Bumped. GO BRUINS. -N
In part 1 of my season preview, I covered our roster to give a brief idea of the players we have coming in, as well as the players we have returning. In this part 2 season preview, I'll cover the strengths/weaknesses of the team, a few thoughts about the schedule, take a look at where UCLA stacks up in the conference and the nation, and finally make a few predictions for the season along with the help of BruinMarcher. Fair warning, this preview is a little long to cover everything.
Stats are taken from the 2009-2010 season only
*Rebounding: UCLA was a dominating rebounding team last season and returns the vast majority of the rebounding production in addition to regaining the services of Atonye Nyingifa. UCLA was outrebounding teams by 6.7 a game last season, good for second best in the conference. In Pac-10 games, UCLA was frequently outrebounding their opponents when facing a team not named Stanford.
*Forcing Turnovers: UCLA led the conference in steals per game at 10.6 and forced opponents into over 20 turnovers per game, good for second best in the conference. Nikki talks about playing pressure defense the full length of the court, and it forces opponents into making numerous mistakes.
*Scoring Defense: UCLA was second best in the conference allowing only 57.5 points per game, as well as allowing opponents to only shoot 37%, also good for 2nd place in the conference. Given UCLA's tough defense, UCLA outscored opponents by 10.3 points per game, 2nd best in the conference (unsurprisingly, Stanford is #1 in all of these categories).
*Three Point Shooting: UCLA actually shot a decent 34% last season from behind the arc. However, Erica Tukiainen was responsible for more than a third of all of our made 3-pointers and was the best 3-point shooter at 43%. UCLA doesn't even attempt too many 3s, compared to a team like Stanford that over the course of the season took almost 300 more attempts. If UCLA does not present a respectable 3-point threat, teams will be able to pack in the paint against the Bruins.
*Bench Production: Nikki has not been afraid to go deep into the bench to keep players fresh so as to keep defensive intensity high. Our bench last season provided great defensive effort, but the vast majority of the scoring load (72%) fell on the starters, with Rebekah Gardner the only player off the bench to average more than 5 points a game. The bench will need to step up this year and provide more of a scoring option to go along with their defensive strengths.
*Free Throw Shooting: UCLA last season was a poor 66% from the free throw line, 8th best in the conference. Doreena Campbell has been a great free throw shooter at 88%, but UCLA's other 3 returning starters Jasmine (52%), Markel (72%), and Darxia (59%) take many trips to the line and need to improve this season so as to not leave so many points off the scoreboard. To Markel's credit, her free throw shooting noticeably improved as the season went on, and hopefully we'll see a higher free throw percentage from her this season.
What really hurt UCLA's NCAA seeding last year was its inability to pick up quality wins during their nonconference part of the schedule, with close losses to Texas Tech and Kansas along with a tough road loss at Tennessee. UCLA will have several opportunities to pick up quality wins this season early on, opening the season at San Diego St who made it to the sweet 16 last season, home games against preseason #26 LSU and #35 Temple, and a road game at #12 Notre Dame. If UCLA can pick up some quality wins, they should hopefully be rewarded with a better seed come march.
*UCLA IN THE PAC-10*
UCLA was the unanimous pick to finish 2nd in the Pac-10 conference this season. Just like last year, everyone will be chasing Stanford who was the unanimous #1 pick in the Pac-10. Stanford did lose all American Jayne Appel, but return Pac-10 player of the year Nnemkadi Ogwumike, and add her sister Chiney Ogwumike, I believe the top recruit in the nation and believed to be even better than her sister.
After Stanford and UCLA, USC and Cal are the next best teams in the conference, with in my opinion Arizona rounding out the top half of the conference. As much as we may hate USC and their loud mouth coach Cooper, returning key players Briana Gilbreath, Jacki Gemelos and Ashley Corral to go along with a respected freshman class led by Cassie Harberts. Cal does lose their best player and one of the best conference players in Alexis Gray-Lawson. However, Cal can look forward to a great season thanks to all the experience their freshman got last season. Cal relied on an amazing freshman recruiting class last year that was very young and low on experience. With so much playing time aided by the experience of winning the Womens NIT, Cal should be a factor in the Pac-10 race this season. After the Pac-10 got only 2 NCAA tournament bids last year, I would expect 3-4 this season.
