-Bumped. BN Eds.
I know this is my first post in a long time and the womens basketball team is already well on it's way into conference play. I had decided a while ago to step away from posting for various reasons (the biggest being I have moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans for grad school), but as I have continued to both watch the womens team and read on BN, I have thought about putting together a post on my thoughts of the status of the womens team. This may be a little free flowing or long, so bear with me.
On Nikki Caldwell leaving:
I think the last time I posted it was my thoughts of Nikki leaving. I understand why there was such outrage that we could let her go, and I have no idea what happened behind the scenes or what (if anything) DG tried to do to keep her. That being said, there are 3 major reasons why the move neither surprises me nor makes me too mad, at either UCLA or Nikki
1) Money. Someone on the BRO other message boards brought up a great point. Everyone loved Nikki, and the womens basketball team was starting to generate some interest online. But the fact remains without a consistent fan turnout or TV contracts, the team was non-revenue just like every other olympic sport. LSU offered i believe 800,000 a year, way beyond what we pay our non-revenue coaches. The same BRO poster pointed out that as much as we love Nikki, she never advanced beyond the 2nd round of the tournament. Imagine if we gave her a significant pay raise, all the other olympic coaches who have won numerous conference crowns and national championships lining up demanding their increase as well.
2) Location. Location both in region and school I think had an effect here. Regionally, LSU is in the SEC and I think Nikki always wanted to return home (heck, i'm in New Orleans and I think about opportunities to try and get back to the west coast, it happens). Coaching at LSU puts her in closer proximity to the Tennessee job that may need filling soon. And in terms of schools, LSU is more of a womens basketball school. Living in New Orleans, I made the 2 hour drive out to Baton Rouge to see our team take on the lady tigers this year. The fan support is noticeably bigger at LSU, and when I was looking around on the rafters, I noticed LSU made 5 straight final 4s in the mid 2000s, meaning that LSU is a big step up in terms of prestige in the womens basketball world.
3) Business sense. I think Nikki could sense the same things fans were sensing: she was coming off 2 great years full of improvement and many school records and looked like an amazing commodity, but the next year was going to be a step back. UCLA returned a very talented front court, and had an incoming recruiting class to add some size to that front court. However, guard play was about to suffer big time. Leading scorer Darxia Morris and important PG Doreena Cambell were graduating, our 1 guard coming in was an unranked recruit, and all that was left was Mariah Williams and Thea Lemberger, neither of whom really had shown much of anything to that point. It was easy to predict a backward step this year for UCLA and I think Nikki could sense that so made a play while she was at her best, and I can't really fault her for that. This ties me into the team now.
On the 2011-2012 Bruins
As I said above, the roster coming into this season had definite question marks, but was by no means an empty cupboard. Here is the roster Cori Close inherited:
|0||Moriah Faulk||5-10||Guard||FR||Phoenix, AZ (Santa Monica HS)|
|1||Thea Lemberger||5-7||Guard||SO||Santa Monica, CA (Santa Monica HS)|
|2||Jackie Shepard||5-10||Guard||JR||Atherton, CA (Menlo School)|
|5||Mariah Williams||5-4||Guard||JR||Aurora, CO (Regis Jesuit HS)|
|10||Kacy Swain||6-3||Forward||FR||Los Angeles, CA (St. Bernard's HS)|
|11||Atonye Nyingifa||5-11||Forward||RS JR||Torrance, CA (Redondo Union HS)|
|20||Rhema Gardner||6-1||Forward/Guard||SO||Upland, CA (Ayala HS)|
|22||Madeline Brooks||5-8||Guard||FR||Temecula, CA (Temecula HS)|
|23||Markel Walker||6-1||Guard/Forward||JR||Philadelphia, PA (Schenley HS)|
|25||Alexis Perry||5-5||Guard||FR||Cerritos, CA (Brea-Olinda HS)|
|33||Jasmine Dixon||6-0||Forward||SR||Long Beach, CA (Rutgers)|
|34||Corinne Costa||6-4||Forward/Center||SO||Brentwood, CA (Liberty HS)|
|35||Rebekah Gardner||6-1||Guard||SR||Upland, CA (Ayala HS)|
Sapulpa, OK (Tennessee)
This was the roster after 2 of Nikki's recruits left, Justine Hartman being poached by Cal (the player i'd want more) and Shiela Boykin following Nikki to LSU. A few important points to mention. You'll notice Alyssia Brewer has no number. She is a transfer from Tennessee and is sitting out the season. You'll notice a freshman guard, Alexis Perry, who Coach Cori Close recruiting as soon as she arrived at UCLA for some much needed guard depth. Madeline Brooks and Jackie Shepard are walk-on players.
