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UCLA Women's Basketball Season Preview

The Bruins open the 2015-16 season tonight against St. John's. Bruins Nation previews the team and evaluates its prospects for the season.

@DBSports

Tonight

Opponent: St. John's (0-0)

When: 5:00 PM PST, Friday, November 13, 2015

Where: Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, CA

AudioBruin Live Audio

Video: Pac-12 Live Stream

Live Stats: None

Official Match Preview | Match NotesMedia GuideSt. John's Game Notes

Bruins Nation's 2015 Women's Basketball Preview

The Basics

Preseason Rankings:

USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll: 35th Nationally

AP Preseason Poll: 37th Nationally

Pac-12 Coaches Preseason Poll: Tied for 4th in the Pac-12

Pac-12 Media Preseason Poll: 5th in the Pac-12

Departing Players:
  • F/C Corinne Costa
  • C Luiana Livulo
  • G Madeline Poteet
  • G Recee' Caldwell
Key Returning Players:
  • F Kacy Swain (Sr.)
  • G Nirra Fields (Sr.)
  • G Kari Korver (Jr.)
  • G Dominique Williams (Jr.)
  • F Lajahna Drummer (So.)
  • F/C Monique Billings (So.)
  • F Paulina Hersler (So.)
  • G Jordin Canada (So.)
  • G Kelli Hayes (So.)
Key Newcomers:
  • F Ashley Hearn (Fr.)
  • G Kennedy Burke (Fr.)

Last season's team finished 19-18, good for sixth place in the Pac-12. The Bruins earned a postseason bid, but to the WNIT, not the NCAA tournament. UCLA grew stronger over the course of the tournament, eventually winning the WNIT championship with a 62-60 victory over West Virginia.

Predictably, that led Dan Guerrero's Athletic Department to this:

If you look carefully, you can see the letters WNIT in small letters across the top. Apparently "Champions Made Here" doesn't just apply to national championships anymore--it applies to consolation tournaments as well.

I don't believe that Coach Cori Close or her players will be satisfied with a return trip to the WNIT this season. Coach Close has a deep and talented group of players who can achieve greater things that winning a consolation tournament.

The Bruins lost a couple of good players in the off season--senior starter Corinne Costa has graduated, and sophomore point guard Recee' Caldwell transferred, presumably to be closer to home. Costa was a steady performer and a calming influence on a team that had a tendency to play out of control at times. in my opinion, Caldwell is a bigger loss, as she has an extremely high basketball IQ and played with great heart and determination.

Fortunately, Coach Close has brought in another outstanding group of freshmen, improving the Bruins' length and athleticism in the process. In fact, the Bruins may be one of the most athletically gifted teams in the Pac-12. Now it's up to Coach Close and her staff to bring the best out of this group of student-athletes.

The Schedule

Just like last year, the Bruins have a brutal schedule, and it's difficult from start to finish. Unlike the men's team, the women's team doesn't have a series of cupcake opponents at the beginning to allow it to develop.

UCLA starts with tonight's matchup with #33 St. John's. The Bruins second game opponent is top-50 James Madison, and the Bruins' third opponent is #2 South Carolina. There's not a cupcake to be found in the first two weeks of the season.

UCLA then heads to the Bahamas for the Junkanoo Jam. Their first opponent will be Louisiana Tech, and assuming the Bruins win that game, they'll get #3 Notre Dame the following day.

Two weeks later, the Bruins travel to Ann Arbor for a rematch with Michigan. UCLA defeated the Wolverines in the semifinals of the WNIT tournament in April.

For reasons that make little sense to me, UCLA is scheduled to face Stanford and Cal only once in conference play. However, to offset that, the Bruins and the Golden Bears have scheduled an unusual non-conference game just before the start of the Pac-12 season. For what it's worth, Cal is ranked #34 in the preseason Coaches Poll.

In Pac-12 play, UCLA faces #9 Oregon State twice, #15 Arizona State twice, and top-50 Washington twice. The Bruins get a slight break in that they play #14 Stanford just once. And of course the Bruins will have to battle #34 Cal a second time when conference play begins.

