The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES Ä UCLA is No. 1 in the nation, owns a nine-game winning streak and is playing its best basketball of the season. Even that may not be enough to satisfy this title-starved city.
No one realizes it more than much-maligned Bruins coach Jim Harrick, whose annual flogging in the media usually coincides with the start of the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA's postseason record since 1990 includes first-round losses in 1991 and 1994 with a second-round overtime defeat sandwiched in between.
''I get sick of people saying you come out of the gate and you fade,'' Harrick said yesterday. ''That's a bunch of malarkey.''
But it's the foremost thought of many fans and alumni spoiled by John Wooden's 10 NCAA championships.
Harrick recalled a radio show appearance he made during which a caller described UCLA's recent NCAA Tournament performances as failures.
''I don't like that. That's not me. I'm not into that,'' Harrick said. ''Even though we lost to Tulsa last year, we were 21-7, tied for second in the conference, and people deemed us being a failure.''
Harrick is answering the doubters earlier than ever because the Bruins haven't been No. 1 this late in the season since Feb. 19, 1979.
UCLA (21-2) is getting much of the attention right now in Los Angeles, where pro basketball fans ignore the last-place Clippers and the Lakers rarely sell out, the Kings hockey team is struggling and the baseball season remains in disarray.
Talk centers around just how far this team can go, with the critics eager to point out last season's first-round loss to Tulsa.
The Pacific 10 Conference doesn't have a tournament, which gives fans more time to debate UCLA's chances in the NCAA Tournament.
''I'm really excited about this whole thing,'' said Gene Kim, a sophomore from Huntington Beach who watched the Bruins stretch before practice at Pauley Pavilion.
Kim doesn't expect another first-round disaster, but he knows who will take the blame if the team exits early.
''People are going to go after Harrick again. Poor guy,'' he said. ''He's not John Wooden, but he's doing a good job.''
Actually, Harrick is better than Wooden was at this stage. Harrick's record of 137-53 after six seasons is the best in school history. Wooden was 118-51 in his first six years.
Not everyone is convinced, however.
Randy Liu, a sophomore from Cerritos, Ca- mid
lif., believes the criticism of Harrick is justified.
''Last week at Cal, he was going zone all of a sudden and they were busting 3s on us. I couldn't understand why he was doing that,'' Liu said. ''Ed (O'Bannon) has to play as well as he is right now for us to go all the way, but the key is the coaching. If we had (Rick) Pitino or (Bob) Knight, we would have gone all the way a long time ago because we have really good players.''
Ed O'Bannon is the Pac-10 player of the week for the second straight week. He had 86 points and 28 rebounds as the Bruins went 3-0 last week.
UCLA can clinch a share of its first Pac-10 title since 1992 with a victory against Southern Cal tonight.
Harrick said he won't be disappointed if the Bruins lose one of their remaining games against Southern Cal, Louisville, Oregon State and Oregon.
''Even if we lose one game, we still have one of the best records in the country,'' he said.
But any talk of losing triggers an alarm among the Bruins faithful, who have previously described Har-rick as an ''idiot''.
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