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BRUIN-HOG PAIRING HAS CLASSIC QUALITY

After three weeks of one of the greatest tournaments in NCAA history, tonight's title game between defending champion Arkansas and all-time champion UCLA has a classic quality about it.

Arkansas started the season as No. 1, UCLA finished in that spot, and each is playing with the speed, intelligence and intensity of a team a notch above everyone else.President Clinton, who cheered on the Razorbacks last year in Charlotte, N.C., will be rooting for them this time back home in Little Rock, Ark. The Bruins, meanwhile, expect a visit by the man closest to basketball royalty, 10-time championship coach John Wooden, as they go after their 19th straight victory.

Arkansas has future NBA star prospects in Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman, Clint McDaniel and Corey Beck. UCLA has Ed and Charles O'Bannon, Tyus Edney, Toby Bailey and Cameron Dollar.

"It'll be a great basketball game, absolutely great," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said. "You're talking about the No. 1 team in the country and the defending national champions.

"I love that. I'd rather be, right now, the defending national champions than the No. 1 team. We're still undefeated in NCAA play in the last two years, and they've got to dethrone us."

As different as Richardson and UCLA coach Jim Harrick are in style and temperament, they share a similarity in the way they get the most of out their players and the kinds of programs they run. And both have drawn on the legacy of Wooden, who at 84 will be returning to the Final Four for the first time since his wife died after their last visit in Seattle in 1985.

"I don't personally know Coach Wooden, but I copied a lot of things that Coach Wooden did," Richardson said. "I thought the greatest gift that Coach Wooden had - I knew some of his players back in my day - is that he was a master at solving problems. I always considered Coach Wooden as a coach that got the maximum without strings attached to his players."

Richardson spoke of how Wooden paved the way for colleges recruiting players nationally and how he often came up with unorthodox solutions to other teams' strategies.

"One time, I remember when I was a high school coach, a guy was criticizing (Wooden) because he had Lew Alcindor guarding the ball out of bounds," Richardson said. "I don't think (Wooden) ever did what everybody else was taught. And that's why I thought, wow, this guy here solves problems. He puts people in the right places. Coaching is about solving.

"Coaching, to me, is about making kids make good decisions. That's what he taught."

Wooden also taught his players the value of the fullcourt press and fastbreak offense, which Richardson adopted and turned into his "40 minutes of hell" theory of winning games. Richardson gave some of the credit for that to another former coaching great, football's Vince Lombardi.

"He said, `Fatigue will make cowards of us all,' " Richardson said, quoting Lombardi. "That's a true statement. So we talked about 40 minutes of hell, and a lot of times we don't get that many minutes. Sometimes 10 minutes of hell is enough.

"I am hoping in our game plan that we are going to work you and work you. Now my bench is going to work: Can you have your bench play against us now a little bit and see what happens? That is exactly what our philosophy is."

That idea of throwing fresh bodies out onto the court to wreak havoc on offense and defense is why Richardson cares less about specific matchups than the overall intensity of his team.

Harrick's Bruins can run with any team in the country, as they proved in their West Regionals final victory over Connecticut. But they also can beat teams that try to play a half-court game, such as Oklahoma State on Saturday.

That versatility also is part of the heritage passed down from Wooden in many friendly sessions with Harrick over the years.

"The biggest thrill at UCLA is having him in our program," said Harrick, 56. "We want him with us. We want him around.

"Certainly it is easy to hide from the ghosts and tradition, but we want to embrace it and we feel very strongly about it. John Wooden and I are very, very good friends, other than basketball. We have known each other a long time."

Harrick recalled once asking Wooden why he didn't work on special situations, like being down a point with 10 seconds to go. Wooden's response was: "Jim, I never expected to be in that situation."

Harrick's players were either infants or not yet born when Wooden won the last of his, and UCLA's, championships in 1975.

"They don't know him very well," Harrick said. "They've never spent much time with him at all. And, really, young people aren't real history buffs.

"It could have been 800 years ago, for all my guys care. In the 1960s and '70s, that's so long ago, you can't believe it. I think they have great respect about the things they've heard from their parents. But young people, you'll find out, are enthralled with the moment."

Not so enthralled, it turns out, that they wouldn't like to hear what Wooden has to say before they go out on court tonight.

"I have a lot of respect for Coach Wooden," forward Charles O'Bannon said. "I think he is the greatest coach of all time. I will be honored to hear whatever he would have to say to us. I mean, he has won 10 national titles. I think he knows a little bit about what to say before a game."