It's a Classic Opportunity to Show Stuff : Wooden Classic: Last year's event was key for Bruins, who face Maryland today after Villanova meets Purdue.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is tradition in the John R. Wooden Classic, even if it goes only a year deep.

Last December, a veteran, tournament-torched UCLA team searching for confidence came to the first Wooden Classic at The Pond of Anaheim and knocked off Kentucky on two last-second free throws by freshman J.R. Henderson.

Four months later, the Bruins were cutting the nets down in the Kingdome. The road to the Final Four goes through . . . The Pond?

"Thinking back to last year against Kentucky, I really believe winning that game was one of the keys of our season," UCLA Coach Jim Harrick said Friday. "Next to the Final Four, the atmosphere here at The Pond was electric."

This season, UCLA is back in the second edition but is 2-3, and, without last season's three centerpiece seniors, probably a year away from contemplating another serious Final Four run.

Maryland, the Bruins' fast-paced opponent today, was upwardly mobile and all set for a title chase this season after making the Sweet 16 last April. Then, sophomore big man Joe Smith declared for the NBA draft, where he was the No. 1 choice overall. Mr. Smith goes to the NBA, Maryland goes back to the pack at 3-2.

"We're kind of in the same boat," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said, comparing his team to UCLA's situation. "This is an interesting game, because I think both teams are going through some transition times this year."

Purdue (4-1), John Wooden's alma mater and the two-time defending Big Ten champion, is nursing its own personnel losses, mostly the outside bombs of Cuonzo Martin.

But second-ranked Villanova, Purdue's opponent in the early game today, had a different experience. Its best player, guard Kerry Kittles, stayed for his senior year.

And, motivated by its own first-round NCAA tournament fiasco last April--a triple-overtime loss to Old Dominion--Villanova has already gotten off to its best start, 6-0, since 1984-85, when the Wildcats won their only national title.

Last season, led by Kittles, center Jason Lawson and forward Eric Eberz, Villanova blew through the Big East tournament, finishing with a 16-point wipeout of Connecticut.

"I spoke with [Villanova Coach] Stevie Lappas, told him the year before we won the national title, we lost in the first round of the tournament," Harrick said.

Lappas, for his part, does not rebut talk that this is the season Villanova has been building toward since he replaced Rollie Massimino four years ago.

"It's gradual," Lappas said recently. "As much as it's happened quickly, it's been gradual at the same time. I think you build up to this point slowly. You know, we had a couple of great wins [two seasons ago] when Jason and those guys were freshmen. . . .

"So it has come slowly, and I think you build it little by little. I think you have a solid program when you build a solid foundation first."

Maryland's Williams also was building toward this season after the sanction-leveled years of the late '80s and early '90s. Forwards Exree Hipp and Keith Booth and guards Johnny Rhodes and Duane Simpkins had started their careers with Smith, and now are trying to find a way to replace his points, rebounds and presence.

"It was a very comfortable feeling, going down in the last five minutes, knowing you had Joe on your team," Williams said. "This year, we're looking for that comfort zone.

"The way we had it set up, this would be the culmination of their careers. Obviously, it didn't work that way with Joe going, but at the same time, I think we have a chance to be a good team this year. We've had to retool, but that's OK. Hopefully, we can be a good basketball team this year."

The biggest change, Williams says, chuckling, isn't on the court, but on the fringes, where agents used to lurk.

"Among the coaches, the joke this year is, 'Where are all the agents?' " Williams said. "Last year, we played [North] Carolina at Maryland, you know, with Rasheed Wallace, [Jerry] Stackhouse and Joe Smith. And there had to be like 35 agents in the building, it was crazy.

"We were like walling off areas in our locker room, had agent-free zones and all that stuff. And this year, you look around and where are those guys?"

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