Pac-10 preview: UCLA

Prior to the commencement of the 2009-2010 college basketball season, Hoopism will profile various NCAA teams. Today, the fifth installment of the Pac-10 previews: the UCLA Bruins.

The Bruins’ last game of the 2008-2009 season was a crushing loss in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals to eventual champs and Final Four contenders the Stanford Cardinal. It was unfortunate to see the sad looks on the faces of the UCLA players afterwards, and for the team to go out like that, considering how far they’d come last year. The point can’t be understated.

UCLA had bought a home in the basement of the Pac-10 at least six years ago – more, depending upon whom you speak with. Former coach Kathy Oliver would stand on the sidelines for entire games, flapping her hands like a duck does its wings, trying to micromanage each play. Sure there were bright spots occasionally through the years, like Nikki Blue and Noelle Quinn. But for the most part, the players didn’t exactly look enthusiastic most of the time.

Then she came.

She with the three National Championship rings – one as a player and two as an assistant coach. She with the glare that is almost as scary as her mentor Pat Summitt’s: Nikki Caldwell.

Things changed.

The team began to play defense. Rebounds started slowly, went up and came down a little bit again. Offense took shape. The players became visibly faster and had more stamina as the season progressed. And equally important, the mood and demeanor of the team, in he words of the late Notorious B.I.G., “went from negative to positive.” I was a first-year season ticket holder last year, but the old-timers noticed the difference.

“They always seemed down in the dumps, but now they’re light, they joke around and they smile,” a long-time Pauley Pavilion usher told me during halftime of a home game this past February. “It’s so nice to see that.”

Others noticed it too. UCLA’s newspaper the Daily Bruin wrote story after story on Caldwell’s positive impact on the team. Even players who didn’t necessarily take to her tough love approach at first, like then-senior Chinyere Ibekwe, sang her praises.

The team finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the Pac-10 with a 19-12 record. And in a year where players from all over the country left top schools – many with new coaches like Caldwell – the only player UCLA lost last year besides Ibekwe to graduation was a player who was dismissed for team rule violations. That says a lot about the coach, for whom this is her first gig as captain of the ship.

This year almost the entire Bruin team returns, including starters Christina Nzekwe, Antonye Nyingifa, Erica Tukiainen and Doreena Campbell. Three players have been added, including one of those aforementioned defectors from other schools: Jasmine Dixon, who went from Long Beach Poly to play at Rutgers only a month or so before leaving. Her mandated year of sitting out ends December 8, when she will join the Bruins on the floor. Dixon participated in Nike’s Say No Showcase league over the summer, where she was a consistent offensive threat. In one game, she put up 26 points.

The other two newcomers are Markel Walker of Philadelphia and Mariah Williams of Colorado Springs, both highly-touted recruits.

Returning bench players are Nina Earl, Darxia Morris, Allison Taka, Candice Brown, Moniquee Alexander and Rebekah Gardner.

It’ll be interesting to see if Caldwell uses Nyngifa or Morris at the point, or keep rotating them as she did last year. I’m hoping someone has worked with Alexander in the off-season to make her stronger in the post, because that is a lot of height to waste just because someone doesn’t go up strong.

Campbell and Tukiainen seemed to thrive the most under Caldwell’s tutelege, finishing last year’s season with 12.9 and 8.3 points per game, respectively. I love the fearlessness of both athletes – particularly Campbell, who will slash anywhere on the court. I hope they’ve taken their game up even further since last year. It’s also good to see Nzekwe, who never got off the bench under Oliver, breaking out.

The big question mark is what lineup Caldwell will start with, and how she’ll work Dixon – an All-American and California’s 2008 player of the year – into the lineup in December. But what I do know is that my seatmate, correspondent Daniel Uribe, and I are very excited about the season. We feel UCLA is a slow-motion Cinderella.

The reason is seems to be working is that Caldwell is the best kind of coach: she expects a lot, runs a tight ship and is tough, but she’ll give credit and praise when it’s due. For example, when the players are messing up during a game, Caldwell will meet them almost at the top of the key as they walk off the court; they know they’re in trouble. But likewise, if the team – or individuals – are doing what they’re supposed to, she gives them ups.

Some have said Caldwell is the heir apparent to Summitt at Tennessee, and I can see why they say that, because Caldwell has the demeanor and charisma. But I don’t think Summitt, who has just as much passion for the game as she did when she started in 1974, is going to retire anytime soon. So for us Bruin fans, that’s good news, because I’m looking forward to watching Nikki Caldwell coach for a while.