Pac-12 preview: UCLA

This is the twelfth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

What a ride it’s been the last five years at UCLA.

The Bruins went from longtime conference bottom feeder to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2011, lead by rising coaching star Nikki Caldwell. But before the Big Dance was even over last year, the coach who lit fire in their eyes was gone to LSU to take a lucrative offer there.

Enter Coach Cori Close, with a long, successful resume from Florida State and UC Santa Barbara. But practices hadn’t even begun when star forward and top rebounder Jasmine Dixon tore her Achilles tendon and was lost for the season.

In December another starter, Antonye Nyingifa, tore her ACL. Freshman Moriah Faulk sustained the same injury a short time later, and UCLA played most of their conference schedule with seven or eight suited players.

To their credit, the Bruins fought hard with what they had. They notched wins over hotshots Cal, Arizona State and Oregon State, as well as Utah, Colorado, both Washington schools and Arizona. But by the end of the season they ran out of gas, and they made an early exit out of the Pac-12 Tournament.

This year, Close may get a chance to prove herself.

Dixon is back and Alyssia Brewer, a 6-foot-3 transfer forward from Tennessee, finished her year of sitting out, and is ready to go. Both are seniors, and both will be huge – physically and otherwise – for UCLA under the basket.

Nyingifa (14.7 ppg) is still a junior, and she returns, as does senior forward Markel Walker (14.9 ppg, 11 rpg), junior guard Thea Lemberger (12 ppg) and senior point guard Mariah Williams (4.6 ppg).

The Bruins also have three talented freshman guards: Nirra Fields, who was ranked twelfth in her class last year; Lauren Holiday, ranked 66th; and Kari Korver, ranked 100th.

Junior forward/center Corinne Costa (4.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and sophomore forward Kacy Swain (3 ppg, 2.1 rpg) have been tall underachievers, and with Dixon and Brewer returning, it will be interesting to see where they fall in the rotation. Junior forward/guard Rhema Gardner (3.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), the sister of last year’s leading scorer, the graduated Rebekkah Gardner, would also do well to step up.

Some of the rest of the roster is a mystery.

Faulk apparently left the team, as her name is no longer on the roster. Guard Alexis Perry, known for her injuries at Brea Olinda High School, didn’t play a minute last year, but is on the list this season as a sophomore. UCLA Sports Information said they won’t comment on the injury status of players for this year.

Something else the Bruins get back this year is Pauley Pavilion, which had been closed for over a year for extensive remodeling. There will be an open house this coming Sunday, and the women’s team will officially reopen the arena with their first counting game, against San Diego State, Saturday, Nov. 10.

Other major preconference opponents include Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Princeton and Texas.

23 COMMENTS

  1. It will be nice to see the tall underachievers as you call it step it up this year! I found one of them to be very exciting when she was on the floor. Always wondered why Close did not play her as much as the others. Maybe being a freshman might be a reason. Who knows- but Close has a lot of talent right there if she can figure out how to use a kid like that. This years team is very deep. Can't wait to see Markel play her senior year. Thats another kid with a lot of potential. Along with the 3 incoming freshman and the opening of Pauley this team can bring back the excitement. I've got my season tickets and really cant wait. Anne

  2. Faulk has transferred to Fresno State. Close does not appear to be a strong recruiter and if 2013 turns out to be a weak class for UCLA, her departure could hurt them, even if only for a role-player.

    Close, like Caldwell, seems very uncertain about the local girls. There were lots of them who were overlooked by the Bruin staff in their attempt to sign higher ranked girls, many of them from out of area. UCLA is coming dangerously close to having a very poor class and that will just make it harder for them to build since they're losing so much graduating talent this year.

  3. "Junior forward/center Corinne Costa (4.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and sophomore forward Kacy Swain (3 ppg, 2.1 rpg) have been tall underachievers, and with Dixon and Brewer returning, it will be interesting to see where they fall in the rotation. Junior forward/guard Rhema Gardner (3.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), the sister of last year's leading scorer, the graduated Rebekkah Gardner, would also do well to step up."