But then what no one could expect occurred, injury after injury occurred, especially to star players. First and perhaps most tragically, Jasmine Dixon was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Jackie Shepard and Alexis Perry went down with season injuries during the off season as well. Markell Walker had a thumb injury that kept her out until the LSU game. Then during the season the hits kept on coming. With Dixon out, our team leader Atonye Nyingifa goes down with an ACL injury during the Tennessee game, and just this past weekend at ASU Moriah Faulk went down with an injury as well which i believe is season ending. If that is the case, our roster of available players currently looks like this:
1 Thea Lemberger5-7 Guard SO Santa Monica, CA (Santa Monica HS)
5 Mariah Williams5-4 Guard JR Aurora, CO (Regis Jesuit HS)
10 Kacy Swain6-3 Forward FR Los Angeles, CA (St. Bernard's HS)
20 Rhema Gardner6-1 Forward/Guard SO Upland, CA (Ayala HS)
22 Madeline Brooks5-8 Guard FR Temecula, CA (Temecula HS)
23 Markel Walker6-1 Guard/Forward JR Philadelphia, PA (Schenley HS)
34 Corinne Costa6-4 Forward/Center SO Brentwood, CA (Liberty HS)
35 Rebekah Gardner 6-1 Guard SR Upland, CA (Ayala HS)
Yikes! 7 scholarship players (only 1 which was a starter last year) and a walk-on. Not only that but if you followed the team last year or my posts, you'll remember that Mariah Williams, Thea Lemberger, Corinne Costa and Rhema Gardner were almost non-factors on last year's team and played very few minutes.
With the given state of things I decided that this season to use as BN loves the eye test more than the W/L record to see how much Cori Close could get out of her players. One of the major bugga-boos on Nikki Caldwell was that she got her teams to play phenomenally as a cohesive team unit, but that individual talent development was lacking, and if there was ever a season for talent to develop, this was it. I've been able to watch a few games in person, as well as all home games online via the wooden center video hook up, and road games have an audio broadcast. (on that note: if you hate the am570 UCLA radio announcers, the people who do the online uclabruins.com radio for womens volleyball and basketball are amazing, very educational, fair, and entertaining).
The individual development on this roster has been astounding this season. Rhema Gardner may have to be considered the most improved player on the roster, going from a garbage time player only last year to holding her own defensively, providing good strong interior defense, along with developing her shot. Challenging her for most improved has got to be Thea Lemberger. UCLABruins.com radio team had an interesting stat on her (and Mariah Williams) during the first game. They each scored more points in our first game this season than all of last season combined. She seems more comfortable shooting the ball and has her confidence back, and is a sorely needed 3-point threat to replace the departing Darxia and Campbell. She has been a savior in several games this year, especially the Cal game.
Speaking of the Cal game, Corinne Costa who has been having a great season broke the UCLA record for blocks in a single game during that game, and not only is she using her size better on defense, but has started to develop some post moves to actually become a scoring contributor. Finally Mariah williams, the tiny point guard was chided last season for being such a non-factor on offense that you could guard 4 on 5. While she isn't a major scorer on this year's squad, her speed and confidence has led to her to be willing to drive to the basket for some timely layups or drawing fouls that we wouldn't get last year as well as creating well for her teammates.
So far on the season I actually think Coach Cori Close has been successful in managing a 7 person roster and pulling out some tough wins. Teams have tried pressing the short handed bruins, and any foul trouble can spell disaster. Nikki's teams last year with their ferocious defense could rack up fouls, but this squad doesn't have the bodies to have the luxury of getting into foul trouble, which has been a management issue this season. It could be a rough conference stretch, especially in the back half if fatigue sets in. I was at the Cal game in person and 2 of our biggest contributors, Markell Walker and Thea Lemberger were cramping up in the end but there was no one else to replace them.
As a final note, I'd like to advocate waiting until next season to make any judgements on the quality and caliber of Cori Close as a coach. I think between the sadness of the departure of Nikki Caldwell and the mistrust bruins have of any decision DG makes, people look at the record and assume she's a poor choice or perhaps having a poor season. Jury is still out for me until I see more and next year will go a long way to discovering what her career will look like. But with the major player development this season, the returning of valuable talent currently sitting out the season, and a highly ranked recruiting class that provides much needed depth at guard, next season could be a great season.