*UCLA IN THE NATION*
Slowly but surely, the nation is starting to pay attention to what is going on in Westwood as the program has been gaining a lot of national respect. UCLA opens up the season ranked #16 in the AP poll and #15 in the ESPN poll. This is the highest preseason ratings UCLA has received since the 1999-2000 season. UCLA's trip to #12 Notre Dame is early in the season on November 18th and gives UCLA their best opportunity to make waves in the national attention before playing Stanford in conference, who received a preseason #3 national ranking.
*PRESEASON QUESTIONS AND PREDICTIONS*
BruinMarcher has been kind enough to join me in attempting to give some personal predictions for various questions about the upcoming season.
#1: What does the team need to improve most from last season to be successful this year?
BM: This team was pretty successful overall and returns a lot of the key players. However, that does
not mean they are lacking weaknesses. One area of concern last year was free throw shooting.
Doreena and Co will need to earn their "free points" from the charity stripe. There were a handful of
games last year decided by a few points that had some marginal free throw shooting. One player
in particular that has to improve free throw shooting is Jasmine Dixon, as she missed some critical
free throws with the game on the line. Some other questionable areas included foul trouble
(again with Jasmin Dixon and also Markel Walker) and three point shooting (especially with the
departure of Erica Tukiainen). If the Bruins can develop a option from the three point line, improve
their free throw percentage, and play aggressive defense without fouling, this team can be scary good.
TBB24: Freethrow shooting HAS to improve. I'm not saying all of our players need to be shooting
above 80% like Doreena, but Jasmin and Darxia in particular need to improve their free throw shooting
to at least above 70%. Besides that, if UCLA can get more reliable scoring from its bench players, that
will really take a lot of pressure off of the starters and should help the team make a deeper run in
#2: key player to watch that you haven't before
BM: Most of the starters on this team will put forth a solid season. Of course last year we saw the
emergence of Dixon, Walker, and Campbell. There is no double that these players are only going to
get better and have outstanding seasons. However the X-factor on this team is Rebekah Gardner. She
showed last year that she can go on a tear dropping 20+ points. If this team is going to develop a three
point threat, Rebekah will be that option. She did show a nice stroke from downtown and will hopefully
emerge as a serviceable swing player that can step out and make the outside J that this team will need
in critical games.
TBB24: Atonye Nyingifa sadly had to sit out last season, which probably will set her back somewhat
for the start of this season. However, as a freshman she worked her way into the starting lineup
because of her knack for rebounding, which is a high priority for Nikki. Though she redshirted last year,
Atonye was not injured the entire season and will enter as a third year in Nikki's program, and I expect
her to make a big impact and be a surprise to much of the pac-10 who forgot about her last season.
#3: what would be considered a successful season?
BM: This team showed it can compete in the Pac 10 coming close to upsetting Stanford at home in
Pauley last year and then going on to the Pac 10 finals before losing for the third time to the perennial
powerhouse. UCLA received the only other first place vote in the Pac 10 coaches poll, meaning
Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer believes that UCLA is the best team besides her Cardinal. Thus a
successful season is a top 2 finish in the Pac 10, making the Pac 10 championship final and then
making it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney. Definitely need a win over Stanford in there and
(hopefully) a sweep of a tough USC team.
TBB24: It's hard to demand a 2nd place Pac-10 finish considering USC and Cal provide stiff challenges,
but in reality UCLA had 2nd place last year by a comfortable margin and should be expected to place at
least 2nd in the Pac-10, and show the nation that the gap between UCLA and Stanford is narrowing by
playing them tough. Assuming UCLA can earn a top 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, then making it
into the second weekend of the tournament is a must. However, if UCLA is saddled with a poor seed
like last season, UCLA may be out of the tournament much earlier than they should be this season.
