Kevin Love has quickly established himself as one of the top freshmen big men in the country at UCLA. Brook Lopez did the same last season at Stanford.
The heralded post players meet for the first time Thursday night when the fifth-ranked Bruins visit the No. 24 Cardinal in the Pac-10 opener for both teams.
UCLA (12-1) has been to the last two Final Fours and won back-to-back conference regular-season crowns, but this may be its best team in five seasons under coach Ben Howland. That’s because of Love, who averaged team highs of 16.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 57.8 percent shooting during non-conference play for the Bruins.
“Now, it’s the 18 games we’re looking forward to,” Love said. “We want to win the Pac-10 outright.”
The 6-foot-10 Love also can look forward to his first matchup with Lopez, a 7-footer who averaged 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds last season and nearly declared for the NBA draft. He returned for his sophomore season, but it’s been a shaky one since Lopez was ruled academically ineligible for the start of the season and also suspended for a violation of team rules.
Lopez made his season debut on Dec. 19 and has played in the last three games for Stanford (11-1), including his first start in a 55-48 win over Fresno State on Saturday. He had 19 points and 12 rebounds, and is averaging 19.3 points and 7.3 boards through three games.
Stanford may have an advantage in defending Love since it also has Lopez’s twin 7-foot brother Robin as its starting center. Robin Lopez is averaging 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and a conference-leading 2.6 blocks.
“I like going into any game knowing we have two dinosaurs down there,” Cardinal guard Anthony Goods said. “It opens things up for me as well as opens things up for the post. He’s (Brook Lopez) definitely one of the best players out there.”
The Bruins are 29-7 over the last two seasons in Pac-10 play, including 15-3 last season, but one of the losses was at Stanford. Goods and Lawrence Hill combined for 42 points as the Cardinal rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit for a 75-68 win on Jan. 28.
UCLA avenged that loss with a 75-61 win in its home finale on Feb. 24, although Brook Lopez scored 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
The Bruins’ first Pac-10 road trip concludes Saturday at California, which has 6-11 center DeVon Hardin and 6-10 Ryan Anderson in its frontcourt.
“The Cal and Stanford trip is going to be extremely tough,” Howland said. “They have four NBA-caliber big men between them. Both teams also have good players around their frontcourt.”
UCLA has won five straight games by an average of 24.0 points since its only loss, 63-61 to then-No. 8 Texas on Dec. 2. It completed non-conference play with a 76-48 win over UC-Davis on Saturday.
That was the final game in which preseason All-American guard Darren Collison had to play with a brace on the sprained left knee that forced him to miss the first six games of the season. Collison scored 14 points.
“I can’t wait to play against Stanford without the brace,” Collison said. “It was real uncomfortable. We’ll see how it goes without the brace. It was limiting me defensively. I think I’ll be 80 to 85 percent against Stanford.”
The Bruins, however, will be without swingman Michael Roll, a key reserve who ruptured a tendon in his left foot at practice Monday.
The Cardinal have won seven straight—their longest win streak since a 26-0 start in 2003-04. They are 7-0 at home.
“It’s always good to open up against arguably the best team in the conference,” Goods said. “It’s a good test for us early. I look forward to it.”