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Past Champs Look Wooden By Comparison

Fri., April 7, 1995

John Wooden had to be wondering: What’s Arkansas doing here?

And Oklahoma State and North Carolina - who let them in?

None of the three won its conference championship. Back in Dynasty Days, the NCAA Tournament was strictly reserved for conference champions. Plus, all the overrated Eastern independents a committee could stand.

Hazzard, Goodrich, Alcindor, Walton, Wicks, Rowe and Meyers led the mightiest armies college basketball will ever see. But they did not fight on a level battlefield.

UCLA rarely had to beat the best, even in college basketball’s dead-ball era.

Because of that, the 1995 Bruins are the best national champions in school history.

Not the best team.

Not the best players.

But these UCLA champions had to play better, longer, than any other. They won a school-record 31 games. When they hoist this banner in Pauley Pavilion they should use only capital letters. None of the other 10 - by itself - compares.

It also helped that Arkansas had no taste for the fray Monday night, and that no coach who wore a shower curtain to the championship game has ever won it. I mean, really - Nolan Richardson’s outfit Monday night was designed by Frederick’s of Monsanto. Was it natural grass or AstroTurf?

Don’t misunderstand. It would be comical to cheapen anything Wooden did. Those Bruins were like the McCarthyStengel Yankees of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. They lived up to their huge advantages. They dominated.

But what if this team had gotten a crack at the old, anemic tournament format?

UCLA would have probably played the Big West champion in the regional semifinal. Depending on how the Big West determined that champion, it would have been Long Beach State or Utah State. Not Mississippi State. In the final Ratings Percentage Index, Mississippi State was 16th nationally. Long Beach State was 55th and Utah State 63rd.

In the regional final, UCLA might have met the WAC champ, Utah. Not Connecticut. Utah was 26th nationally. UConn was seventh (UCLA was sixth).

In Oakland, Jim Harrick answered his own question: “Why haven’t we gotten to the Final Four? Because it’s haaaard.”

Well, back then it was eeeeeeeasy. UCLA had some close calls with Jerry Tarkanian’s Long Beach State, but in 1967 the Bruins only had to beat Wyoming and Pacific to make the Final Four.

Through all their championship years, Wooden’s Bruins only had to play two ACC teams in the tournament (North Carolina ‘68, N.C. State ‘74). Only four Big Ten teams (Michigan ‘65, Purdue ‘67, Indiana ‘73, Michigan ‘75). Only one SEC team (Kentucky ‘75).

And, of course, the old UCLA

teams never had to win six tournament games to win a championship, as this UCLA team did.

But there are so many other reasons why those UCLA Dynasty Days don’t compare.Blacks, for one thing. They couldn’t, or didn’t, play in the ACC and the SEC back then. Kenny Washington, the UCLA hero of ‘64, was from Beaufort, S.C. Today’s Kenny Washingtons are playing at Clemson (or Connecticut).

Stronger conferences, for another. The Big East didn’t come along until the late ‘70s.

Television, naturally. In medieval times, national TV had little interest in college basketball, until tournament time. Bill Walton and Marques Johnson never knew they had baskets anywhere but UCLA.

Then there’s freshman eligibility, scholarship reductions, the 3-point shot, the shot clock, foreign recruiting and a million other factors.

So it’s useless to compare.

Harrick’s only problem springs from Monday night’s brilliant decisiveness. I can’t tell you how many UCLA fans have already boasted, “With Dollar, Bailey and Charles, we’ll win it next year!”

No, you won’t.”

Next season, the Bruins will be very good, especially if sophomores Kris Johnson and omm’A Givens blossom. But they could also be 19-8 and no better than second in the Pac-10. Which would make the West Side Werewolves howl. Sorry - Jim Harrick has won one more national title than Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, Lute Olson, Gary Williams, Gene Keady, Rick Majerus and Lon Kruger combined. Rationalize that as best you can.

Around UCLA, this sensational 1995 basketball team should always be remembered as champion of champions.

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