An ideal schedule provides early opportunities to develop players, install schemes, and experiment with lineups. It should also provide stiff challenges along the way to help prepare players for tournament play and to push them to keep improving. As was the case last season, the Bruins 2015-16 schedule is heavy at the front end. While I'm pleased to see UCLA playing the top teams in the country, it would make more sense to play those contests in December instead of in the first few weeks of the season.

If the Bruins can get through the non-conference part of their schedule with no more than 3 losses, they will be in terrific position heading into Pac-12 play.

The Players

2015-16 UCLA Women's Basketball

Photo Credit: @UCLAWBB (https://twitter.com/UCLAWBB/status/659926462259073024)

UCLA returns most of its key players from last season. The only starter that needs to be replaced is Corrine Costa, and fortunately the Bruins have a strong group of long, athletic players to replace her. Where Costa was a technician, the obvious replacement, sophomore Monique Billings, is a bit raw but with impressive quickness, speed, and agility. She shot well from the field (.468) and was second in rebounds per minute and blocks. Even if she doesn't start, she'll certainly play more than the 16+ minutes per game she averaged last season.

Sophomore Lajahna Drummer shares Billings athleticism, and plays bigger than her 6'1". But like Billings, she's raw offensively. She's a demon on the boards, though, and a tough defender. Like Billings, she'll be called on to play significantly more minutes than she did last year (16+ min/game).

Senior Kacy Swain is almost certain to be one of the frontcourt starters. Last season was her first back on the hardwood after suffering an ACL tear and it showed. She seemed tentative at times, particularly early in the season, and her numbers reflect it. Nevertheless, she was one of the Bruins' leading rebounders. If she can improve on her shooting performances (.346 from the field last season), she may earn a bigger role in the UCLA offense.

Sophomore Paulina Hersler is probably best described as a stretch 4. She seems to prefer to face the basket on offense, and she's a decent three-point shooter. Like many European players, she has good ball skills, but she isn't a strong rebounder or defender. Her playing time is bound to increase with the loss of Costa and Livulo, but the amount of court time she sees will depend on how much progress she makes on defense and on the glass.

The last of the Bruins' frontcourt players is newcomer Ashley Hearn from Rowlett, Texas. Hearn has outstanding size for a forward (6'4"), and based on what I saw of her in the exhibition game against Vanguard, she's a tenacious rebounder. According to ESPN's HoopGurlz, Hearn is the 12th-ranked player in the 2015 recruiting class. I expect to see her average 15-20 minutes/game this season.

The strength of Coach Close's team is in the backcourt. Starters Nirra Fields, Kari Korver, and Jordin Canada are back, and so is super-sub Kelli Hayes.

Senior Nirra Fields is the leader of this group. Last season she led the Bruins in scoring average (15.0 points/game), rebounds, and steals. Unfortunately, although she shot the second most three-pointers on the team, her three-point field goal percentage was poor (.272) as was her free throw percentage (.625). She's absolutely terrific going to the basket, though, and she's a tough, determined defender. She's certainly one of the best players in the Pac-12, and for the second straight season, she's been chosen as a preseason All-Pac-12 player.

Junior Kari Korver is more than a three-point specialist, but that's her biggest contribution to the UCLA offense. Korver shot .413 from beyond the arc and .825 from the stripe to average just over 10 points a game, making her the third-highest scorer on the team. Korver is not one-dimensional, though. She's a clever passer and a scrappy defender. She does the little things that help her team to win.

Sophomore Jordin Canada was good enough last season to be named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. But she was raw last year, often playing too fast and too recklessly. She led the Bruins in assists, but she also led in turnovers. Her assist to turnover ratio was about 1.2. That has to improve this year. Nevertheless, she is a terror when she drives to the basket, and can finish at the rim or pull up for a floater. Her shooting from distance need a lot of improvement, but she showed good discipline in minimizing her attempts. She's very good at drawing fouls and knocking down free throws, which helped make her second in scoring average last season (11.8 points/game). For what it's worth, Canada was pretty awesome in the WNIT championship game last season, scoring 31 points to earn the WNIT MVP award.

Sophomore Kelli Hayes played well last year in somewhat limited opportunities. When Recee' Caldwell was lost for the season, Hayes got more playing time and she made the most of the opportunity. She played solid defense, and demonstrated good shot selection. Her improvement from the start of the season to the end was notable. With Caldwell's transfer, Hayes will definitely see more playing time this year.

