UCLA has roared out of the gate once again this season.
Top 15 ranking, as they’ve had for most of the last five years? Check. They are ranked No. 11 in the first two AP top 25 polls of the season.
Undefeated so far, and with a scoring margin of 32 points? Check. The Bruins have averaged almost 82 points per game in three outings.
Picked to finish near the top of the Pac-12, behind only top 10-ranked teams? Check. No. 1 Oregon, No. 3 Stanford and No. 7 rank higher in what has been called the toughest conference in the country.
And as usual, UCLA has magnificent athletes on its roster. Three are averaging double-figure scoring, two are close, and four are grabbing at least six rebounds per game.
But the Bruins are a much different squad this year than they have been in their recent ascent to elite program status. Typically, they have made much of their living under the basket by rebounding, scoring and blocking shots. This year’s roster, however, is guard-heavy, with six players 5-11 and under – a departure from previous teams, when most were 6 feet and taller. Currently the tallest player is 6-4 Ally Rosenblum, who plays very sparingly off the bench. The other post players range from 6 feet to 6-2.
Thus, unsurprisingly, new-look UCLA is more of a shooting team than it has been for a long time. Playing heavily into that is the improvement of returnees Lindsey Corsaro and Kiara Jefferson, the emergence of transfer Natalie Chou, and the arrival of freshman Charisma Osborne, a McDonald’s All-American. All have been stars from the three-point line so far – a trend that began in preseason.
In October the Bruins traveled to play Gonzaga and Louisville in closed scrimmages on consecutive weekends. They beat the Bulldogs, 77-71, behind 24 points from standout forward Michaela Onyenwere and 12 points from Osborne. Against the Cardinals, they lead by as much as 19 points in pulling out a 67-66 win with Onyenwere, Osborne, Chou, Corsaro and Kayla Owens each scoring in double-digits.
Coach Cori Close said her team’s enhanced shooting range has been a game-changer.
“I do think that is the difference – it opens everything up,” she said. “We’ve always been good down the middle in terms of penetrations, but in our first scrimmage we hit nine three’s and in our second one, we hit 10. That’s a totally different ball game for us.”
At the same time, Close doesn’t want her team to become too dependent on shots.
“We need to stay consistent, and we need to not fall in love with that,” she said. “We need to take the right shots. And I don’t want us to fall in love with shooting baskets and not have our bread and butter be from defensive rebounding. I think that’s easy to do, because they know they can score now.”
“We still need to play from the paint out, but that’s going to be a lot easier now. Also, we still need to stay mentally disciplined.”
If last season is any indication, UCLA will be able to handle it.
After graduating two of the program’s all-time greats in Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, the team stumbled early, dropping four straight games. They repeated that feat entering Pac-12 play, but they made adjustments and went 10-2 the rest of the way to finish in fourth place. The Bruins made it to the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament and barreled through the NCAA Tournament, taking out Tennessee and Maryland to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year.
Onyenwere, who averaged a team-high 18.3 points and 8.5 rebounds as a sophomore, said she and her teammates grew a lot through adversity.
“It’s not about where you start, it’s where you finish,” Onyenwere said. “We were really resilient, and a lot of people didn’t believe in us, but we believed in ourselves. Last year was about finding our identity, and we did do that.”
“It’s all about growing, and this year we have a different mindset. We already established ourselves last year as being great teammates and great rebounders. We have a goal in mind, which is to win a Pac-12 championship and win a national championship.”
UCLA’s quest begins with Onyenwere, who played for USA Basketball’s Pan American Games Team this summer and helped them win a silver medal. She also competed for the 3X3 team and was invited to training camp for the National Team in September. She was named to preseason watch lists for the Naismith Trophy, the Wooden Award, the Wade Trophy and the Cheryl Miller Award.
Close said Onyenwere, who works on her game constantly, has also matured.
“Mic used to never congratulate anyone, and then she got voted a captain,” Close said, “Now to see the confidence she’s playing with – it’s fun to watch.”
