UNLV may be scaring the shorts off everyone else as it streaks undefeated toward a second straight NCAA title, but the Wizard of Westwood isn't especially wowed.
John Wooden's plaque-packed den, a private Hall of Fame for UCLA's 10 national champions, is the place to go to rank the Running Rebels in the pantheon of superteams and it's the place where they may finally fall short.No reflection on you, Shark - "Jerry Tarkanian is an outstanding coach," Wooden says sincerely - but the view from here is that UNLV doesn't measure up to at least five UCLA teams and might not have beaten five other champions of yesteryear.
Inside Wooden's gold-carpeted sanctum, where the 80-year-old former coach works at a rolltop desk and chats almost daily with his former players, the walls bear evidence to back up his assessment of what the Rebels are missing: no Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton of UCLA, no Bill Russell of San Francisco.
Staring out from the photos of four undefeated teams and seven consecutive NCAA champions are such future NBA stars as Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Lucius Allen, Walton, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Henry Bibby and Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes.
Wooden, the only member of the Basketball Hall of Fame inducted as a player and a coach, is slowed these days by arthritis in his knees and hips, but his mind is as sharp as ever. He stays current with college basketball, watching it on television, reading about it and attending all UCLA home games.
This year's Final Four is in Indianapolis, Wooden's home town, and he may go for the first time since his wife, Nell, died six years ago this month. They went to 36 straight together until she became sick and and couldn't go a couple of years, then went one more time when she watched from a wheelchair.
Wooden plans to go there for a special affair in his honor that will include his family and many former players, but he's uncertain about going to the games. "I'm too old to let emotion affect me that much, but it does," he said.
Emotion doesn't cloud his view of the current titans of college hoops, the Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels. He knows their strengths and weaknesses, and he expects they will win the NCAA title again, though he names several teams - Ohio State, Indiana, Arizona - capable of upsetting them.
But in comparing UNLV with the great UCLA teams of the 1960s and 1970s and the Russell-led national championship teams at San Francisco in the 1950s, Wooden believes the Runnin' Rebels lack the one dominant player they would need to win those fantasy matchups.
"I'd rather compare the Las Vegas team with the Indiana team that went undefeated in 1976," he said. "I think they match up very well in many ways. They're both strong defensively, both have good balance, without the one great individual star. Not that (Larry) Johnson and (Stacey) Augmon aren't stars, but they're not THE star like Alcindor or Walton or Russell."
UNLV also matches up well against UCLA's championship teams in 1970 and 1971, Wooden said. Those teams starred Wicks and Rowe at forward, Steve Patterson at center, and two quick shooting guards, Henry Bibby and John Vallely, who would have thrived under the 3-point rule.
"That team, playing under the present rules, would have been even better than they were under the rules at that particular time, and they did all right under those rules," Wooden said. "I'd say it would be about a tossup between those two teams of mine and the Indiana team and this Las Vegas team."
UNLV deserves plenty of praise for its 41 straight victories, Wooden said, but that's still not even halfway to the record 88 in a row by his Bruins.
"You have to have more than the one superstar," Wooden said, pointing to Kansas' failure to win with Wilt Chamberlain and Virginia's loss with Ralph Sampson. "But if you have that one superstar with the surrounding cast that fits in - and they have to fit in, they can't just be good players - that sets you apart. I think the Bill Russell teams and my Alcindor teams and certainly the first two undefeated teams with Walton would pose more problems for UNLV than UNLV would pose for them."
Russell's 1955 and 1956 championship teams at USF, which also starred K.C. Jones and Mike Farmer, rank in Wooden's assessment closer than UNLV to his Alcindor and Walton teams.
"You can't say one was better than another because the game changed," Wooden said. "For example, today one of my teams that I think might have been a little stronger than the others might not be as strong because of the 3-point goal and the time clock. In all probability, the team I had that would give opponents the most difficulty at both ends of the court was my 1968 team, even though that team lost one game."
That team, led by Alcindor, forwards Lynn Shackelford and Mike Lynn, and guards Lucius Allen and Mike Warren, "had great balance and the one great superstar," Wooden said.
Allen and Warren were "as good as any pair of guards that I've ever seen," said Wooden, dubbed "the peerless Purdue guard" when he led the undefeated Boilermakers to a conference title in the 1930-31 season, eight years before the start of the NCAA tournament.
"Mike Warren was as smart a guard as ever played the game, and Lucius Allen was an extremely talented physical individual," he said. "Both could shoot from the outside, both could handle the ball very well, and both were very quick.
"At forward, Lynn Shackelford was a great outside shooter. What he would have done with the 3-pointer! He shot so well from the corner, and that took pressure off of Alcindor underneath. At my other forward, I had Mike Lynn, who probably had the best hands around the basket of any player I've ever had. He didn't have great speed, but he had outstanding quickness, which to me is the most important physical asset that any athlete can have in any sport. And as a backup I had Kenny Heitz, who had been a starter the year before on an undefeated team."
The only game that team lost was the regular season classic with Elvin Hayes' undefeated Houston Cougars in the Astrodome, a widely watched game that enormously boosted college basketball's popularity.
"We were better (than Houston). I knew that all the time," Wooden said. "If Alcindor had been anything near himself, we wouldn't have lost. He had a scratched eye and he'd missed the two previous games, the only games he missed all season, and he'd been in a hospital in a dark room for three days. He hadn't practiced for about 10 days. The doctor said he had vertical double vision and he couldn't play well."
Wooden gave Alcindor the opportunity to play after being assured that it wouldn't hurt him, but the 7-2 center had trouble seeing the ball and the basket.
"It was the only game he played for me, I think, in which he made less than half his shots," Wooden said. "He made four out of 18 and Houston beat us by two points. When we played them again (in the NCAA tournament) we led them by 44 points before I broke up my starters."
If that team were together and healthy, Wooden said, he'd feel quite confident taking on UNLV.
"I'd say let (UNLV) worry about beating us. I wouldn't worry about them," Wooden said. "I would have confidence that my guards would counter their pressure and that they'd get the ball to Alcindor. And if they don't, we're going to crack a lot of 3-point goals."