Bumped. Huge thanks to truebluebruin24 for his fantastic blogging on UCLA women's basketball all season. His effort was just as spectacular as Coach Nikki Caldwell's basketball program. - BN
Well, what was a spectacular season for Nikki Caldwell's UCLA basketball team came to a disappointed end in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. Focusing on the Gonzaga game can easily make one feel down about the season, and upset about what happened with UCLA. I want to address my opinions of having to play true road games in the tournament. I think the problem is that the women's tournament takes a middle road to the men's NCAA and NIT tournament that doesn't work. Either it should be like the NCAA tournament where teams can't host tournament games, or like the NIT where the higher seed gets home court until the final four.
Part of the problem with the current system is that in the men's tournament, there are only 8 first and second round sites, where as in the women's tournament there are 16. What seems most rational is let the top 4 seeds in each region host the first and second round, then have pre-determined sweet 16, elite 8, and final four sites. Alas, UCLA ran into the buzz saw of playing a vastly under seeded Gonzaga team (#19 in the nation yet an 11 seed) on their home court where in 2 years they have lost only 1 game. Does that excuse UCLA from allowing Gonzaga to shoot over 60% in the second half? Not at all. But Gonzaga is a speed and finesse team, and UCLA plays a more physical, punishing style of basketball, yet the ref calls did not reflect what was going on. I hate to talk about refs after a UCLA loss, but it's hard not to think that Gonzaga was getting the benefit of foul calls on the Bruins while lack of calls on their own team. UCLA had 4 players pick up 2 fouls in the first half, causing Jasmine Dixon and Darxia Morris to spend large portions of the first half on the bench, while Gonzaga picked up 2 team fouls the entire half.
While the NCAA tournament was disappointing, the season could be described as anything but. UCLA finished with a record of 28-5, 3 of those losses coming to Stanford. In the 3 match ups against Stanford, UCLA improved each time, going from disaster at Maples, to equal first half at Pauley, to 36 minutes of leading in the Pac-10 tournament, despite plenty of mismatches in terms of size and player rankings. UCLA once again finished 2nd in the conference but improved their conference mark by sweeping all non Stanford teams. Other accomplishments include sweeping USC, getting the first win at the USC in the regular season since the early 90s, an elite road win at Notre Dame. Nikki Caldwell and UCLA broke numerous records, including best start to a season, most regular season wins, most conference wins, most road game wins, and most conference road game wins. Perhaps most importantly, Nikki Caldwell has taken UCLA from a languishing team to national relevance, as UCLA was ranked all season long, and spent most of the season in or just out of the top 10. Just as the nation is starting to pay more attention to UCLA, so too are recruits, as Nikki Caldwell as brought in the #3 rated recruiting class in the nation for next season.
UCLA's games weren't always the highest scoring, but with Nikki's brand of full court pressure defense (as she calls it, organized chaos), games were thrilling to watch, and in her 3 years attendance at UCLA games have steadily increased. UCLA was led this season offensively by Senior Darxia Morris and Junior Jasmine Dixon, the two players who averaged double digit scoring. However, UCLA had enough possible weapons that between Dixon, Morris, Doreena Campbell, Atonye Nyingifa, Markel Walker, and Rebekah Gardner, every game at least one or two of those Bruins would step up their game if the others struggled, allowing teams to not just focus on one or two players to stop.
UCLA graduates 4 seniors this season. Doreena Campbell and Darxia Morris are going to be hard to replace as they provided great senior leadership, played the majority of minutes every game, were reliable scorers, and were instrumental to the UCLA press. Nina Earl and Christina Nzekwe were not as much important for their scoring as for their defense, so that when Nikki needed to rest her starters, she could leave them on the bench knowing that Nzekwe and Earl's tough defense would protect the lead.
Looking towards next season, it's tough to predict UCLA's future. Looking at the negatives, UCLA is going to have a hard time replacing Campbell and Morris. UCLA is bringing in a guard in the class, Mariah Faulk, but she is our only recruit not rated in the top 100, and Mariah Williams and Thea Lemberger this season did not score often. Williams, Lemberger, Faulk are going to have to grow up fast if UCLA is going to have any success, as UCLA's back court is going to go from strength to major question mark. Helping to ease the fears somewhat is the return of Rebekah Gardner who will be a senior next year. She has proven to be a scoring spark off the bench, and with starters minutes will likely see her scoring continue to increase. Word has it that Markel can be a versatile player and may be responsible for bringing up the ball next season, so that remains to be seen. Still, UCLA has a poor 3 point shooting team to begin with (2nd to last in the nation in 3s made per game, though UCLA doesn't attempt many), and with Campbell and Morris leaving, Gardner is the only returner who has proven to be a viable 3 point shooting option.
The positives easily have to be Nikki's incoming class featuring 4 recruits, 3 of whom are rated in the ESPN top 30, and bring much needed size to an under -sized team. With the 3 new comers teaming up with Jasmine Dixon, Atonye Nyingifa, and Markel Walker, UCLA's front court will be UCLA's clear strength and UCLA should continue to be a monster on the boards. UCLA does return 3 starters in Dixon, Walker, and Nyingifa, and Rebekah Gardner has also started a fair number of games, so UCLA isn't exactly rebuilding from scratch. Atonye Nyingifa has easily been the biggest positive surprise of the season. Coming back from her season injury last year, Nyingifa got right back where she left off as a strong rebounder, reliable scorer (though she does need to be more aggressive in going to the basket), and fearsome in the press causing turnovers.
It's a little early to predict where UCLA will fit in the pac-10 and nation next year. Stanford loses a few seniors but returns the ogumike sisters, USC will have 4 senior starters and a fearsome backcourt that could give UCLA fits (next year could be a big year for USC before crashing back down the year after), and Cal returns all 5 starters I believe. What we do know is that even if UCLA has a rebuilding year, Nikki should have the team competitive in conference, back in the tournament, and continuing to make grounds in closing the recruiting gap between us and the super powers of the women's basketball world.
It has been a pleasure covering the women's team these last 2 years. I've always known that women's basketball would be a tough sell for most fans, but still wanted to try and get the program out there. It is unfortunate that the rise of women's basketball has coincided with the struggles of the men's team, but that has given Nikki's club a chance to grab the attention of Bruin fans looking for a consistent and improving program. Hopefully I'll be able to continue to cover the team next year, but depending where life takes me, I may no longer be around to follow the games or write about them. Should this be my last time covering the team, thanks to those of you who have read and commented on these posts, those of you who have started to attend games at Pauley, and a big big special thank you to B D for providing pictures for these posts for the last 2 years, his work as we all know has been amazing.