#4: What Pac-10 team besides Stanford should you be paying attention to
BM: Of course Stanford will be at the top of the Pac 10 and should continue to win it with their size and
speed (not to mention 3 point threat). However the key battle this year in the Pac 10 will UCLA vs USC.
As painful as it is for USC to be good, they do one of the best point guards in the conference with
Ashley Corral and bring in one of the best recruiting classes. USC is on the rise, and should make it to
the tourney after getting (questionably) snubbed from a bid last year.
TBB24: Cal is full of young talent and is riding high on confidence after a womens NIT championship run
last year. While most people will not consider a NIT title an accomplishment worth bragging about, it
did give Cal's young roster more time to play together, and more importantly, have experience playing
in a 1 and done setting all the way through the NIT tournament. I look for Cal to make a return to the
NCAA tournament this season.
#5: Who will be UCLA's most improved player
BM: I believed one of the most improved players this year will be Markel. Now I bet most of you are
saying how can one of our best players get better. Well looking back at last year, Markel made a lot of
freshman mistakes with regards to passing and court fundamentals. Several of her passes were long
or she would fake out even her teammates with where she was going to toss the rock. If she gets her
passing fundamentals down she could open up a lot of plays that will keep the defense honest with
regards to her drive and kick out abilities. This will only lead to more points as the others will have
better looks from midrange as UCLA's opponents try to stop Markel as she drives.
TBB24: Rebekah Garder stepped up with some big games last year as the season went on, and was
UCLA's most productive player off of the bench. With the departure of Erica Tukiainen, UCLA will rely
on her continued 3-point shooting development to be successful. With that void to fill, I think Rebekah
could be that player to step up and become a 3-point threat to keep opposing defenses honest in the
paint. Already the team leading shot-blocker from last season, I think Rebekah will make the biggest
improvements this season.
#6: What is the biggest unknown element to this team
BM: Cohesiveness. This team showed it can come together at the end of the year, but with the loss of
its senior leaders in Tukiainen and Alexander last year, this team needs to find some leadership in
Campbell, Dixon, and Walker. If these players can be come together then the nucleus is there to
generate a very good team. Four starters return, so look for some early cohesiveness to form earlier
than last year, which can turn some of those close losses in the preconference schedule from last year
into confidence building wins this season.
TBB24: Can UCLA win the games against high profile teams? UCLA went 15-1 last year in Pac-10
games against teams not named Stanford, but against the Cardinal, their major non-conference foes,
and Nebraska in the NCAA tournament UCLA failed to capitalize on the opportunity to establish
themselves as a power program. UCLA will have that opportunity this year with some quality
non-conference games, at least 2 shots at Stanford, and whoever they may face in the NCAA
tournament. With the nation paying more attention to the Bruins this season, will the team rise to the
#7: Final prediction for the season
BM: I truly believe this team is better than last year; not because of personnel but because it is
another offseason and year of this core group playing together. Definitely a tourney bid, and I think
they will come into the NCAA tournament with a higher seed than last year, potentially a top 4 seed,
which allows them to stay closer to home. Iwant to say this is a Sweet 16 team, with the potential to
make some noise to get to the Elite 8. Anything higher is just icing on the cake in Caldwell's third
season at UCLA.
TBB24: UCLA is poised for a big season. While I think UCLA falls on the road to Notre Dame early in
the season, I think UCLA should win the rest of their non-conference games, giving them quality
non-conference victories over SDSU, LSU, and Temple that was missing from the resume last season.
I think UCLA will once again finish 2nd in the pac-10, and with an NCAA seed between 4-6, make it to
the sweet 16 of the tournament. From there, I think making the elite 8 is a toss-up depending on who
UCLA draws. While a final 4 isn't impossible, I just don't see UCLA breaking through to that level this
season, but the program under Nikki Caldwell is headed in that direction.