    Nice write-up, Sue, though "underachievers" may be a bit of a strong word here for some of these players. Corrine Costa, for one, did not come into Westwood with tons of fanfare, and barely played at all as a frosh, though last year (her sophomore season) Costa turned into a legitimate defensive force underneath for the Bruins, notching 7 blocked shots in that win against Cal, and tallying 50 on the season… 3 blocks behind the all-time UCLA single-season record. The exact same story is true of Rhema Gardner. Not tons expected of her upon her recruitment, and almost no floor time for her as a frosh, but last year (as a soph) she turned out to be the best defender on the team, routinely drawing the opposition's best player to guard.

    Yes, those two need to show more on the offensive end (as does Swain), but I don't know exactly how much more could've been expected of those two particular sophs (and that one frosh) last season, given the circumstances.

    Regarding recruiting: yes, Close and company have been aiming high this season, and yes, they so far haven't reeled in the really big get. But they've gotten commits from a couple of very nice pieces, and Kendall Cooper is still out there, and Bruin fingers remain crossed on her. But whatever the result on Cooper, I just don't know how anyone can say about a staff which reeled in Nirra Fields last season that it's not made up of strong recruiters. Even coming off of a 14-16 season (inclusive of a first-round conference tourney exit), the Bruins have been finalists for some of the country's biggest high school seniors this season. I firmly believe that, by this time next year, this staff'll have a great many more Ws to point to, which will undoubtedly lend itself to blue-chippers signing on the lines which are dotted.

    In any event, I got my tickets in hand and am psyched to get to Pauley!

    Patrick Meighan
    UCLA Class of '95

  4. rNicely said Pat! With all due respect Sue. I must also say that was not a fair description. I thought the freshman was very good and showed a lot of poise and toughness along with her 6'3" talents that you don't see of girls with her size, freshman or not. She can play! But coming into a situation like that – try to remember that she was recruited by Nikki who i'm sure had a entirely difference use for her knowing how Nikki coached and recruited. And to her pedigree and credit she stayed when she could have easily left or followed Nikki. I am very happy she stayed. As for the sophomores' who barely played last season. Everyone had to adjust to a new staff, style, mind set, system and no Pauley and find their identity under the new staff. Which is what Close and staff are doing. Don't sleep on them Sue. And don't sleep on Close. She's in this position her a reason. There was a lot thrown at her last season.

  5. Thanks for your insightful comments, Pat. It's always nice to have you stop by.

    Anonymous 3, if you go back to my last year's Pac-12 preview of UCLA, you'll find I said the same things that you just said. I have no doubt that Close is a great coach; it's why I made sure to mention her 15 years of success. She had no one to put on the floor last year, which wasn't her fault.

    I'm not sleeping on them at all – I expect them to be huge this season. But I won't be at but maybe two of the games, because UCLA doesn't credential website media.

  6. I understand all of your respectful umbrage at my characterization of Costa and Swain as underachievers. But statistically, I have to stick by my original statement. 3.6 points or rebounds per game isn't cutting it.

  7. Thanks Sue for your continued insight. Your probably right. It is not cutting it. We do need to get better. But I do think you must separate one player from the other. One is completely new and there are high expectations for her (which may have caused you to use the word "underachievers"). But check the numbers, the others were playing twice as many minutes and her productivity was on par with her teammates. And the other is really more of a defensive player as oppose to a scorer. So can you really use that term? Not to mention the negative connotations associated with it. Also, if your call a few players underachievers you must call the whole team underachievers. Lets not forget that they are a team in which they are learning to fight and stand together united under a new system with 6 or 7 players. And a staff hitting the ground running. What I saw was a team and players that are trying to learn and win who left what they had to give on the floor all season. So really there are no underachievers. You can only do what you can do and because someone scores 3.6 points a game does not make them a underachiever. They just had 3.6 points a game and need to do what they do best and give it your all while your out there. Lets not forget that the Coaches are part of this team as well and must and will learn to put players in positions where they can be successful which will of course help the team be successful. Which i am sure Close is doing. She had to hit the floor running and she is learning her team and the players and who can do what so she can position them and the team as a whole to be successful – This is no easy task! And "players will suffer" as well as the team until adjustments and the bumps are somewhat smoothed out by the Coach and staff. There are NO underachievers here. This is UCLA –Only winners!

