Under third year coach Nikki Caldwell, UCLA is becoming a relevant player nationally, something that couldn't be said about the program for a long time. In order to better understand the progress the program has made, it is important to take a look at the past, present, and future of the UCLA women's basketball program.
Kathy Oliver had been the women's head coach for 15 years, from 1993 to 2008. She had a reputation similar to that of Steve Lavin: great recruiter, very friendly and well-liked, but not much other than that. Her career record was just 232-208, and she squandered a good amount of talent. In 2005-2006, Olivier had three future WNBA upperclassmen on the roster, but she was only able to manage a 3rd-place Pac-10 finish and, following a Pac-10 tournament championship, lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a result in retrospect that showed she wasn't getting the most from her teams.
Following a 14-18 and 16-15 record her final two years, Olivier resigned (or was given the opportunity to leave on her terms). During UCLA's coaching search, Caldwell became one of UCLA's top choices. A national championship player and assistant coach at Tennessee, Caldwell had no head coaching experience but was a disciple of one of the greatest coaches of the game, Tennessee's Pat Summit. With that, the Nikki Caldwell experience began at UCLA.
In Caldwell's first season, things started to change for the Bruins. Fundamentals, defense, and rebounding became noticeable core values and the change was night-and-day from Olivier's program. Caldwell also cleaned up a team that had been lax on discipline. Senior Starter Tierra Henderson had been suspended during the season once, and when she continued to have problems, Caldwell removed her permanently from the team. UCLA finished that first season with a 19-12 record and an NIT invitation, which Caldwell turned down, saying that she wanted her players used to competing only for the NCAA tournament. In her second season she continued to control a tight ship, kicking Candice Brown off the roster before the season started. With the infusion of young talent in Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker, the Bruins shot up, finishing with a 25-9 record, 15-3 in conference for second place, a trip to the NCAA tournament second round, and a #23 ranking.
Entering this season, expectations were high, with the Bruins starting off as the preseason #16 team in the nation. After two early victories, UCLA faced their marquee non-conference game, traveling to #13 Notre Dame. If there was one knock on Caldwell last season if was that UCLA was unable to win against highly-ranked competition. Playing in front of 8,000 fans, UCLA played a thrilling double-overtime game, coming away with a crucial 86-83 victory that will look great come tournament-seeding-selection time. From there, UCLA has cruised through the rest of the non-conference schedule, with just one game remaining against LSU next Tuesday at Pauley Pavilion. Outside of that Notre Dame game, UCLA has won all but one game by double digits. The Bruins, however, have a habit of playing well for the first 25 minutes, building a huge lead, then getting complacent long enough for the other team to make the game interesting, before putting the game away with a double-digit margin, something that won't fly during Pac-10 season.
The team's key player is junior forward Jasmine Dixon, who has been on multiple preseason award watch lists. She leads the team in both scoring (11.9) and rebounds (6.9) per game. The one knock on her is that, while she goes to the line more than any other player, she shoots a poor 53% from the line. The team had to play two games without Dixon, who was held out as a precaution for showing concussion-like symptoms after going down hard in the Temple game, and UCLA looked somewhat average against two average teams. It made it very clear that UCLA is a much different team and plays at a higher level when Dixon is on the court.
Senior Guard Darxia Morris is the other Bruin averaging double-digit points at 11.6 a game, and also leads the team in steals. Four other Bruins (Markel Walker, Rebekah Gardner, Doreena Campbell, and Atonye Nyingifa) average 9+ points a game, meaning UCLA doesn't rely on just one or two players for their scoring, with multiple scoring options. In 10 games so far, UCLA has had five different leading scorers.
The strengths of the team include: rebounding (out-rebounding opponents by 9 a game); pressure defense (25 forced turnovers a game, 15 due to steals); drawing fouls with a focus on interior play; attempting 22 free-throws per game; and being top three in the conference in shooting percentage, scoring defense, scoring margin, and turnover margin. Where the Bruins struggle most noticeably is by shooting 62% at the free-throw line as a team, missing an average of 8 per game. UCLA can be sloppy with the ball, too, averaging close to 18 turnovers a game. With guard Erica Tukiainen graduated, UCLA has not been much of a perimeter team, attempting only 6 three-pointers per game and shooting 28% from behind the arc. Only two players have emerged as three-point shooters, with Morris shooting 33% and Gardner 35%.
UCLA has assembled a pretty strong NCAA Tournament profile so far. UCLA has an RPI of 11 (which actually went down from a top 10 RPI due to facing two weaker teams this week). UCLA already has four top-100 RPI victories, with two against top-50 teams. With a stronger Pac-10 this year, UCLA still has LSU and 6 top-100 RPI Pac-10 teams to build a strong tournament resume. Six of the 10 wins for the Bruins have come on the road, so UCLA has gained some good road experience that will hopefully pay off during conference play.
Looking to the future, Caldwell has brought her recruiting talents from Tennessee to Westwood. After a successful 2009-2010 campaign, Nikki turned it into a phenomenal 2011 recruiting class, which was ranked #3 nationally by ESPN, only behind perennial powers Tennessee and Connecticut. Caldwell has signed a four-person class, with three players ranked in the national top 30. They are:
-- Justine Hartman, 6-2 post, Brea (Calif.) Brea-Olinda, #7 national prospect
-- Kacy Swain, 6-3 forward, Temecula (Calif.) Chaparral, #25 nationally
-- Sheila Boykin, 6-2 forward, Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, #27 nationally
-- Moriah Faulk, 5-9 guard, Santa Monica (Calif.) High, four-star prospect
With the frontcourt set for the near future, Caldwell will be focusing on recruiting high quality guards. While there is far less information available about women's recruiting compared to men's, it's known that UCLA is in the running for the #1 shooting guard in the 2012 national class and the #5-ranked prospect overall, 6-0 Jordan Adams from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei. Also involved are Tennessee, Cal, USC, and Notre Dame.
The biggest challenge in women's basketball recruiting is the lack of elite talent compared to men's basketball, with a small handful of elite programs getting their pick of the litter (Stanford, UCONN, Tennessee), leaving other programs to fight for the next tier. A huge coup and step forward for UCLA recruiting was getting Markel Walker, the current UCLA sophomore who was a McDonald's All-American and ranked the #4 player in the nation for 2009. She had committed to local Pittsburgh, but then changed her commitment to UCLA. After stealing Walker, bringing in a solid 2010 class, and then securing a top-3 national recruiting class for 2011, Caldwell has the foundation for a strong program in the next several years. With perhaps the best season in recent UCLA women's basketball history looking like it may unfold in 2010-2011, Caldwell appears to have earned the rep as a hot, young coach leading an up-and-coming program, and may have the ability to challenge the big-named programs for top recruits, especially those in Southern California and the west.