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A Natural Born Ben Ball Warrior

In Coach Howland's scheme of Ben Ball, it will always be about the TEAM. Every single player in Coach Howland's program puts the team first before worrying about their own individual accomplishments. And within that framework, over the years, we have been fortunate to enjoy the accomplishments of elite players such as Jordan Farmar, Aaron Afflalo et al. who have left their indelible mark in that UCLA jersey moving on to the next level.

Well, this year, as we enjoy another edition of Coach Howland's warriors, I am trying to soak in and enjoy every moment of Kevin Love's appearance in that UCLA uniform. If there was any doubt going into the Pac-10 season about the special talent of number 42, it is all gone.

Forget being just the Pac-10 freshman of the year. IMHO Love should now in the running for Pac-10 player of the year award and is also earning strong consideration for first team All American status. Steve Dilbeck from the Daily News wrote up on the latest Howland sensation, who put together his best performance of the year in the biggest game to date. Love playing in the program that Coach Wooden built once against sounded like a natural:

"Coach Wooden says, `Be your best when the best is needed,"' Love said. "And today, I think we did that as a team."

No one did it better Saturday than Love, who displayed a range of offensive moves (jump hooks, fadeaways, 3-pointers, follow-ups), tenacity under the boards and dogged defense.

"I keep saying this - I said it last week - he had the best game of his career today," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "I hope he keeps having the best games of his career as we move forward. He was an absolute beast."

Certainly at first, Love does not come off as some monster in the paint, physically does not appear to be a creature from the basketball laboratory. He is listed at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, and is nothing if not solid. Yet his body does not scream of countless days in the weight room. He might never be confused with a Dwight Howard or Alonzo Mourning. He'll never set a record for his vertical leap.

Still, as obvious as many of Love's talents are - soft but strong hands, court vision, maturity beyond his years - there is a certain appreciation that comes from watching him regularly, nuances noticed with consistent viewing.
And those of you who have been watching Love regularly, such as Tracy Pierson from Bruin Report Online, are recognizing the impact of Love's development to this point of the season. Here is Tracy on Love's game in :
Love has now assured himself the title of the best big man in the Pac-10, and one of the handful best in the country. He had a career-high 27 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, and played very good post defense. It's amazing how far he's come in just 17 games of college basketball, and very exciting to think about where he'll be by NCAA tournament time.

We knew he was this good as a scorer and passer, and we can't necessarily say that he's improved in these areas because he was already pretty darn good at them before he ever became a Bruin. It is phenomenal, though, how much he's improved defensively. He was pretty spotty defensively just 10 games ago, but now he's shown he can defend any post player the Pac-10 can throw at him. His new sense of position on D, to use his wide body, stay on the ground and make his opponent have to shoot over him, has been successful in limiting some very good offensive post players. Aron Baynes, WSU's 6-11 and 275 pound center, had been working every defender he faced before this game - in much the same way Love does, getting good position close to the basket and then using his wide body and a patented jump hook in a way that defenders can't touch the ball. But Love, first, showed he's big enough to move out Baynes from position, and he's big enough to knock Baynes off balance so he can't get off a good shot. Baynes worked USC and Washington down low, but in this game he had 8 points, below his 12-point average, which is becoming commonplace for Love to do (keep post players below their averages). Baynes only took three shots and made one and was flustered throughout the game by Love.

Love is playing himself into first-team All-American status, and he's truly showing just how talented he is, being able to out-play opponents who are bigger (Baynes), more athletic (DeVon Hardin), or both (the Lopez twins) because, when it comes down to it, he has such a great natural feel and ability to play basketball.
More on the development of Love's complete game (at the college level) from Andy Katz of ESPN:
UCLA coach Ben Howland decided to start working Love's 3-point shooting into the offense over the past few games. After shooting just 4-of-13 from 3-point range in 13 nonconference games, Love entered Saturday 2-for-6 on 3s in the first three Pac-10 games, a stat he was well aware of after the game as he recited his shooting stats. Expect him to get even more looks after Saturday's performance.

"He's in better condition [now]," Howland said. "He missed some 3s [earlier this season]. He was tired. He's in the best shape of his life right now. He's a big-time player."

"That's why those NBA guys all look at him, because he can pick and pop all day long," said Howland after a game played in front of 27 scouts from 23 NBA teams.

North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough gets praised for his relentless work on the offensive glass. But let's start shifting some of those accolades out West. Love worked the offensive glass for four boards and key buckets Saturday.

And his free-throw shooting continued to be critical for the Bruins. He was 7-of-10, with the final 2-for-2 needed to stave off an improbable WSU comeback.
Again, as I said down below, we have a long way to go. Love and his team-mates are off to a great start, but they will be the first ones to tell you that they are still a work in progress, as they work and chip away to defend the program's back to back Pac-10 title.

However, while they are doing that, I think a UCLA basketball junkie should savor every moment of the beautiful process of this kid growing up and developing as a special player, in the scheme of team-work. By just watching his game you can tell he just gets it. Every moment he is on the court he is just not thinking about scoring and defending, he is thinking about his team-first, and finding a way to get his team-mates involved in the action.

As much as I enjoyed Love's domination down low and watch him shooting those jumpers in rhythm, I enjoyed even more his alley oop pass to AA2, and the quick outlet to a streaking Shipp late in the second half, which pushed the lead back up to double digits.

And it is clear to me that his team-mates are enjoying their moments with him:

Photo Credits (from left to right): John Rieger / U.S. Presswire, Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

A natural born Ben Ball warrior.

Let's enjoy every moment of this while he is around Westwood.