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Bruins keeping a low profile

Helene Elliott

March 06, 2008|Helene Elliott

Kevin Love was aware of the rumors circulating a few months ago on the Internet and through anonymous e-mails to sportswriters:

Word was that his UCLA teammates, jealous of the hype lavished on the 6-foot-10 freshman center, were refusing to pass to him in the post because they didn't want him to look good.

And they were going out of their way to bump him in practice, to test him or show they didn't welcome him dropping in for a season, just long enough to inflate his eventual payday as an NBA first-round draft pick.

"I had heard it," Love said of the gossip.

"I heard it a couple of times early in the season, but I try not to listen to that. Because I just try to be the best team player I can be and also have the best relationship with my teammates, and I feel like I really have."

It's impossible to read minds or hearts. But if there was any reluctance to get Love the ball -- or resentment over his marquee billing -- they're being dissolved by his enthusiasm and the consistent forceful performances that have him averaging 17.3 points and 11.1 rebounds.

Love has helped lift the Bruins (26-3, 14-2 in the Pacific 10) into position to clinch the conference title tonight with a victory over Stanford (24-4, 13-3) at Pauley Pavilion. Besides helping them into position to stake claim to a No. 1 NCAA seeding, he has given them options and dimensions they lacked a year ago.

His 24-point, 15-rebound showing against Arizona last Sunday, though not statistically his best of the season, may have been the best thing that could have happened for the Bruins.

Love was dominant in the second half of their 68-66 victory over the Wildcats, scoring 15 points and getting to the foul line for nine shots, all of which he made. Even though it was a close game, the Bruins emerged as big winners because they so effectively blended Love into the offense.

"I felt like against Arizona that they gave me the ball as best they had all season," Love said. "And I was kicking it out. I was finding Darren [Collison] on the weak side and trying to find the high-post cutters.

"I was trying to make things happen the best I could."

He succeeded.

"It's got to continue to be an emphasis," Coach Ben Howland said of finding Love down low.

"Not only was he getting fouled and scoring, he did a good job of passing out of the post. We had opportunities out of there. We did a good job of that last weekend, especially against Arizona."

They haven't always done it so well.

Sometimes they couldn't, because Love was double- or triple-teamed.

"It depends on defense," guard Josh Shipp said, "just seeing the matchups and what's going on in the game."

Shipp said that against Arizona, Love was "getting good things out of there, so we just kept pounding it in."

Sometimes, they may not have been trying hard enough to find Love, a remarkably good passer who will give up the ball if he sees that a teammate has a better look. It's up to them to get in position for those shots, and they know it.

"He's looking to pass all the time, so it's very important to move off the ball," Russell Westbrook said.

Important, also, to continue getting him the ball down low.

"I think it's been an ongoing involvement," Howland said. "I think good things happen when Kevin touches the ball and I think his teammates have seen that the more and more he touches it, the better it is for us."

Better by this much and in many ways:

The Bruins are scoring more points this season than last, 74.1 to 71.4.

They're giving up fewer points, 57.9 to 59.9, a little slice of heaven for Howland and his defense-first, defense-second and defense-third philosophy.

They're rebounding better this season, averaging 36.4 a game to their opponents' 26.8. Last season, they averaged 32.9 to their opponents' 30.4.

Love is the physical element they were lacking when they were badly outmuscled by Al Horford and Joakim Noah in a 76-66 loss to the Florida Gators in an NCAA semifinal last spring. In that game, Horford, with 17 rebounds, and Noah, with 11, combined to outrebound UCLA, which had 25.

That's not going to happen again, not with Love's court sense and clever positioning -- or his commanding presence in the post.

"I try to bring that as much as possible," he said.

He will get a chance to do it tonight against Brook and Robin Lopez, Stanford's 7-foot twins. Love and Lorenzo Mata-Real are likely to be on the floor at the same time as the Lopez brothers, a formidable challenge that Love is relishing.

"Lorenzo is still a great defender and hopefully I make up a little bit on the offensive end," Love said. "Hopefully, the rest of the season and down the stretch that will be one of the difference-makers."

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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