson got Mills's attention by demoting him to the second team for a practice or two. Properly chastened, Mills came to New York and promptly hit his first three shots in the Wildcats' semifinal against Notre Dame's zone, two of them treys, to give Arizona an 8-0 lead. Predictably, it soon became a Wildcat clinic, as Arizona began toying with the overmatched Irish. After slamming down a couple of textbook alley-oops in the second half, Mills sat down with 25 points in only 21 minutes. The Wildcats' 91-61 victory put them in the championship game against Arkansas, which manhandled Duke 98-88 in the other semifinal.
Although Duke has a marvelous freshman in 6'7" Grant Hill, the Blue Devils are short on height, experience and shooting skills. Nevertheless, they took the lead against favored Arkansas, only to surrender meekly when the Razorbacks headlocked the Blue Devils with their signature pressure defense. "We're like a time bomb," is how Richardson describes his charges. "We can be going along just fine, and then all of a sudden we explode." The detonation against Duke occurred late in the first half when a 15-6 Arkansas run changed the game for good.
"At times in the first half we seemed surprised," said 6'11" junior Christian Laettner. "We were saying to ourselves, What are we doing beating Arkansas?' We were just waiting for them to come back and beat us." In the absence of Miller, who was plagued by fouls, the Arkansas hero against Duke was Isaiah Morris, a 6'8" juco transfer who came off the bench to knock down 19 points, most of them from inside the paint. The first time Morris touched the ball, however, he uncharacteristically canned a three-pointer. "I was making it in practice," said Morris, "so I thought, Why not?"
To help offset Arizona's size advantage in the final, Richardson wisely put Morris in the starting lineup, replacing 6'7" forward Ron Huery. Still, the Razorbacks fell behind by as many as eight in the early going before the slick, quick Hogs finally began to bother the Cats with their relentless defensive pressure late in the first half. A 14-4 run was capped when guard Arlyn Bowers made a steal with :03 on the clock and nailed a jumper to send Arkansas dancing into the locker room with a 45-37 lead. But this was when Olson and Mills jumped on the big men—"It was just sort of spontaneous," Mills says—and when Olson also ordered his team to scrap the zone it had used during most of the first half and take the Hogs on man-to-man. The key assignment, of course, was Mills on Day.