Saturday, April 5, 2008

SAN ANTONIO. — Kevin Wesley Love takes his middle name from Wes Unseld, which fits with his rugged temperament and outlet passing.

His father, Stan, who spent two seasons with the Baltimore Bullets in the early ‘70s, felt compelled to name his son after Unseld because of the stoic center’s decency as a teammate and a person.

It is a tribute the UCLA center has mentioned repeatedly throughout the NCAA tournament. And with the help of old tapes supplied by his father, he concedes he has tried to pattern his game from that era.

“My father has had a great influence on me and the way I play,” Love said yesterday. “I like to be a breath of fresh air and play the old-school way.”

Love inherited the basketball gene from his father. He did not inherit the singing gene from his uncle Mike, who helped form the Beach Boys.

Love grew up being regaled with stories about the players of the ‘70s, about how they played the game before their successors came under the corrupting spell of ESPN’s highlights packages.

Love may be only a freshman, but his devotion to the game’s fundamentals has enabled him to be the lead player on the Bruins.

He considers himself a historian of the game and appreciates the contributions of those who came before him. That appreciation of the past was instilled in him by his father, who starred at Oregon and played against John Wooden’s UCLA teams.

That connection prompted UCLA coach Ben Howland to arrange a meeting between Love’s family and Wooden during their recruiting visit to the campus.

Love has stayed in touch with Wooden, being ever eager to pick the brain of UCLA’s legendary ex-coach.

“Being a big recruit, I felt it was the right thing to do to reach out to Coach Wooden,” Love said. “He’s probably the best college basketball coach ever. Has 10 national championships. Coached two of the greatest NCAA players ever.”

That would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.

Love has drawn comparisons to both Walton and Unseld because of his strength, vision and unselfishness.

He goes into the national semifinals meeting with Memphis tonight averaging 17.6 points and 10.7 rebounds. He has lived up to the high expectations after coming out of Lake Oswego, Ore., where he earned National Player of the Year honors from a slew of publications and organizations last season.

The Bruins expected Love to be a quality addition to the team. They did not expect him to be so dominant so soon. And they did not expect him to have a feel for the game that belies his 19 years.

As point guard Darren Collison said, “His basketball IQ is phenomenal. High school to college is a big transition. But you can see he already is made for the game at this level.”

Love can play with his back to the basket or hit shots from the perimeter, depending on the defender. And he can beat defenders off the dribble.

Howland expects the Tigers to rotate a number of players on Love, starting with Joey Dorsey, the two-time Conference USA defensive player of the year.

“Dorsey is just so strong, so physical and so tough,” Howland said. “All their big guys pressure the ball, switch on ball screens, and they are athletic.”

The 6-foot-10, 260-pound Love has been caught on camera making length-of-the-court shots during practice.

It is a display of strength that Howland has found amusing.

“I’ve been working with him on that halfcourt and fullcourt shot all year, and it’s starting to pay dividends,” Howland said. “We’re really excited about that.”

The Bruins are in a position to be playful after advancing to the Final Four a third consecutive season. They have a sense that maybe, just maybe, they have the goods to finish the job this time.

Or at least they have a center who has imposed his will on opponents in each of the tournament games so far.

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