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

This is the sixth in a series previewing the Pac-12 teams

Surpassing their achievements last season would already be a challenge for UCLA. They were ranked in the top 20 all year, finished third in the Pac-12, played Stanford for the conference championship and went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Oklahoma.

But the Bruins graduated three of their starters and top scorers. Then this past month saw the loss of two key reserves – Kari Korver and Kacy Swain – to ACL tears. The thinned-out roster puts UCLA at a disadvantage, which may mean a down year.

Sure, leading point-getter (11.6 ppg) and sixth-year senior forward Antonye Nyingifa is back, as is point guard Thea Lemberger (8.6 ppg) and sophomore guard Nirra Fields (7.8 ppg). Junior forward/guard Rhema Gardner, junior forward center Corrine Costa and freshman guard Lauren Holiday are back from injury, after missing last season. But aside from reserve Madeline Brooks, the remaining Bruins are new, leaving them short on experience.

The four newcomers are a diverse group. There is 5-foot-9 guard Dominique Williams of Arizona – the only overall-ranked signee – at 94th, and 21st for her position. Savanna Trapp is a 6-foot-9 center from Minnesota who was ranked 20th among posts for the 2013 class. Another center, 6-foot-3 Liviana Luvalo, is a junior transfer from Northwest Florida State College. She averaged 8.6 ppg and 5.2 rpg in an average 7.3 minutes per game last year. Paulina Hersler, a forward from Sweden, rounds out the freshman class.

Much has been made this past week of coach Cori Close’s 2014 recruiting class, which ESPN dubbed the best in the nation, with five A-list recruits. But what about this season?

If the Bruins hold true to form, they will be better than expected. Two years ago they were befallen by injuries, but battled and finished in the top half of the Pac-12. Last season they surpassed conference, overall and NCAA Tournament expectations despite the losses of Gardner, Costa and Holiday.

Close and her assistant coaches keep a fairly low profile, making UCLA somewhat difficult to assess. On paper, this year’s Bruins look like they’ll be spread thinly. But fans won’t truly know until they step on to the court.

After a Halloween night opener, UCLA will face Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Auburn in pre-conference play. They open in the Pac-12 Dec. 30 against chief rivals USC, at home.

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