Jim Harrick's biggest critic used to be 6-foot-11 Bill Walton, UCLA class of '74. . . . Walton, a TV commentator and Hall of Fame center, characterized Harrick's Bruin teams as underachievers who failed to improve during the season. . . .
Last summer, Walton called Harrick to apologize. . . .
"I told Jim that I had made a mistake," Walton said Monday. "I had let my pride for UCLA and desire for them to win all the time get in the way of my job as a broadcaster. I was being unfair to him." . . .
There have been no such problems this season. . . .
The Bruins are No. 1, improving every week, peaking for the NCAA tournament, and silencing their coach's numerous critics. . . .
"They're playing better than anybody in the country," Walton said. "They play terrific defense with incredible intensity. They're outrunning people. They pass the ball and hit the boards. You don't get a sense of individual play. They're a real team. The coach is doing a great job." . . .
Walton credits Harrick for substituting wisely and having an extremely well-conditioned team that wears down opponents. . . .
"The tighter rotation has helped," Walton said. "It's a mistake to play too many players. Sure, he has plenty of talent, but your best players should play the whole game. That's always been a tough decision for coaches to make." . . .
The Bruins' best player, of course, is senior forward Ed O'Bannon. . . .
"He'll be UCLA's first player of the year since Marques Johnson," predicted Walton, who was named Sporting News player of the year in 1972, '73 and '74. . . .
"What I like best about Ed right now is that he's shooting the ball every time he touches it," Walton said. "That's a sign of a really good player. He's the guy--he believes it, and his teammates believe it." . . .
Walton is confident that his alma mater's success will continue in March and April. . . .
"This team will win its four remaining games and be seeded No. 1 in the West Regional," Walton said. "The Bruins and Kansas will be the schools with the easiest roads to the Final Four. . . .
"Behind them are North Carolina, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and never leave out Arkansas. Arkansas has been up and down, but it's got the players and the bull inside, Corliss Williamson, who can take over a game." . . .
Caesars Palace in Las Vegas has outbid the MGM Grand for the May 6 Oscar De La Hoya-Rafael Ruelas bout. . . .
Jeremy Williams, the Long Beach heavyweight who spent much of his last fight clowning, better not get into any conversations with Jesse Ferguson on Sunday at the Palm Springs Riviera. Remember the Ferguson-Ray Mercer fight? . . .
Gary Stevens will interrupt his 3 1/2-month sojourn in Hong Kong to ride Irish-bred Urgent Request in the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap on March 11. . . .
Stevens, who had eight wins in 33 mounts during his first month abroad, also will ride March 9-10 at Santa Anita before returning to Hong Kong. . . .
Urgent Request will be making his debut on dirt. . . .
UCLA's men's and women's track and field teams will compete in the first of two home meets this season Saturday at Drake Stadium against UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State and Cal State L.A. . . .
Track & Field News predicts the Bruin women will win the NCAA meet that will be held May 31-June 3 at Knoxville, Tenn., and that the men will finish in the top 10. . . .
Ben Agajanian, the first pro football player to be hired solely for his kicking ability, will conduct his 46th annual free football clinic for youngsters starting Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Long Beach State. . . .
Both punting and place- kicking will be taught at the two-hour sessions that will be held every Wednesday through the end of May. Participants 6 years and older are asked to bring their own footballs. . . .
Former Boston Bruin Mike Milbury is making a hit as an ESPN hockey commentator. . . .
NHL shooters are having a tougher time regaining their form than goaltenders. . . .
Local TV ratings Sunday: UCLA-Duke basketball game on ABC, 4.1; Nissan L.A. Open golf tournament on CBS, 3.5. National overnight ratings: Nissan L.A. Open, 4.2; UCLA-Duke, 2.3. . . .
If Joe Smith and/or Rasheed Wallace enter the NBA draft this year and the Clippers get the top selection in the lottery, they would be crazy to trade away that pick and another in the future for a veteran such as Scottie Pippen.