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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : UCLA Gives Duke Lesson in Higher Ed : Ready or Not, Bruins Have No. 1 Spot

February 27, 1995|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI

If UCLA keeps this up, someone will need to visit the guy hawking Maps of the Stars at the corner of Sunset and Veteran, his tiny roadside booth located at the outer edge of the Westwood campus. After the Bruins' 100-77 dismantling of a better-than-you-think Duke team, it might be time for some geographical revisions.

For instance, the guy might want to include the apartment residence of senior forward Ed O'Bannon, who scored a career-high 37 points against the Dookies. And, just maybe, it might be time to save some map space for Coach Jim Harrick's address. That's right . . . Harrick, who, like it or not, wakes up this morning with the nation's No. 1 team.

Last season, Harrick was busy pulling the stilettos out of his back. Now he's applying ice to all the bruises caused by congratulatory handshakes, including dozens after Sunday's victory. From jeers to cheers, moron to genius in 11 easy months, that's the Harrick story.

About 45 minutes before Sunday's game at Pauley Pavilion, ABC's Dick Vitale grabbed Harrick by the arm and walked him to the Bruin student section. Once there, Vitale turned cheerleader.

"C'mon, how 'bout some applause for Coach Harrick?" Vitale yelled to the students.

The students applauded.

"No, no, no!" said Vitale. " Stand and cheer!"

So some of them stood and clapped and paid homage to the same guy they wanted to send a moving van for shortly after last season's first-round NCAA tournament loss to Tulsa. All the while Harrick nodded politely at the students, a thin grin pasted on his face.

After all, Harrick remembers. The good times and the bad. Survivors, of which Harrick proudly considers himself, do that.

Once again, UCLA is No. 1 under Harrick's watch. It happened late last January, but nobody seemed to take the Bruins' top-ranked status too seriously, including the Bruins. Too many injuries. Too many behind-the-scenes distractions. Too much pressure.

"Nah," said O'Bannon, adding another reason, "I don't think so because it was so early in the season."

It isn't early anymore. March Madness is only a flip of the calendar page away. This time the Bruins don't stagger toward the tournament as they did a season ago, losers of four of their last seven regular-season games. Now they enter the new month with a 10-game winning streak and only one defeat in their last 17.

"They're certainly worthy of the ranking," said sweat-soaked Pete Gaudet, interim coach of a Duke team that suffered its worst regular-season nonconference loss since 1982. "They attack. They put points up. They defend you. They don't need the same guy every night to be their strength."

Not since Feb. 19, 1979, when Gary Cunningham was the head coach and Harrick an assistant, have the Bruins been ranked this high this late. Is it an added bonus or weight? How will they handle it?

Put it this way: They'll handle it better than last January, when UCLA wasn't convinced it was the best team in the Pacific 10 Conference, much less the nation.

"It feels more like we are No. 1, in a way," point guard Tyus Edney said. "I think we've had tough games, a lot of tough games in the past couple weeks. We're just playing well as a team right now."

You don't need a John Wooden Pyramid of Success to understand why the 1995 UCLA team is better than the 1994 version. Edney, who had 16 points, nine assists, two steals and only four fewer rebounds than Duke's Cherokee Parks on Sunday, is injury-free at last. The Bruins have a bench to die for. Center George Zidek has perfected that 1963 hook shot of his. Forward Charles O'Bannon needs air traffic control clearance for his dunk takeoffs. Ed O'Bannon has gone from long shot to prime contender for national player-of-the-year honors, joining Maryland's Joe Smith and Michigan State's Shawn Respert atop the A list.

If there is a more athletic team in the nation, let's see it. Maybe Kentucky. Possibly Maryland. Arkansas, on a good day. Otherwise, UCLA has no peer. As for the No. 1 ranking, the Bruins might want to hold onto that. It comes in handy when the NCAA men's basketball committee starts filling out brackets for the tournament that will end in Seattle in early April.

"To us, it's just an opinion," said Charles O'Bannon. "I think the press makes a bigger deal out of No. 1 than the teams really do. We had it last year, we experienced it, it was a great feeling and everything. But at the time, it wasn't No. 1 at the end of the season. That's what we're pulling for, that's where we want to be. It's just an opinion instead of a fact."

OK, so, Charles, in your opinion, who's the No. 1 team?

"I think we're playing the best right now," he said. "But right now doesn't matter."

Not true. Just ask last season's UCLA team. It needed a map of Tulsa, but nothing more. This season should be different. In fact, do they make a Thomas Bros. Guide for Seattle?

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