Redshirt sophomore Corsaro is a veteran and a team leader despite her underclasswoman status, as she had to sit out two years with injuries. Close said both her on and off-court presence is essential to the team.
“Lindsey is our glue, and she has been playing very well and very aggressively this year,” she said. “She’s so mature and so other-centered – it’s awesome.”
Close also noted that the offseason improvement of sophomore guard Jefferson and redshirt sophomore guard Kayla Owens has been impressive. Both have established themselves as scoring threats in the first three games.
Also returning is junior forward Lauryn Miller, who conditioned and lost body fat in the offseason, and senior point guard Japreece Dean, who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA in late spring.
Dean said she and the players she came in with are happy to step up and mentor the freshmen.
“I’ve learned that everything is not about me – not as far as shooting,” she said. “I’m much better at bouncing back from bad games. I’ve grown into a leadership role, and leading the freshmen right now is the biggest thing for me.”
Dean sees the growth in her peers, as well.
“Kayla has been doing a really good job of earning her way on the court this year with her attitude and being in shape,” Dean said. “And it helps to have Lauryn’s voice in practice for the freshmen; she is setting a good example.”
The anticipated appearance of Chou, who sat on the bench last season after transferring from Baylor, has not disappointed. So far she is averaging 11 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.75 steals and 2 assists per game, and her long arms make her a threat on defense.
The Bruins’ ninth-ranked signing class of 2019 included Osborne, Jaden Owens, Brynn Masikewich and Camryn Brown. Masikewich has been out the last eight weeks with an injury and is close to returning, which Close is happy about due to her outstanding early-summer contributions. Osborne and Owens have logged minutes and stats so far, and are turning heads with their play.
Owens said fast-paced is the name of the game for UCLA.
“Our role is to push the ball up the floor,” she said. “Obviously we don’t have that much height, so we’re going to be much faster, and we’re in shape. So (the goal is) getting the ball and pushing it up the floor in transition.”
She also knows her own role.
“It’s being a leader and understanding that my role isn’t to score – we have multiple scorers,” Owens said. “My role is getting (teammates) the ball and getting them their best shot, and always talking.”
Osborne is effective on both sides of the floor, and is able to penetrate to the rim especially well, given her size. She can play the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions, which fits well with the other newcomers.
“Bruin basketball this year is very versatile, with several people able to play multiple positions,” Onyenwere said. “You may see a guard that can be posting up a lot, who can hit more consistently. We have a lot of different kinds of shooters, and all are great teammates and great rebounders.”
Onyenwere said the freshman class compliments each other, and each player has the potential for greatness
“All four of them bring something different – it’s a very complete class,” she said. “They’re all really eager to learn, and they do well with feedback. It’s good when you have freshman who want to come in and learn.”
Close is pleased with both the returners and the newcomers, and said her mission is to facilitate continual growth.
“I like us, (and) I like who we can become,” she said. “I’m excited about my team because I know what we can become, and I’m urgent because of what’s waiting for us in the Pac-12, top to bottom.”
The preseason scrimmages helped the Bruins grow, Close said, because it showed them what they need to work on.
“I don’t think we’re defending as consistently as we should,” she said. “We have less margin for error because we lost two really great defenders and rebounders in Laj (Lajahna Drummer) and Kennedy (Burke). We need to be more consistent in defending without fouling, defending with discipline, and applying pressure in the back court to hide our lack of size in the front court.”
Close said she wants UCLA’s identity to remain centered around making defensive stops. And process and progress are key.
“We’re trying to have the end in mind, but at the same time, we’re focusing on incremental measure of improvement,” she said. “I want us to be a team that never gets tired of doing it right. Over time, if you make the right choices, you’ll become a pretty good team.”
The Bruins will test their mettle again tomorrow, as they take on former assistant coach Jenny Huth’s Northern Colorado Bears at 7 p.m. PT at Pauley Pavilion.