  8. There are some great recruiters out there and many have even been at UCLA. Tia Jackson, Kathy Olivier and Trisha Stafford Odom should be considered top tier. In fact, Stafford Odom is probably now considered the best recruiter in the country and she'd hightail it back to Westwood in a second. Washington's Kevin Morrison should also be considered in the top group. I think UCLA has now had two staffs that are nowhere near that level. The school has a strong name draw for all the right reasons but the Bruins have not been able to put the right pieces in place. Unlike Geno, who recruits to his needs and also superbly evaluates position, UCLA seems to try to get whatever player is available.

    To chase Linnae Harper from Illinois when Kelsey Plum, Chrishae Rowe and Sierra Thompson were all available is strange, especially when they also sign Dominique Williams from Arizona.

    UCLA needs Cooper and perhaps the commit of Russell to Tennessee might help them. Without Cooper, the best of the Southland is now gone and UCLA come up empty. The only good news is that USC hasn't signed anyone of note either.

  9. "There are some great recruiters out there and many have even been at UCLA. Tia Jackson, Kathy Olivier and Trisha Stafford Odom should be considered top tier. In fact, Stafford Odom is probably now considered the best recruiter in the country and she'd hightail it back to Westwood in a second. Washington's Kevin Morrison should also be considered in the top group. I think UCLA has now had two staffs that are nowhere near that level. The school has a strong name draw for all the right reasons but the Bruins have not been able to put the right pieces in place."

    Grrf. Caldwell's staff put together a Top-4 recruiting class at UCLA just before departing. This current staff, in its very first season in Westwood, followed that class up with a recruiting class that was ranked #12, #17 or #8 (depending on whether you believe HoopGurlz, BlueStar, or AllStarGirls).

    However, as well all know, last year's Bruin WBB team lost 2 of its top incoming recruits to transfer, and then 2 of its 3 best players to season-ending injuries, and then lost 2 MORE of its bench players to season-ending injuries, which resulted in this staff at times having only 6 scholarship players in uniform (3 of whom were sophs, 2 of whom were frosh) and having to give serious, actual game minutes to a freshman *walkon*! In the wake of that rolling, season-long set of trials (and the sub-.500 record that followed), this staff has been on the finalist-lists for some of the most elite recruits in the nation! And the takeaway from all that is that this current Bruin coaching staff can't recruit?!

    I just think that's beyond ridiculous.

    Go Bruins,

    Patrick Meighan
    UCLA Class of '95

  10. That Top 4 recruiting class that Caldwell got had a Center, a 4, a wing, and another player who has a very poorly definied spot. Not a guard in sight and that's what was being lost and what was needed. Ratings be damned. Caldwell did not recruit what her team needed. Her sophomore class was called by Sue, "not much." Those two transferring players didn't live up to their lofty reputations at Cal and LSU last season.

    The first class for Cori Close netted perhaps the most important player in the entire class with Nirra Fields. Good job. But she also loaded up on 2 guards which helped push Moriah Faulk out the door. UCLA's primary recruiting coordinator was out of basketball for years while she finished up Bible College in the Midwest. Would you say that she would be out of touch with the local basketball community?

    Is that why the talented local girls, except for Cooper not even considered by UCLA?

    With the heavy Christian affiliation of all four UCLA coaches, they have gotten that tag. Will it aid the Bruins in recruiting? Only time will tell.

  11. "That Top 4 recruiting class that Caldwell got had a Center, a 4, a wing, and another player who has a very poorly definied spot. Not a guard in sight and that's what was being lost and what was needed. Ratings be damned. Caldwell did not recruit what her team needed. Her sophomore class was called by Sue, "not much." Those two transferring players didn't live up to their lofty reputations at Cal and LSU last season.

    The first class for Cori Close netted perhaps the most important player in the entire class with Nirra Fields. Good job. But she also loaded up on 2 guards which helped push Moriah Faulk out the door."

