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

This is the eleventh of a 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

Even the most diehard UCLA fans have to admit that the Bruins face an uphill climb this year. They’ve had an incredibly bumpy ride the last seven months.

First, two of their top three scorers – Darxia Morris (12.2 ppg) and Doreena Campbell (9.2 ppg) – graduated. Then they lost their coach, Nikki Caldwell, when she left in April to take the same job at LSU.

Exit recruit Justine Hartman, who was granted a release from her National Letter of Intent after Caldwell’s departure. Also leaving was Sheila Boykin, who opted to follow Caldwell to Louisiana. Enter Coach Cori Close – a veteran, respected coach originally from California.

In September, senior forward Jasmine Dixon, who was the Bruins’ leading rebounder (7.3 rpg) last year with a 12.1 ppg scoring average, was lost for the season when she ruptured her Achilles tendon in practice. With October came Alyssia Brewer, who transfered from Tennessee and will play her senior year next season.

To be sure, the 2012-2013 season looks bright with those two waiting in the wings. But there’s this season to contend with first.

Top returners are redshirt junior forward Antonye Nyingifa (8.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and junior guard Markel Walker (8.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) – both of whom were starters last season. Senior guard Rebekah Gardner (7.9 ppg) is also back. But after that, there is a sharp drop in available weaponry.

Junior guard Mariah Williams, sophomore center Corinne Costa, sophomore forward Rhema Gardner, sophomore guard Thea Lemberger and junior guard Jackie Shepard all averaged 1.7 ppg or less last year. Costa, Gardner and Lemberger were considered a weak recruiting class by fans. Williams struggled playing the point behind Morris and Campbell, and Shepard is a walk-on who has never seen significant minutes.

The freshmen offer hope.

Before Hartman and Boykin left, UCLA’s signing class was top five. Two of those newcomers stayed: 6-foot-3 forward Kacy Swain and 5-foot-10 guard Moriah Faulk, both of the Los Angeles area. Swain was ranked 25th in her class and ninth at the forward position.

Last May the Bruins also added Alexis Perry, a 5-foot-7 guard who played for high-ranking Brea Olinda. She had surgery after last season to repair a shoulder that has been repeatedly dislocated – perhaps most notably during the Nike Tournament of Champions last December, where she suffered the injury in the first round. Perry came back to help lead her team to a championship.

The loss of Dixon is significant for the Bruins, because she played both under the basket and on the perimeter – easily the strongest player on the team. Costa will have to step up in a big way, or Swain will have to trade off with her at the position, as she’s only an inch shorter.

Nyingifa had flashes of pure brilliance last season, and she could make it her team this year, as she is now the veteran. Williams could be vying for her point guard position with Faulk and Perry.

The question for the returners is whether or not they can continue the rapid development that most saw under Caldwell. The question for the newcomers is if they can live up to the hype that surrounds them.

Whether or not UCLA rises again, as they did the last three years, will depend upon Close and her staff. Close began her coaching career as assistant for the Bruins for two seasons, and then went on be assistant at UC Santa Barbara for nine years. She’s been at Florida State for the last seven seasons, serving as associate head coach.

Close was offensive coordinator at FSU and player development coordinator at UCSB. There’s no doubt she can do the job, but she’s been very quiet since arriving at Westwood. She’s also been gone on a lot this fall on recruiting trips, leaving the coaching to her assistants.

Shannon Perry has been an assistant coach at Duke, USC and Iowa. Tony Newnan has coached at Westmont College, Oregon State University and UCSB. Jenny Huth has coached at Oakland University, and she has coached high school.

A final challenge for the Bruins this year is that they’re playing in the John Wooden Center while Pauley Pavilion is being remodeled. The Center is a much smaller venue, which doesn’t seem compatible with hosting Tennessee Dec. 17, as they’re sure to draw a large crowd as they did four years ago.

UCLA kicks off pre-conference play play Nov. 11 by hosting the pre-season WNIT, which includes four games in nine days. Other opponents include, interestingly, LSU, San Diego State and Temple. The Bruins begin Pac-12 play at home Dec. 29, against Cal.