Wooden praises Howland

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- Ben Howland can win the NCAA men's basketball title this weekend in Atlanta. He is well aware of that, as is all of college basketball.

What he isn't aware of is that he already has won a basketball coaches' lottery, something priceless. It comes in the form of a quote, uttered Sunday night by the greatest college basketball coach of all time.

"I don't think my teams played as good a defense as Ben's teams," John Wooden said.

Wooden is 96 and exaggerates now as much as he ever did. Which is never. He has no hidden agendas. He loves his Bruins, but can still look at them objectively, as he looks at all of life. He still watches games, in person or on TV, like a biology teacher with a frog. Others see; Wooden dissects.

Wooden coached UCLA to 10 NCAA titles and he thinks Howland's teams play better defense. Read it again. Let it sink in. You hear something like that from Dick Vitale, you turn the volume down. From Wooden, spoken softly and presented matter-of-factly, it is a wow.

Wooden won't be in Atlanta this weekend for the Bruins' run at the title. He will be in Kentucky early in the week for a high school event that he committed to, and that's enough travel for him for one week. He'll be back Thursday, and ready to watch a team and a coach he's grown quite fond of.

"I don't get all ruffled up, at least not on the outside," Wooden said. "But when things aren't going well for them, I'm hurting inside."

In a lengthy interview, Wooden said he has been impressed with how Howland builds programs, noting that, in each of his coaching jobs - at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and now UCLA - he struggled in the first season and then brought rapid improvement.

"I think here, in his first season, he couldn't get the players to buy into what he wanted," Wooden said. "Now, they have.

"I've always said, in any sport, defense most often will be the deciding factor. I still love to watch a 1-0 or 2-1 baseball game.

"Players always want to play offense more than defense, but Ben's got them understanding the job. We never doubled on the ball as much as Ben does. He just took the big kids from Pitt out of the game the other night doing that. When I watch his team, I see good fundamentals, and you know how much I like to see that. I like the way they keep the floor balanced."

Wooden said his teams, for the most part, played a shifting sort of triangle-and-two defense.

"We'd play three men man-to-man and let the other two float and zone," Wooden said, adding that his mid-'60s teams - the Fred Slaughter, Gail Goodrich, Jack Hirsch years - were as close as any of his teams to the sort of defensive attacking Howland's teams play.

"I didn't want to do that when I had Lewis [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] and later when I had Bill [Walton]," Wooden said. "But [in the seasons] between them, we'd go at it like that."

Wooden said he worries about a hot-shooting team counteracting UCLA's double teams.

"Something has to be open when you do that," he said. "Indiana got hot against us."

Wooden also worries about the sometimes helter-skelter nature of today's game, and admits to getting nervous sometimes, watching Bruins point guard Darren Collison, who repeatedly drives the middle.

"In practice, I used to put a chair on the free-throw line," Wooden said. "That's where I wanted the penetration to stop, that's where I wanted the passes to start from. Now, of course, if you can get a layup, certainly you do it."

Wooden said he likes the Bruins' game pace. One of his tenets is to be quick, but don't hurry.

"We've been behind in a number of games this year," he said, "but I've been liking a lot how we never hurried."

He said he saw the opposite in the Bruins' regional game against Kansas, and he was surprised that the Jayhawks, as good a team as they were, hurried too much and got a bit out of control.

"I call that activity without achievement," Wooden said.

He said he understands the game is different now, that things such as the shot clock and the three-point arc have changed some of the strategy. He said he didn't want any of his observations to be taken as criticism. He also said he is amazed, and somewhat disappointed, at how physical the game has become, and how much the referees let go.

"My daughter, Nan, made an interesting observation the other night," Wooden said. "She said she couldn't ever remember seeing so many players down on the floor."

Last year at this time, while Howland and the Bruins were making their run all the way to a loss to Florida in the national title game, Wooden was ill and eventually hospitalized with an attack of diverticulitis that, it was eventually revealed, was serious enough to be life-threatening.

Now, he is feeling as fine as one can at 96, staying as active as you can when all the cartilage in your knees is gone, enjoying dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and continuing to make more public commitments and appearances than daughter Nan would prefer.

And yes, he still drives. His 1988 Ford Taurus - "It's really an '89 because I got it in December of '88," he said - has some trips ahead down the street for breakfast and lunch at some of his favorite restaurants in the Valley. Matter of fact, the odometer reading, now at 36,000 miles, might someday hit that magic 40,000 mark.

"My driver's license renewal came, and I've got five more years," Wooden said. "Guess I'm going to have to live to 101."

Don't bet against it.

Bill Dwyre writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Final Four

At Georgia Dome, Atlanta


Ohio State vs. Georgetown, 6:07 p.m. Line: Pick 'em

Florida vs. UCLA, 8:47 p.m. (approximate) Line: Florida by 3


Semifinal winners, 9 p.m.

(All games on chs. 13, 9)

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