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

This is the eleventh in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

The UCLA Bruins were hitting their stride in 2012-2013, coach Cori Close’s second season. They knocked off Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals to play for the championship. After that they went on to the NCAA Tournament, where they went to the second round before bowing out.

Then prior to the following season, down went four players: forward Kacy Swain, guard Kari Korver, and two of the incoming freshmen, Paulina Hersler and Savanna Trapp. This came on the heels of losing three of their starters and top scorers.

The Bruins struggled, finishing the year 13-18 and 7-11 in conference play for eighth place. After a first-round loss in the Pac-12 Tournament, their season was done.

But throughout the tough times, there was always a flicker of promise in the background. This season, they are here – the number one 2014 recruiting class in the country, aka UCLA’s big freshmen: #6 Jordin Canada, #8 Lajahna Drummer, #9 Recee’ Caldwell and #26 Monique Billings.

More good news for the Bruins is that lll four injured players are back, as are five others, including junior guard Nirra Fields (17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds per game). There are also two additional freshmen in Kelli Hayes and walk-on Chrissy Baird.

This season is looking much brighter for UCLA.

Close took time out on Pac-12 media day last week to discuss the outlook for her team in 2014-2015. She said the freshmen have, at times, been “jaw-dropping”:

So last season was a rough one especially due to player injuries, how is the health of the Bruins this year?

Cori Close: “We are healthy. I think we are healthy mentally, physically, and emotionally. I think there is so much team spirit and optimism that when we had our scout guys leave and go to class a couple days ago we were able to keep practicing against each other. I think we are in a great spot. We don’t have Corinne Costa back at a 100% yet (torn MCL), but she will be back soon and everybody else is in a really good situation.”

Along the similar lines of players with injuries coming back, how has it been having Kari Korver and Kacy Swain back at practice?

Cori Close: “They have just grown with their maturity as so many players do. They see the game from a different angle when they have to sit out and watch it, so I actually think they are moving better than before they got hurt. Especially Kari Korver. She had to work on body mechanics and efficiency and really understand how to be explosive. I think they both are really in a great situation, athletically and mentally. They appreciate their opportunity to practice and play. Their basketball IQ has risen for as much film as they have had to watch and so it has been a huge impact to have both of them back.”

As for an overall team response, how will they rebound from the difficult season?

Cori Close: “It is not just a rebound because actually we felt like we had some major victories in establishing the culture of sustained excellence that we want. So on the one hand, last year was really hard and it was exhausting and it was frustrating and you felt like so much was out of your control, but on the other hand the growth was incredible to watch the players really take on our philosophy and our vision of the program.”

“I thought we saw a shift in last year’s team, and that was a real turning point for our program. It was like at the banquet,when Kari Korver’s dad said, “did we win a national championship and I missed it?”On one hand, everything was so hard, but on the other hand, there was so much to celebrate because of the growth, comeraderie, team spirit, and perseverance in the midst of difficulty and how we responded to adversity. We feel like it was a huge shift in our mindset, so I don’t know that we need to rebound from last year. I think we need to build on the positives from last year. Now we are just adding more bodies, but it is more important to me that we made a shift on the inside and that really is going to propel us going forward.”

“I think I have been quoted saying I wrote a letter to all the freshmen last spring, we are ready to soar and we are a healthy program because of the sacrifice of last year’s team. We are in a building process and so I don’t think we are rebounding from last year, I think we are just building from what we gained in character, perseverance and vision, and it’s going to be a really fun building process.”

What are your goals for the season?

Cori Close: “This is going to sound cliché as a coach, but my goal is to grow every single day and to become a team and not just counted individuals. I want our players to really see their opportunity to grow and improve, and I want them to become a better teammate every day, and that’s it. I think we don’t really set championship goals. We want to have a championship day. We want to have a championship culture. We want to have a championship growth. That’s really how we’re measuring things, so we honestly have not set one long term goal. We obviously have a lot of optimism about who we can become, especially going into Pac-12 play and the NCAA tournament. I can honestly tell you that the only goal I think about and the only goal I communicate to our team is that we have to grow every day, and we have to become better teammates every day.”

