Pac-12 preview: the University of California, Los Angeles

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

UCLA has an enviable challenge this season: finding the most effective ways to utilize and exploit their depth and athleticism.

Pac-12 coaches picked the Bruins to win the regular-season title, and coaches in a national poll ranked them seventh to begin the year. There is a reason for that.

Coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, they graduated only one starter and one key reserve, and return the rest of their high-octane starting lineup. They add three impact players coming back from redshirt years, as well as a powerful quartet of freshmen that have rejuvenated practices both on and off the court.

Cori Close, who enters her seventh season as Bruins head coach and her 25th coaching year overall, said this is the deepest team of which she’s ever been a part.

“We’ve been very good, but we didn’t have the depth to keep it up for 40 minutes,” Close said. “The roster we have now will allow us to raise our game a few levels because the workload won’t fall on one or two people’s shoulders. We have a lot of weapons.”

Two of those returning weapons are All-Pac-12 selections: senior guard Jordin Canada (17.8 points, 5.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds per game) and senior forward Monique Billings (16.7 points, 10.5 rebounds per game), are formidable in any form, and are the best high-low duo in the conference. Junior guard Kennedy Burke (12.2 points per game), who had a breakout season as a sophomore, and senior guard Kelli Hayes (5.6 points, 4 rebounds per game) are also back.

Junior forward Lajahna Drummer, who was injured two games into last year, will return to the court. So will freshman guard Lindsey Corsaro, who showed a lot of promise before being hurt in her fourth game last season. A lot of anticipation surrounds junior guard Japreece Dean, a transfer from Texas Tech who sat out 2016-2017. She will likely be a long-needed backup for high-energy Canada.

“Japreece adds that ability to keep the pace high and pressure ball handlers,” Close said. “Kelli Hayes has improved her shot, and Drummer is looking good.”

The freshmen bring a wealth of talent to Westwood.

Chantel Horvat, the No. 15 prospect in the 2017 class, is a 6-1 guard whom Close called “aggressive and fearless.” Michaela Onyenwere, a 5-11 forward, was a McDonald’s All-American and was Colorado’s player of the year three times. Lauryn Miller is a 6-1 forward who was Gatorade’s Missouri player of the year. Close said her passing is exceptional. No. 37 recruit Kayla Owens is a 6-1 guard.

Reserves Ashley Hearn and Ally Rosenblum also return.

The task, according to Close, is utilizing and balancing the talent at hand.

“How do we use that depth to our advantage, as well as our athleticism, without disrupting (rotation) rhythm?” Close said. “But we can really wear people down.”

A key for UCLA will be playing true team basketball.

“All of the (player) combinations we can use – is someone else going to be OK with that if it’s somebody’s day and they need to stay in the game?” Close said. “We have to maintain that selflessness on any given day. It will challenge me too, to invest in ways to maximize our strengths.”

The Bruins will use pressure defense to disrupt other teams. They are long and tall, and are working on three-point shooting.

Canada said a team strength is that everyone is multi-skilled.

“I think we’re very versatile. Everybody can play different positions, and that’s what’s cool about this as compared to previous years,” Canada said. “Now we’re much more athletic and are able to move pieces around, and that’s what’s so special about this team. We work hard, and for the past couple of months being together, our chemistry is already starting to come along.”

Close said the freshmen have brought humor and lighthearted attitudes, which has helped the veterans. Canada appreciates it.

“The freshman have been a big help coming in with a great mindset, and they’re really willing to learn.” she said. “They’re working hard every single day. The X’s and O’s are going to come as we get further and further into practices. So far they’ve been a tremendous help, and those who have come back have also done so with a great mindset.”

A recent visit by Los Angeles Sparks guard Alana Beard inspired the Bruins.

“Her message was that everyone has struggles,” Close said. “Even at the highest levels of the sport, they talk about the same things.”

Both team and coaches are striving to get to the Final Four this year, but they are taking the season one game at a time.

“You have to go earn it, and I hope we’ll be in Columbus, but I surrender the results,” Close said.