Pac-10 preview: the University of California, Los Angeles

This is the sixth of a 10-part series previewing the Pac-10 basketball teams

In 2008, fresh off of a National Championship, Nikki Caldwell left Tennessee to take over a beleaguered UCLA program. Despite producing some WNBA players over the years, the Bruins had a mortgage at the bottom of the Pac-10, with seemingly no hope of climbing out. But Caldwell changed all that.

With a “new sherriff in town” approach, Caldwell came in and laid out structure: discipline, a focus on defense and hard work. One player didn’t make it, and was kicked off the team by the end of the year for “not following team rules.” The rest of the squad began appearing in Southern California newspapers, all saying the same thing: their new coach was very tough, but was a good listener, too.

Former center Moniquee Alexander told an East LA County newspaper that she talked to Caldwell about her mother’s death from breast cancer. Guard Darxia Morris was suspended temporarily that first season for violating team rules, but remains close to Caldwell. By December of 2008, the new head coach had her first transfer, as LA native Jasmine Dixon opted to leave Rutgers and become a Bruin. After the Pac-10 Tournament this past spring, Dixon said she also finds Caldwell extremely personable.

“You can talk to Coach and she’ll listen,” Dixon said. “You won’t always agree, but she’ll hear what you have to say.”

That’s probably the personal side answer to how/why did Caldwell guide the Bruins to second in the Pac-10 and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament in her second season, as well as being named Pac-10 Coach of the Year. The business-side answer is that Caldwell is very much like her mentor, Pat Summitt of Tennessee.

If Caldwell isn’t pleased with how her team is playing, she calls a timeout and meets them halfway on the court, eyes flashing. I sit close enough to the bench that I can hear exactly what she’s yelling at them, and I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end.

On the other hand, if the Bruins are doing well, Caldwell is just as quick to give a player a high-five or say “good job!” She seems to embody the right balance of firm and loving. And just about every player on a team she didn’t even recruit has become noticeably better under her tutelage. I’m looking forward to seeing what this team can do in the future – especially next year when Kacy Swain and Justine Hartman get there.

Caldwell was kind enough to answer a few questions for me:

SF: Who do you expect to be the biggest impact players?

NC: Jasmine Dixon represents toughness and brings a competitive spirit to the team. Last season, she immediately fit into our system and she fit into her role. She made us better as a team and made the players around her better. Dixon also became a player we could count on, a go-to player, not only offensively, but defensively with her post defense and her ability to rebound the basketball.

When I look at our backcourt I see two young ladies (senior guards Doreena Campbell and Darxis Morris) who have withstood the test of time since I have been here. They have led this team in every facet — to our running game, to bringing pressure which allows us to extend our defense. They also give us an offensive threat for the three and for penetration. The versatility really complements each other.

Markel (Walker) played big for us in a number of games last season. She has the ability to play any position on the court, offensively and defensively. She excels in passing the basketball which I think is one of the lost arts in the game. She knows she can give others great looks and get her own looks as well.

SF: What do you attribute to the quick rise of the Bruins the last two years?

NC: First I was able to put together an unbelievable coaching staff. We were able to give the team a clear direction for the program through a lot of team building. We also had to establish a foundation of trust…trust in the practice plan, trust in the plan for player development, trust in a new system and new people and so on…in order to reap the benefits. There was talent here when we arrived as a staff and everyone worked extremely hard and was focused on learning the new system.

SF: How do the freshmen – Corinne Costa, Thea Lemberger and Rhema Gardner – look so far?

NC: Costa…I expect her to give us what Moniquee Alexander gave us last season. She gives us size and a presence in the paint. We are teaching her the game and the system and she will give us some valuable, valuable minutes.

Lemberger…She has the ability to knock down the three. She’s a smart and heady player who will stand in there and sacrifice her body. She has the competitive drive to will her team to success.

Gardner…She is 6-1, long and lanky, and brings some toughness with her. She can handle the 2-3-4 spots and offers the versatility to play a bigger lineup with quickness.

SF: What are your goals/strategies for this year?

NC: We try to make the non-conference schedule as competitive as we can nationally. We start with a San Diego State team which made a run to the Sweet 16, go to play at Notre Dame, and bring LSU and Temple to Pauley. We like to position ourselves to be seen nationally, representing the Pac-10 in a national way. When we play teams that have gone deep in the Tournament year in and year out, we only help ourselves come conference play. We need to get more teams from the Pac-10 into the Tournament and this helps to prepare our team to do its part.