    Okay, I don't get how Caldwell's final recruiting class (which included Moriah Faulk) can be faulted for supposedly not containing a guard, which we *desperately* needed, but yet Cori Close's first recruiting class (which was the subsequent recruiting class to come to Westwood) can be faulted for containing so many guards, thus pushing out Moriah Faulk, who evidently didn't count as a guard before, but does now.

    I don't know who I'm speaking to here (you've declined to state your name), but whoever you are, you're not making tons of sense to me.

    Patrick Meighan
    UCLA Class of '95

  12. For what its worth:
    Hartman was recruited as a 5, Boykin as a 5/4 Swain a point forward and Faulk as a 2 guard. And that was the deal!

  13. Caldwell's last class needed a point guard. Remember the graduations? They lost Morris and Campbell and she didn't even have an Allison Taka to come off the bench. Her two point recruits, Williams and Lemberger saw limited time at best. Had Caldwell stayed, she would have had two players running the show that she showed no confidence in at all.

    Close's first signing was Alexis Perry, a point who has now also transferred without seeing one second of playing time. She then signed three two guards who usurped Caldwell's Moriah Faulk. Why was that? Serious question because it is being discussed in Southern California basketball circles. Faulk and Perry didn't just up and transfer out of the blue.

    Incidentally, Patrick, this is an anonymous board. If you're in for personal insults, I'll gladly depart this conversation.

  14. Interesting, If Swain leaves that will mean that every single one of Caldwell's recruits has left! Hmmm… I'm just sayin.

    Can't wait for this season to start! I'm rooting for her and UCLA. "This is your shot Close". Make it happen!

    Btw, very descriptive and interesting choice of words.
    " usurped"

  15. (Caldwell's last class needed a point guard. Remember the graduations? They lost Morris and Campbell and she didn't even have an Allison Taka to come off the bench. Her two point recruits, Williams and Lemberger saw limited time at best. Had Caldwell stayed, she would have had two players running the show that she showed no confidence in at all).

    Not true. Caldwell was positioning Markel to play point. Also, under her style anyone who grabs a board had the green light to push if she can. Once they got into the half court set anyone could have been on top depending on what they are trying to run or execute. Sounds doable to me.

  16. "Incidentally, Patrick, this is an anonymous board. If you're in for personal insults, I'll gladly depart this conversation."

    Not "in for personal insults", just don't think that posting blatant falsehoods ("Not a guard in sight" in Caldwell's final recruiting class) and innuendo ("With the heavy Christian affiliation of all four UCLA coaches…") from the shelter of anonymity is especially courageous or seemly.

    "Faulk and Perry didn't just up and transfer out of the blue."

    No one here has the faintest idea why Faulk and Perry transferred. Which is another reason why anonymous stone-throwing leaves a very poor taste in my mouth.

    Patrick Meighan
    UCLA Class of '95

  17. Another anonymous here. First off, great write-up Sue. Secondly, re: Lemberger, had Caldwell remained, she would not have been a Bruin any longer. It was speculated that Walker was considering the same, since her style of game was being hurt under Caldwell's all defense-minded philosophy and bad, bad spacing on offense making it difficult for her to do what she does.

    As for Close and the players that have transferred, unfortunately, those transfers happen a lot when there is a new coach in town. The new coach, though they will work with the players they inherited, really do want to have their type of players over the last coaches players unless they are the Walkers, Dixons, Nyingifa, etc. That's just a given. I know why Perry chose to leave, but I'm not entitled to say at this time.

    Anyway, looking forward to some big things from the Bruins this season and why is it that no one mentions Erica McCall is still a possibility having recently tweeted a couple of days ago that she's considering UCLA, UConn and Stanford in no particular order? Sounds like it's still as possible as the other two.

  18. Perry was a Close recruit! You say you know why she left. The better question would be why was she recruited in the first place. She was still rehabbing injuries when was recruited which the staff knew about. This signing didn't make sense..(not that she wasn't good enough) she was never give a chance.
    I've heard it was to try and keep the Hartman girl at UCLA. if thats the case then it definitely backfired and Perry gets the bad end of the deal. Say and think what you want. Its a mean world out there. Christian or not! Its all about the paycheck and fame by association with a school like UCLA for some Coaches. And honesty with recruits is always the best policy. The whole thing sounds and looks fishy to me.