What are the freshmen bringing to the team, and how have they impacted the program?

Cori Close: “Well I think the freshmen are versatile and explosive. There have been some jaw-dropping moments by the freshmen in practice so far. But there have equally been some overwhelmed faces, because it is overwhelming. In our mind as coaches, the freshmen have been all that was advertised, especially in their character, in their championship work ethic and in their fun spirit. They are as advertised and better.”

“At the same time, they also are just freshmen, and they are overwhelmed. They are thinking too much, so it’s slowing down their game. It’s like Jordin Canada said, “what used to be an “ooh-ah” pass that got through for an assist is now a turnover. She’s having to adjust to everything. What used to be easily rewarded is harder, and she’s having to go to a whole other level. And all of our freshmen are experiencing that. They’re learning a brand new system, so instead of just being this fluid athlete that easily glides and makes decisions, they are sort of slowed down and a little bit mechanical right now, and that’s going to take some time to overcome.Individually, they are spectacular, but more than that, they’re spectacular teammates, and they’ve been so well received by the veterans.”

“Obviously with Recee’ Caldwell and Jordin Canada, there’s nobody else we need to run the point. We want Dominique Williams to play the wing spot because of her ability to rebound, so really they are the only two point guards. They have to mature the fastest, because they’ll be shouldering the biggest amount of pressure. They’ll be forced into the national stage to lead the team with the ball in their hands right off the bat. And I think they are capable. They are doing great and are growing every week. But I think it will be the hardest on them. But Recee’ is already one of our most vocal players. She understands the game. She studied our system before she even got here, so it was like she already knew what we were going to ask her to do before we did it. Her challenges have been on the defensive end and away from the ball and learning to read screens and play defense, whereas Jordin is opposite of that. Her impact with the ball in her hands as well as the impact extensively on the ball is so explosive, but she’s not comfortable in the system yet and being vocal and as leader.”

“Lajahna Drummer is one of our most efficient players. She has one of the highest shooting percentages on the team (we track that in practice). When we do competitive drills, her team wins. She knows who she is, and she doesn’t try to do things she can’t, but she can do a lot. She’s pretty explosive and has incredible instincts. I expect her to be one of our best rebounders. She needs to chase down out of area rebounds and to give incredible effort. And she’s a very competitive and aggressive person, so I really need her to bring that on the court at both ends of the floor.”

“Monique Billings has probably had the most jaw-dropping plays, whether it be a blocked shot, or a rebound or some finish on the break. She has incredible athleticism. If we get a defensive stop and you let her get out ahead of the ball, you are in trouble. She can catch in midair, finish with both hands, she can really get after it. She’s had a couple — I don’t typically react too much on plays in practice — but she’s gotten a few fist pumps from me because the plays were really, like, wow! I think for her it’s going to be having her knowledge of the game and her fundamentals catch up to her athleticism. That’ll take some time, but her ceiling is limitless and it’s been fun watching her athleticism impact our team.”

“Kelli Hayes is exactly what I thought. She comes from such a great high school program and she has been taught the intensity it takes to succeed at the next level. In our very first scrimmage, she went to another level. She just started to play the way she knows she can, and just made great rebounding plays. She was one of the leading rebounders in that game. I thought she fed the post really well. She tried to make a lot of plays with the ball in high school, but what we need her to do is to use her ability to cut. She’s a great player without the ball so I need her to really do a lot without the basketball. What I really appreciate most about Kelli is that she has a very fun personality and she’s a great teammate. She’s been one of the most consistent in her work ethic and has been so consistent in her ability to do the right thing and to lead and to bring people with her, which is exactly what I knew she was going to bring. She’s a glue person. She links the pieces together. She’s going to be the one that surprises people the most.”

“Chrissy Baird is a walk-on from Illinois. No one ever really talks about her, but if you ask our team about what teammate they really can depend on or rely on, she’s the one they’d talk about. She’s already making an impact. They already know she can be counted on. She wants to impact others and serve the team. If you were to ask our team who you would go to when they really need something, they would say Chrissy is one of those players. She may never be in the stat sheet the same way the others will, but the people who really know the inside.”