Freshman Kennedy Burke joins the backcourt, bringing good size (6'1") and athleticism. She was ranked the 16th best prospect in the nation by ESPN's HoopGurlz, and played well in the exhibition game against Vanguard. Like Hearn, she will probably average 15 minutes or so per game.

Junior Dominique Williams rounds out the backcourt. Her role is primarily to back up Canada at the point, so she probably won't see her playing time increase substantially unless she develops into a high efficiency three-point shooter.

Head Coach Cori Close

Cori Close is entering her fifth season in charge of the program. Her record at UCLA is 72-60 for a .545 winning percentage. Although Close's winning percentage isn't fantastic, context matters, so let's take a closer look to gauge the direction of the program.

In 2010-11, Coach Nikki Caldwell's final season as head coach, the Bruins finished tied for second in the Pac-12 and with a 28-5 overall record. In Coach Close's first season, the Bruins slumped to a tie for 5th in the Pac-12 with a 14-16 overall record. In her second season, the Bruins rebounded, finishing 3rd in the conference and sporting a 26-8 overall mark. In her third season, UCLA dropped to 8th in the Pac-12 and ended the season with a 13-18 record. Last year, Close guided the Bruins to 6th place in the Pac-12 and a 19-18 overall record.

Based just on those numbers, it's hard to argue that the program has any direction whatsoever. Rather, it seems to be idling in mediocrity.

This year should be better for UCLA and Coach Close. Of course, based on the talent of last year's team, 2014-15 should have been better for UCLA and Coach Close too. Last year's team began the season ranked in the top-25 and ended the season without an NCAA Tournament appearance. Coach Close can point to the Bruins WNIT Championship as a sign of success, but I certainly hope that winning a WNIT title is not a goal to which she and her team aspire.

I confess that I like Coach Close. By all accounts, she's respected by her peers and her players, and I'd even go so far to say that her players have genuine affection for her. Coach Close represents the university well too. In my opinion, she "gets it"--she emphasizes the importance of the student half of the student-athlete experience, and she preaches the gospel of Coach Wooden. She's social media savvy, and does a great job of protecting and enhancing the image of the program and promoting her players.

Coach Close has also demonstrated solid recruiting skills, bringing in highly-rated classes the past two seasons. Nevertheless, the results haven't even risen to the level of adequate. So where does the fault lie?

Unfortunately, Coach Close has been hit hard by injuries a couple of times. Last year she lost promising freshman point guard Recee' Caldwell to a season-ending injury. The prior year she lost Kari Korver and Kacy Swain to season-ending ACL injuries. But the inexperience of Coach Close is certainly a factor too. When Coach Caldwell left the program, Dan Guerrero chose Cori Close in spite of the fact that she had no experience as a head coach. Guerrero is seemingly fond of hiring coaches with a prior UCLA connection, and Close qualified in that respect--she was the "restricted earnings coach" on the staff of Kathy Oliver for two seasons in the mid-1990s.

That's not to say that Coach Close isn't a good coach, but I think it's fair to say that to a certain extent, she's been learning on the job. With a roster packed with skilled, athletic players, it's up to Coach Close to make it work.

Expectations

To begin with, Coach Close needs to give this program an upwards trajectory. As much as the UCLA Athletics Department has promoted and celebrated the Bruins' WNIT Championship, it's not an accomplishment that indicates a program on the rise.

This team has a deep, talented roster. It has a senior leader and an All-Pac-12 player in Nirra Fields. It has a future star in returning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Jordin Canada. It has long, athletic forwards in Drummer and Billings, a scrappy sharpshooter in Korver. It has two highly-rated freshmen with good size who should be ready to contribute from day 1.

To meet my minimum expectations, Coach Close needs to guide this team to fifth place or higher in the conference and secure a place in the NCAA Tournament.

The 2015-16 Bruins have the potential to do better than that, though. This is a team that could finish in the top-3 of the Pac-12 and could get to the Sweet 16. Doing so would demonstrate that Coach Close can lead the UCLA women's basketball program on the court as well as she does off the court.

This is a critical season for the program and Coach Close. Let's hope that it will be a satisfying and successful one.

Go BRUINS!