  19. "I've heard it was to try and keep the Hartman girl at UCLA.

    Who, exactly, could you possibly have heard that from? Seriously, who in the world would have access to this piece of supposed information? Just the Bruin coaches themselves, and… who? Someone who has an enchanted mind-reading device that can mystically peer into the brains of the Bruin coaches?

    if thats the case then it definitely backfired and Perry gets the bad end of the deal. Say and think what you want. Its a mean world out there. Christian or not! Its all about the paycheck and fame by association with a school like UCLA for some Coaches."

    Look, if these Bruin coaches are as mercenary and cutthroat as you're saying, they simply would've refused to release Justine Hartman from her LOI when they first arrived in Westwood. Or they would've offered only conditional releases (i.e., not within the conference, or not to follow the previous Bruin staff). Believe me, there were Bruin fans and partisans stridently advocating exactly that. Instead, the new staff gave each member of this #4-ranked recruiting class a full and unconditional release, even though it ended up resulting in the loss of one of 'em to a conference rival and another to the staff that had just bailed on LA.

    What the new Bruin coaching staff did right then, on Day 1 in Westwood, demonstrated real, genuine integrity and courage.

    To proclaim, from the comfort of anonymity and with absolutely zero evidence, the nefarious motives of others is a demonstration of neither. In fact it's a demonstration of the opposite, imo.

    Patrick Meighan
    UCLA Class of '95

  20. I thought that was a good move too! releasing them without strings is good for the program, its good for the recruits and its the right thing to do. And I applaud them for that. But they are only people and they will make mistakes. They did not want to lose Hartman. What makes you think that they would not attempt to do such a thing. Because there christian? You know better, I think! Deals are made all the time. It would have been a great move if it had worked. I do know that Hartman and Perry are very good friends and played HS ball together. I live in the OC and have been to many of the games where people talk. Listen, don't get bent out of shape on this. You or i cannot change whats inevitable. What went on between the Coach and Perry, thats there business but remember they are public figures now and people will talk. Hopefully the Coaches have thick skin and will coach this team to be the best that it can. Please stop looking at them through rose colored glasses like they can do no wrong. They are just people who also have free will. I am not saying that these Bruin coaches are as mercenary and cutthroat as you put it-
    very far from that. If you haven't figure this out yet Coaching and basketball is very much a business and a race to try any get the best talent possible/available. Who is really being naive here? Btw, I like the Coaching staff and how they are trying to make a difference at UCLA. And wish them the best! Are you a booster? if so, relax it comes with the territory.

  21. Perry was a Close recruit! You say you know why she left. The better question would be why was she recruited in the first place. She was still rehabbing injuries when was recruited which the staff knew about. This signing didn't make sense..(not that she wasn't good enough) she was never give a chance.
    I've heard it was to try and keep the Hartman girl at UCLA. if thats the case then it definitely backfired and Perry gets the bad end of the deal. Say and think what you want. Its a mean world out there. Christian or not! Its all about the paycheck and fame by association with a school like UCLA for some Coaches. And honesty with recruits is always the best policy. The whole thing sounds and looks fishy to me.

    Maybe things could've been handled differently in regards to Perry and yes I know she was a Close recruit.

    Look, is Pat Summit a bad person because Brewer left the Vols on a sour note? Don't forget, it's difficult for a first year coach to try an assess what and who is needed for your program. Sometimes it doesn't always work out for either's liking.

    I'm sure there is a lot more to why Perry has left, but I do know one reason why and I'll just leave it at that without disclosing it, because it's not my business to do so.

    As I've said, things don't always pan out the way a coach or player foresees it and there will be transfers, specifically in the early goings of a new coaches career.

    Hopefully, both parties can learn and move on from this. I'm ready for the season to begin. How the team responds to their coach, will speak volumes way more than any of us fans could do.

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