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January 31, 2008

Surprising ASU visits Pauley

Kevin Love returned to his home state last week and delivered a pair of memorable performances in two UCLA wins. He's back at his new home to see about scripting an encore.

The fifth-ranked Bruins (18-2, 6-1) and their star freshman look to maintain sole possession of first place in the Pac-10 on Thursday when they host Arizona State, which has dropped three straight games.

One of the nation's premier freshmen, Love was heavily criticized for leaving his home of Oregon to attend college at UCLA. Fans in Eugene, where his father went to school and starred in the 1970s, and Corvallis were anxiously awaiting his return to the Pacific Northwest.

But Love made sure the Bruins would head home with two victories. He scored 26 points and grabbed 18 rebounds to help his team get by the Ducks 80-75 on Thursday, then added 16 points and a UCLA freshman-record 21 rebounds in an 85-62 victory against the Beavers on Saturday.

No Bruin had pulled down 20 rebounds in a game since David Greenwood grabbed 23 in January 1978.

"He had an unbelievable weekend, to come home and do what he did on the road this weekend is just incredible," coach Ben Howland said. "For him to come out and play so well in front of his family and friends, and control his emotions, be so poised. That was big for us."

Love, whose 11.3 rebounds per game rank among the top five in the nation, was named the Pac-10 player of the week on Monday, the third time he's been honored this season.

"What more can you ask for? He's not an average freshman," said UCLA guard Darren Collison. "He plays like a senior."

Collison, meanwhile, was every bit as impressive as Love in the Bruins' two wins. He set a career high with 22 points against Oregon, then shattered that by scoring 33 at Oregon State.

Even with the big offensive contributions from Collison and Love, Howland's team prides itself on its defense. The Bruins are among the top 15 teams in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 58.1 points per game. They yielded 59.9 and 58.7 in the last two seasons, respectively, both of which culminated in Final Four appearances.

The last UCLA team to allow less than 58.0 points per game was the 1950 team, which surrendered an average of 53.5 in John Wooden's third year as coach.

Pauley Pavilion hasn't been a friendly place for Arizona State (14-5, 4-3) over the years. The Sun Devils have lost four straight and 18 of their last 20 games in the historic venue.

Herb Sendek's team has made remarkable progress in his second season on the bench, however. Arizona State was 8-22 - including a 15-game losing streak - in 2006-07, the program's worst year since a 4-22 campaign in 1969-70.

The Sun Devils raced out to a 14-2 start this season, but have fallen on hard times in their past three contests. They lost by double digits to Stanford on Jan. 19 and Washington last Thursday, then suffered a 56-55 defeat to then-No. 6 Washington State on Saturday.

"We still have our confidence," said freshman guard James Harden, who had 25 points against the Cougars. "Our first two losses, we didn't play well. (This) was just a hard-fought game."

Harden, who grew up in Los Angeles, is fifth in the Pac-10 with 18.8 points per game, and is shooting 54.6 percent on the season.

Like the Bruins, the Sun Devils also win with stellar defense. They give up an average of 59.7 points, among the top 25 in the nation, and are on pace to be the fewest allowed since the 1948-49 squad yielded 47.6 per game.

UCLA has beaten Arizona State six straight times, though five of those were decided by 10 points or fewer.

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