Howland's D Had Love Hooked

By Josh Herwitt - January 10, 2008

Kevin Love said he chose UCLA because he wanted to learn how to play defense.

But not just any kind of defense.

That's right. He wanted to play Ben Howland's defense.

Sure, the Lake Oswego, Ore., native could have traveled across the country to play at ACC powerhouse and top-ranked North Carolina, but when it came down to it, he wanted to learn from a coach that has proven he can get it done whether he's in the Big West at UC Santa Barbara, Big Sky at Northern Arizona or Big East at Pittsburgh.

It was Howland's four-year stint in the Steel City, though, where the Weber State graduate made his mark with his tough, physical defense that led him to two Sweet 16 appearances before heading to Southern California to take over for Steve Lavin.

So between Howland's defensive prowess and Tyler Hansbrough's decision to return to Chapel Hill for his junior campaign, it wasn't too hard for Love to decide that UCLA was the best place for him.

"I knew UCLA was the best place," Love said. "I wanted to learn defense, and UCLA was the best place for that."

Howland, on the other hand, just feels lucky to have the 6-foot-10 forward in a UCLA uniform.

"We feel really fortunate and blessed to be the lucky ones to get him to come to our school," the 2006 Pac-10 Coach of the Year admitted. "We really feel like he's the missing piece for us to take it a little bit further this year, which is our goal obviously."

Because while North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas all have the experience and depth to reach the Final Four as well, it's Love's presence in the middle which gives the Bruins a legitimate shot at the national crown this year.

And if Love continues to play like he did last Saturday in a 70-58 victory at Cal, Howland and the UCLA faithful believe that the Bruins can take that next step after falling short against Florida in the Final Four the last two seasons.

"Kevin Love played like a man," Howland said after he put up 19 points and 14 rebounds on the Bears. "We needed it."

But the Bruins are going to need that sort of dominance on the interior from Love the rest of the season, too, especially with the Pac-10 being regarded as the nation's toughest conference in the country this season.

"He's as good a big guy as we've seen all year," Cal coach Ben Braun said of Love after the loss.

Howland, in the meantime, hopes that Washington coach Lorenzo Romar and Washington State coach Tony Bennett will echo that same sentiment after the Bruins get a shot at the two schools from the Evergreen State this weekend.

Saturday's game at Pauley Pavilion against the fourth-ranked Cougars, in particular, has actually managed to stir up more than just some excitement in the Los Angeles and Pullman areas, as even much of the East Coast media will have its eye on the ticker waiting to see the final score cross.

One concern for UCLA, however, could be the status of preseason All-American point guard Darren Collison, who was hit with food poisoning Sunday night following the Bruins' trip to the Bay Area and was hospitalized near his family's home in Rancho Cucamonga.

While Collison should be ready to go against Wazzu, junior Josh Shipp (14. 7 ppg, 2.7 rpg) and Russell Westbrook (11.7 ppg, 5.5 apg) have continued to pick up the slack at both ends of the floor, leaving Howland with more than a few weapons to choose from should Collison be too sick to play.

That's something, of course, that Howland really didn't have in his first four years in Westwood, where 11 national championship banners stand as a constant reminder of the greatness and tradition that's lived on past the Wooden era.

"This is the greatest tradition and history in all of college basketball," Howland asserted. "We really think we got things going in the right direction."

And with two more wins this weekend and a 4-0 start in the Pac-10, he may just be right.

Posted by Josh Herwitt at 05:17 PM on January 10, 2008

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