Whole lotta Love takes UCLA to Final Four against Memphis

>SAN ANTONIO (AP) – A whole lot of Love has taken UCLA a long way this season.

Expectations were already outsized when Kevin Love walked onto the Westwood campus as the greatest high school player in Oregon history. The 6-foot-10 freshman was the coveted big man the Bruins had been lacking since Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar starred on John Wooden’s teams in the early ’70s.

“I’ve heard the comparisons. Those are unfair, because they are probably the two best college players of all time,” Love said. “Those are the hardest footsteps ever to follow in college basketball.”

But he’s trying.

Love chose UCLA ahead of North Carolina and quickly won-over the Bruins’ demanding fans, dazzling them with old-school outlet passes, 3-point scoring and low post moves.

He’s kept his cool all the way to the Final Four, where Love wants to give the Bruins a record 12th national championship before likely heading off to the NBA draft.

“It’s been the ride of my life,” he said.

Love thrives on playing the biggest games under the hottest spotlight, which makes Saturday’s national semifinal against Memphis his ideal situation.

He’s averaging 21.8 points and 11 rebounds, while shooting 61 percent from the field and 77 percent from 3-point range in the NCAA tournament. He’s blocked 17 shots, including seven in a thrilling two-point win over Texas A&M in the second round.

“He came in with so much expectation and hype,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “To have all that on your shoulders, and not only reach all the expectations and exceed them; he’s been incredible.”

Love has learned to play Howland’s style of hard-nosed defense, something that wasn’t necessary in high school, where he “just sort of stood around and got easy baskets and waited for rebounds,” he said.

The turning point in Love’s memorable first, and likely only, collegiate season came against Texas in early December. The Bruins were beaten by two points at home, their first loss, and Love played just 24 minutes – nearly 10 minutes less than the other starters.

“I wasn’t doing that great on defense. Lorenzo (Mata-Real) had to step in, being a fourth-year guy,” Love said. “From then on, I just tried to study film and listen to my coaches.”

Unlike most of the team, Love has been injury-free throughout the season, except for tweaking his back in the Pac-10 tournament. He’s scored in double figures in all 38 games, including 23 double-doubles, with 16 of those in the Bruins’ last 22 games.

He stepped into one of the best situations any freshman had in the country. Love has a strong supporting cast, with backcourt mates Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook, and forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Josh Shipp, already veterans of back-to-back Final Four appearances.

“I was still a little bit nervous if I was going to be accepted on the team,” Love said. “They took me in as part of the family, and there was never any mixed emotions or jealousy about it.”

Having most of the attention on him is “a little weird sometimes,” Love said. If he’s on a podium with his teammates, Love will pass a question directed at him to one of them.

“He’s a team player and, for a youngster who had so much publicity in high school, the ability to not let it go to his head,” Wooden said. “I’ve been very impressed with him as a player and as a person.”