Pac-10 preview: The Southern California schools

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Today’s column features Pac-10 Conference rivals the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The sneakers have barely begun to squeak on the floors of the two Southern California powerhouse schools, but the women’s basketball teams at both institutions have already seen some drama.

Not one but two Trojan players – both high school All-Americans – were lost last week to repeat ACL tears. Stefanie Gilbreath, who sat out her freshman year in 2007-2008 with a torn right ACL, sustained the same injury to the same knee, and will miss this season. Jacki Gemelos has already sat out two seasons from ACL tears in her right knee. Last week she tore the ligament in her left knee, and damaged cartilage.

“You shake your head and wonder why this kind of thing happens to good kids,” Coach Mark Trakh said of his injury-prone team. “But both are great kids, and both are looking to come back and have great years next year.”

Across town, there were a few reverberations when UCLA fired longtime coach Kathy Oliver last spring, and hired the University of Tennessee’s brilliant assistant coach Nikki Caldwell as her replacement. Two players chose not to return: Regina Rogers and Alexis Oliver, the former coach’s daughter. Star forward Lindsey Pluimer graduated.

The show must go on, of course, and despite the setbacks, the seasons of both teams have much potential.

USC will be lead by senior guards Camille LeNoir and Brynn Cameron – players who each had to redshirt the 2006-2007 season, and are back for a fifth year to have their senior season. Center Nadia Parker, a true senior, will fill in the third lead role for the team.

As a graduate of Narbonne High School, LeNoir is descended from basketball royalty, and unsurprisingly is an electric player. She returned to her starting role as point guard last year by leading the team in assists, steals, and becoming the second-leading scorer. She made 40 3-point shots during the season, and was named to the all-Pac 10 third team.

Parker, from Washington state, was her team’s scoring, rebounding and blocks leader last year, and was named to the all Pac-10 second team. She was also named Pac-10 player of the week last November.

Other key players back for the Trojans this year are junior guard Heather Oliver, sophomore center Kari LaPlante and junior forward Hailey Dunham.

Newcomers include Ashley Corral, a Washington state guard who will be LeNoir’s back up at point; Briana Gilbreath (Stefanie’s sister), a guard; Michelle Jenkins, an Oregon forward; Taylor Lord, a forward from California; and Daniela Roark, a junior who sat out last year after transferring from Fordham University.

Trakh, entering his fifth season as coach, said he has new goals for the team this year – some of which are tied into the possibility that USC could host the Pac-10 tournament and/or rounds 1 and 2 of the NCAA western regional tournament next year.

“Our goal is to win over 20 games, reach the sweet sixteen and sell out those NCAA games at the Galen Center,” he said. “The future looks great. We’ve just got to get out there and play exciting basketball.”

One intriguing footnote to this year’s Trojan team is the mysterious transfer of junior guard Morghan Medlock to Baylor University. Medlock, also a Narbonne graduate, is widely regarded as the player who triggered the 2006 firing of James Anderson, the longtime coach at the school which has produced numerous key collegiate and WNBA players.

Medlock played two seasons for USC. But early last May, Baylor announced she had signed to play there and would begin classes in June. I have searched the web, and have not found any evidence that USC ever acknowledged the transfer. I’ve also asked local Southern California sources for information, but no one seems to know anything. Neither school has given a reason why Medlock moved.

An All-American in her senior year, Medlock averaged 22 points and 15 rebounds per game, but 6.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in an average 19 minutes of play at USC.

At UCLA, Caldwell brings an impressive resume to a team that returns 10 letterwinners, including four starters.

Caldwell, a 1994 Tennessee graduate, won a national championship as a freshmen and worked briefly as an assistant coach to Pat Summitt in 1999. Caldwell was assisstant at Virginia from 2000-2002 before returning to work with Summitt in 2003. Caldwell’s teams have posted a 404-76 record and have appeared in the NCAA tournament each season, winning three national championships.

Two of Caldwell’s assistant coaches also have Tennessee connections. Tasha Butts, a 2004 UT graduate, was an assistant coach at Duquesne University last year. Tony Perotti, most recently from Northern Arizona University, used to run summer camps for the Lady Vols and is also a Tennessee graduate. The third coach, Stacie Terry, has been assistant coach at four schools, including the University of Southern Mississippi last year.

Returning starters include junior guard Erica Tukiainen, junior center Moniquee Alexander, sophomore forward Nina Earl and sophomore guard Doreena Campbell. Stars off the bench who will be back are sophomore guard Darxia Morris and senior guard Tierra Henderson.

The Bruins’ two new recruits, both from the Los Angeles area, are generating a lot of buzz among fans.

Antonye Nyinifa comes from Redondo Beach High School in Torrance, where she averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds per game as a senior. She helped her team win the title for its division that year, and was named co-player of the year in the Southern Section. Nyinifa received such awards throughout her high school career, and was regarded as one of the top 10 guard recruits in the nation.

Rebekah Gardner hails from Ayala High School in Fontana, where she was also co-player of the year in her division. As a junior, she helped lead her team to the division title, and last year averaged 19.7 points, 8 rebounds. 3.9 steals and 3 assists per game. As a sophomore, she averaged 28.7 points per game.

Besides keeping an eye on the two freshmen, I’m going to be watching Morris and sophomore forward Christina Nzekwe this year. I went to several UCLA games last year and saw potential in Morris, as I did with Nzekwe.

In the case of Christina, though, I’m also pulling for her because I coached her in track when she was a high school freshman. She has a lot of athletic ability and needs the right basketball coach to teach her more and help refine her game. This is yet another reason I’m very glad Caldwell is there now, because she is a teacher. Christina is also a hard worker and a nice kid, so I hope she has a break out year.

Caldwell has been working hard to promote her team. She made an apperance at several Los Angeles Sparks games and events this summer. At “University of Tennessee Night,” Caldwell sat alongside Coach Pat Summitt and Assistant Coach Holly Warlick during the game. At a post-game function, Caldwell passed out game schedule cards and talked with fans. The Sparks organization also made several UCLA promotional announcements during the UT night game.

But what won me over was an encounter I had with Caldwell and Butts in the Staples Center restroom back on June 22. It was halftime and I was standing at the back of the line, which goes around the corner. About five women ahead of me, right at the corner, was a familiar figure. I leaned out twice to make sure it was her, and then I walked up to her and asked, “aren’t you Coach Caldwell?”

She was very nice, and didn’t seem to think anything of talking to me as I creeped forward in the line with her. We had a fun conversation about her team, the Sparks, and Tennessee. As it was almost her turn, Butts came out of a stall and Caldwell pointed to her. She ducked in to use the facility and I ended up talking to Butts, who was equally enthusiastic. I remember telling Butts about my dilemma in being a fan of the Sparks, whom I used to loathe.

“And I think, ‘what are you doing?’ But -“

“But it’s Tennessee,” Butts said, finishing my sentence correctly.

“But it’s Tennessee!” I said.

Then after that, Candace Parker threw one down for the first time in her professional career.

Butts remembered me at the UT Night after party. I told her my friend and I had bought season tickets and would be sitting right behind the Bruin bench. She smiled and said, “OK, since you’re sitting so close, that’ll be part of my pre-game ritual – I’ll come out and slap your hand.” Then we practiced one.

I don’t know if she really meant it, but it was really cute that she said that in the first place.

Both USC and UCLA begin the season two weeks from tomorrow with exhibition games.

Those games can’t happen fast enough.