Michael Dickerson has led Arizona to Indianapolis, but there were times two years ago when he wanted out of Tucson for reasons other than a trip to the Final Four.
Dickerson is the versatile junior forward who came to Arizona in 1994, in the wake of the Wildcats' previous visit to the national semifinals. Athletic and acclaimed, he was a typical Lute Olson recruit, but when playing time didn't come as quickly as he wanted, he looked for a way out.
"I wanted to play right away which I didn't," said Dickerson, whose Seattle high school career was voted the best in Washington state in the 1990s. "If I had known that, I probably wouldn't have went to Arizona."
And the Wildcats, without a senior in their eight-man rotation, wouldn't be the surprise entry in the Final Four.
Junior guard Miles Simon was the Most Outstanding Player in the Southeast Regional and point Mike Bibby is the best freshman in the land, but it's the development of Dickerson and the other frontcourt players that has lifted Olson to his third Final Four in 10 seasons.
Olson said he has never seen a player improve in one year as much as sophomore center A. J. Bramlett has. Transfer Bennett Davison was the best junior-college player in California a year ago, but did anyone expect him to be the defender he has become?
Dickerson, meanwhile, was the only Wildcat recognized as a first-team all-star in the Pacific-10 Conference, a testimony to a rare blend of skills and the strides he has made in two years.
As a freshman, his defense was lacking and so was his character. Dickerson said he shaped up off the court after a chance encounter with a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and on it after accepting his defensive deficiencies. Before the epiphanies, however, thought was given to leaving Arizona.
Dickerson averaged 11 minutes in a roller-coaster freshman year. At the conclusion of the regular season, he torched Arizona State for 25 points, but then played only six minutes in a first-round NCAA loss to Miami of Ohio. He never asked Olson for his release, but he did have some friends in Seattle ask around about other options.
"It was very hard," Dickerson said. "There were a lot of times I just felt like giving it up. I averaged 31 points in high school, and I was pretty much all-everything. Going to Arizona and not playing hurt a lot, and I got down. My father kept telling me that I had to wait my turn."
Dickerson grudgingly admits that there was a hole or two in his game.
"When I came in, I was behind on a lot of things," he said. "If you ask the coach, I lacked some defensive things. The thing they said I wasn't good at is off-the-ball defense, being in the lane at the right time. On-the-ball defense, I've always had that."
Actually, he hasn't had it all that long.
Growing up in Greenville, S.C., Dickerson got early lessons in footwork by putting on boxing gloves at a boys club. That was his father's pursuit, but he fancied himself playing football for South Carolina or Clemson. It wasn't until age 12, when his father took work in the Seattle area, that he played organized basketball.
"When I came to Washington, it was too late for football because that had already started," Dickerson said. "I didn't have anything to do, so I went to the court and started shooting around."
Oh yes, Dickerson can shoot, whether it's on the perimeter, off the dribble or on a slash to the basket.
Olson said he Dickerson has one of the quickest first steps in Tucson since Sean Elliott, no small feat considering that Damon Stoudamire is among the burners to come through Arizona recently.
Dickerson's confidence began to pick up last season. He averaged 20.7 points in the Pac-10 this season, and was just as effective against a rugged nonconference schedule. He dropped seven three-pointers and 31 points on Final Four opponent North Carolina in the season opener.
Speaking of Tar Heels
"The guy is unbelievable," Utah coach Rick Majerus said. "He's just a big-time talent. He wears that No. 23. He's like Michael Jordan. Obviously, he's not that good, but he's awfully talented."
The more Dickerson is into the game, the more that talent is on display, one reason he asks Olson to guard the other team's point guard.
"I love picking up the point guard full court," Dickerson said. "I love to show them that even though I'm 6-4 or 6-5, I can guard them. I've got the athletic ability to stay with them. I think I'm more in the game when I'm guarding the point guard. When I'm guarding a bigger player, it seems like the game is slower."
Exhibits "A" and "B" came in Birmingham, Ala., last week. In the Southeast Regional final, Dickerson needed to mark one of Providence's bigger wings, and besides, even he isn't quick enough to stay with God Shammgod. Whatever the reason, Dickerson wasn't sharp at the offensive end, and was limited to 10 points.
Two nights earlier, in the Wildcats' monumental upset of No. 1 Kansas, Dickerson had 20 points. By his reckoning, it stemmed from his defensive work. His effort on Jacque Vaughn was at the center of the most significant game in the NCAA tournament.
"We're not supposed to be here right now," Dickerson said. "Right now, we're having fun, joking around."
Two years ago, he couldn't have said that.
North Carolina (28-6) vs. Arizona (23-9), 5: 42 p.m.
Minnesota (31-3) vs. Kentucky (34-4), 8: 17 p.m.*
Semifinal winners, 9: 12 p.m.
TV: All games on chs. 13, 9
* Approximate time
Tomorrow's preview: Kentucky
Arizona at a glance
Location: Tucson, Ariz.
Final Four history: Third appearance; lost in semifinals in 1988 and 1994
How it got here: Fifth-place finisher in Pac-10 received at-large bid. Won Southeast Regional, defeating South Alabama, 65-57; College of Charleston, 73-69; Kansas, 85-82; Providence, 96-92 in overtime.
Coach: Lute Olson (339-110 in 14 seasons at Arizona, 531-202 in 24 seasons overall)
Top scorer: Michael Dickerson (19.8 ppg)
Top rebounder: A. J. Bramlett (6.9 rpg)
Top assists: Mike Bibby (5.3 apg)
Starters: G Mike Bibby, G Miles Simon, F Bennett Davison, F Michael Dickerson, C A. J. Bramlett
Why Arizona can win the national championship: What does it have to lose? The other three teams are No. 1 seeds, and the fourth-seeded Wildcats have to be the loosest team in Indianapolis.
What can stop the Wildcats: If they can't protect a lead any better against North Carolina than they did against Kansas and Providence, their overachieving run in the NCAAs will end in the semifinals.
Pub Date: 3/27/97