Among those honored during the old Lute Olson All-Star Games over the past decade were Arizona’s pioneering 1988 Final Four team and its 1997 national champions.
One was never held for the 1993-94 Wildcats, who went 29-6, won the Pac-10, and blew through four NCAA tournament games to reach the 1994 Final Four despite having a young lineup that had lost standouts Ed Stokes and Chris Mills to the NBA.
“They skipped us over for some reason,” said UA undergraduate assistant Joseph Blair, a sophomore center in 1993-94. “But it is what it is.”
That changes today. The 1994 Wildcats will be honored as part of the program’s annual Red-Blue Game celebration, and Blair said he’s happy to see recognition for the somewhat revolutionary team that featured a three-guard lineup with the 6-foot-2-inch Reggie Geary playing a (really) small forward position.
Here’s how it all happened, according to Geary, UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, Blair, forward Corey Williams and coach Lute Olson:
• The Wildcats began their run while going 9-1 against some of Australia’s top clubs during an exhibition tour in May and June 1993. It was on that trip that Olson opted to go with guards Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Geary, a look that was unconventional at the time.
Stoudamire: “Everything changed, and that’s why I think Coach Olson goes down as one of the best coaches ever. That’s why that team was so special. You had me and Khalid, and Reggie was the glue guy who came together from a defensive standpoint. It allowed me and Khalid to roam, and do what we do best.”
Geary: “If I got a rebound, I could take it down. Any of us could get one and start the break. It was an ‘a-ha’ moment to know that we could be dangerous.”
Olson: “Starting three guards really made sense for us because Reggie was our best defender, Damon was a great point guard who could score and assist, and Khalid Reeves really came on. We didn’t have a dominating front line but they were guys that were quick to the ball and ran the court well, so they put a lot of pressure on the opposing big guys.”
• While Stoudamire averaged 18.3 points and 5.9 assists per game, Reeves blossomed into a vicious scoring threat (24.2 points) partly because of Stoudamire’s help on and off the floor.
Stoudamire: “Man, I had the ultimate green light as a player. I knew the system, and (Olson) allowed me to be more who I was as a player. A lot of the times I knew what Coach was thinking before he ever said it.”
Olson: “A lot of (Reeves’) success was due to Damon because Damon was such a workaholic and Khalid was known as one who liked video games. Damon’s work ethic really stepped in there (to influence Reeves).”
Williams: “Being Damon’s roommate was really interesting because I got the firsthand view of his success. People see him in the games being successful, but I’d see him getting up at 4:30 in the morning to work out. He knew how to have a good time, but he was laser-focused on being the best in the conference and the country.”
• The rest of the Wildcats fell into place behind Reeves and Stoudamire. Geary was a big defense-and-rebounding guy, Owes and Blair were improving big men, and Williams, Dylan Rigdon, Joe McLean and Kevin Flanagan were key role players.
Stoudamire: “Reggie brought energy. Then we had Ray Owes, who was kind of like the ultimate four man (power forward) at that time — he brought a totally different dynamic — and J.B. (Blair) who was obviously coming into his own.”
Williams: “The crazy thing was Damon and Khalid had to do it for us, and everyone else was complementary, so it had a calming effect. That allowed everybody to play together. Things were real competitive (the previous season) when we had Chris and Ed. It’s my personal opinion that when teams have clear go-to guys, it’s easier to be consistent.”
Olson: “The big thing as a coach is you take a look at the talent and then adjust accordingly. All three of the perimeter guys could take it to the basket really well. … Joseph had a great shooting touch, and he was an outstanding athlete, but Ray (Owes) was a terrific perimeter shooter, and we could run a lot of pick-and-pop things, spread the defense way out, because they couldn’t let Ray get a good look.”
• The Wildcats lost only once in nonconference play, by a point to Kentucky in the Maui Invitational, and knew they had something special. They went 14-4 to win the Pac-10.
Geary: “We were in shock that we lost (to Kentucky) and knew we should have won. That gave us confidence. Damon and Khalid were pretty much unstoppable. We had these security blankets that could go off at any time.”
Williams: “I remember feeling we’re playing with house money. (People) said, ‘They have no big men,’ so Owes and Blair took offense to that. We were talented and hungry, with nothing to lose. We knew our two guys (Stoudamire and Reeves) had to shoot 34 times each, and other teams knew it was coming, but they couldn’t stop it.”
• Winning the Pac-10 set the Wildcats up with an all-California path to the Final Four, and they took full advantage. Arizona blitzed Loyola (Md.) and Virginia in its first two games at Sacramento, Calif., then beat Louisville and Missouri in the West Regional at Los Angeles’ Sports Arena. Though Arizona lost 91-82 to eventual national champion Arkansas in the NCAA semifinal, the Wildcats won their first four tournament games by double digits.
Geary: “We were too fast for (Virginia). Louisville came in with (center) Cliff Rozier, and we made quick work of them. But I didn’t realize we made the Final Four until after the game because we were so focused on the task at hand.”
Blair: “What I remember was getting our asses beaten by Santa Clara as a freshman (in 1992-93) — so games never felt like a blowout until you looked at the scoreboard with a minute to go. (Not losing) was on everyone’s minds.”
Olson: “It was a solid run. It wasn’t like ’97 where every game was teetering on the edge. That team pretty much dominated all of the teams until Arkansas.”
• While Stoudamire said the 1993-94 team wasn’t as talented as its predecessors of the previous two seasons, those teams lost to East Tennessee State (1992) and Santa Clara (1993) in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The difference may have been chemistry.
Williams: “We all got along. One of the guys who really kept that team together was Kevin Flanagan, a senior. Even though he didn’t play a lot, he was the leader of that team. He was the guy in practice who would get into guys’ faces. Kevin and Dylan (Rigdon) were like comic relief. They were the guys everybody liked. (In 1992-93) a lot of guys had the NBA on their brain, and that dominated the conversation.
Blair: “We had no animosity. We were so happy for everyone who did well. It was all about winning. That’s all we cared about.”
Olson: “They enjoyed playing together as a team, and there wasn’t anyone with the ‘me’ type attitude. It was a team in every sense of the word.”