Thursday, March 23, 2006

UCLA Guard Legacy

By Steve Bisheff, Columnist
Orange County Register

Ben Howland raves about them. Dick Vitale rants about them. John Wooden quietly compliments them.

Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo are the primary reasons UCLA is in the NCAA's Sweet16 and favored to beat Gonzaga on Thursday night and advance to the Elite Eight.

If these two gifted sophomores don't form the finest backcourt in college basketball, they certainly have to be included in any serious discussion on the subject.

So the next question is where do they rate in the pantheon of great Bruins guard combinations? After two seasons, are they ready to advance to the top echelon at America's most decorated basketball institution?

"They are a fine pair of guards," said Wooden, the UCLA coaching legend who has to rank as the ultimate authority. "But let's remember they are both sophomores.

"I think Afflalo is the best all-around guard we have. He can shoot, drive and he is very competitive. He's a very good defensive player.

"Farmar is a good point guard, but he is not under full control yet," Wooden said. "I think he still holds onto the ball a little too much. But he sees the floor well, and he can shoot from outside, too. He's a good shooter."

If you know Wooden, you realize he never will compare one group of UCLA players to another. He wouldn't when he was coaching, and he won't now.

Other than to mention he is "still very partial" to a couple of guard combinations he had during his extraordinary run of 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, he refused to elaborate.

So I will attempt to do it for him. As someone who either has covered or observed every UCLA team since Wooden's magical era began, this is how I would have rated them coming into this season:

1. Walt Hazzard, Sr., and Gail Goodrich, Jr., 1963-64: They remain the blue-and-gold standard, the perfect complementary pair.

Hazzard was the flashy passer, great open-court player and quintessential leader, while Goodrich was the ideal off-guard, a wonderful shooter who might have been the best player in college basketball history without the ball.

Both contributed to Wooden's withering zone-press defense, too, particularly Goodrich, who led the team in steals.

It is fitting they will be remembered as the All-American guards who began the long domination of Bruins basketball, winning Wooden's first national title in '64.

2. Mike Warren, Sr., and Lucius Allen, Jr., 1967-68: The inclination is to say anybody could have played guard with Lew Alcindor at center, but these two weren't just anybody. Wooden always has described Warren, who played at his old high school in Indiana, as the smartest player he ever coached.

He was a smooth, controlled point guard who almost never turned over the ball. He was a deadly shooter from outside, too.

Allen was the stylish and slightly more erratic one with the slashing moves of an NBA player and a feathery soft jumper of his own.

When they were on, and they usually were, few were more fun to watch.

3. Henry Bibby, Sr., and Greg Lee, So., 1971-72: In his senior year, Bibby, a great shooter and a fine all-around player, was as good as any guard in America. Lee was a young point guard, not unlike Farmar, both brilliant and out of control at times.

Again, with a center like Bill Walton, there was less pressure in the backcourt, but these two complemented each other well, especially once Lee, who was Walton's closest friend in college, developed an unmistakable rapport with the big guy.

Nobody threw more successful lob passes than Lee.

4. Tyus Edney, Sr., and Toby Bailey, So., 1994-95: Edney's career was summed up by that surreal coast-to-coast bucket against Missouri in the final 4.8 seconds of the NCAA Tournament second-round game in '95. The little guy was a winner who seemed to improve every year in Westwood.

Bailey was a terrific athlete and marvelous leaper who came on as the season progressed, enjoying his biggest moment on the biggest stage, scoring 26 points in the national title game against Arkansas when an injured Edney couldn't play.

5. Baron Davis, So., and Earl Watson, So., 1998-99: If they had completed four years together, there's no telling where they would have rated. Davis was a spectacular athlete who was good enough to jump to the NBA after the 1999 season. He was hurt part of the time at UCLA, but he provided more than enough highlight-reel footage while he was there.

Watson was the ultimate grinder who could and eventually did play both guard positions in Westwood. He was a good passer, a decent shooter and a fine defender. But most of all, he'd lay his body out to win, and you had to admire him for that.

Throw in Bibby, as a sophomore, and John Vallely, a brilliant-shooting senior, in 1969-70, as honorable mention, and you have to wonder how Farmar and Afflalo could crash such an impressive group.

But again, as Wooden reminded everyone, they're only sophomores and, already, they are generating positive reviews.

"We have the best guard combo in the country in my opinion," Howland said.

An admiring Mark Gottfried, after watching the pair help outpoint his Alabama team in San Diego, said: "I think Farmar, Afflalo and when you throw in Ced Bozeman, the combination of those guys is one of the best in the nation."

The most encouraging thing about Farmar and Afflalo is that they're still coming on, they're still improving.

And maybe more important, they're still hungry.

They should be.

Unlike most of their counterparts on our top five list, they haven't even made it to their first Final Four yet, let alone won a national championship.

They figure to have plenty of time and lots of opportunities, though. The rest will be up to them.

(reprinted with permission)



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