Just to get this off my chest: The problem with the Women's Tournament is that it needs to adopt either the philosophy of the Men's NCAA Tournament or NIT. It should establish a policy that teams can't host tournament games, like the Men's NCAA Tournament, or be similar to the NIT where higher seeds gets homecourt until the Final Four.
Alas, UCLA ran into the buzz saw of playing a vastly under-seeded Gonzaga team (#19 in the nation yet an 11 seed) on their home court where in 2 years they have lost only 1 game. That doesn't excuse UCLA from allowing Gonzaga to shoot over 60% in the second half. Gonzaga, though, is a speed and finesse team, and UCLA plays a more physical, punishing style of basketball and, while you hate to make the referees an issue, it wasn't difficult to conclude that Gonzaga was benefitting from the officiating. UCLA had 4 players pick up 2 fouls in the first half, causing Jasmine Dixon and Darxia Morris to spend large portions of the first half on the bench, while Gonzaga picked up 2 team fouls the entire half.
While the NCAA tournament was disappointing, the season could be described as anything but. UCLA finished with a record of 28-5, with three of those losses coming to Stanford. In the three Stanford match-ups, UCLA improved each time, going from the disaster at Maples, to playing the Cardinal even for a half at Pauley, to having a lead for 36 minutes in the Pac-10 Tournament, despite plenty of mismatches in terms of size and talent. UCLA once again finished 2nd in the conference but vastly improved itsconference mark this season by sweeping all non-Stanford teams. Other accomplishments include sweeping USC, getting the first win at USC in the regular season since the early ‘90s, and an elite road win at Notre Dame. Nikki Caldwell and UCLA broke numerous records, including best start to a season, most regular season wins, most conference wins, most road game wins, and most conference road game wins. Perhaps most importantly, Nikki Caldwell has taken UCLA from a languishing program to national relevance, as UCLA was ranked all season long, and spent most of the season in or just out of the top 10. Just as the nation is starting to pay more attention to UCLA, so too are recruits, as Nikki Caldwell as brought in the #3 rated recruiting class in the nation for next season.
UCLA's games weren't always the highest scoring, but with Caldwell's brand of full-court pressure defense (as she calls it, "organized chaos"), the Bruins played a dynamic brand of basketball. The team was led this season offensively by senior Darxia Morris and junior Jasmine Dixon, who both averaged double-digit scoring. UCLA, though, had enough potential weapons that, between Dixon, Morris, Doreena Campbell, Atonye Nyingifa, Markel Walker, and Rebekah Gardner, every game saw at least someone different step up offensively, allowing teams to not just focus on stopping one or two players.
UCLA graduates four seniors this season. Campbell and Morris provided great senior leadership, played major minutes every game, were reliable scorers, and were instrumental to the UCLA press. Nina Earl and Christina Nzekwe were not as needed for their scoring as for their defense coming off the bench, so that when Caldwell needed to rest her starters, knew Nzekwe and Earl's tough defense would protect the lead.
Looking towards next season, it's tough to predict UCLA's future. UCLA is going to have a hard time replacing Campbell and Morris in the backcourt, the two combining for 21 points per game. Caldwell is bringing in one guard in the class, Mariah Faulk, but it's not expected that she'd be ready to make a big impact as a freshman. This season, Sophomore Mariah Williams and freshman Thea Lemberger played just 18 minutes between the two of them, and averaged a combined 2.1 points per game. Williams, Lemberger, and Faulk are going to have to grow up fast if UCLA for UCLA to be successful in 2011-2012, as UCLA's backcourt will go from a strength to a major question mark. Helping to ease the fears somewhat is the return of junior Rebekah Gardner, who has proven to be a scoring spark off the bench, averaging 8 points per game, and leading the team in three-point shooting, average 35% on the season. Given starters' minutes (she averaged 21 minutes a game), you'll likely see her scoring increase. Markel is considered a versatile player and may be responsible for bringing up the ball next season. UCLA's considerable weakness was its three-point shooting (2nd to last in the nation in three-pointers made per game, though UCLA doesn't attempt many), and Gardner is the only returner who has proven to be a viable three-point shooting option.
Caldwell's incoming recruiting class will have a major impact on the team, with four recruits coming in, and three of them rated in the ESPN top 30: Justin Hartman, a 6-2 post, is ranked 7th in the nation; Kacy Swain, a 6-3 forward, is 25th, and Sheila Boynkin, a 6-2 forward is #27. They'll bring some much-needed size to what was an under –sized team this last season. With the three highly-rated newcomers teaming up with the team's returning leading scorer and all-conference player in Dixon, Nyingifa, and Walker, UCLA's front court will be UCLA's clear strength and the Bruins should continue to be a force on the boards. UCLA does return three starters in Dixon, Walker, and Nyingifa, and Gardner has also started a fair number of games, so UCLA isn't exactly rebuilding from scratch. Nyingifa has easily been the biggest positive surprise of the season. Coming back from her season-ending injury last year, Nyingifa picked up right where she left off as a strong rebounder, reliable scorer (though she does need to be more aggressive in going to the basket), and turnover force in the press.
It's a little early to predict where UCLA will fit in the conference and nation next year. Stanford loses a few seniors but returns the Ogumike sisters; USC will have four senior starters and a fearsome backcourt that could give UCLA fits (next year could be a big year for USC before crashing back down the year after), and Cal returns many veterans. Even if UCLA has a rebuilding year, though, Caldwell clearly has UCLA turned around from when she arrived in Westwood and headed down the right path (the attendance at women's games in her three years at UCLA has steadily increased). There's not doubt Caldwell will have next year's team competitive in conference and back in the tournament, playing her signature hard-nosed style. This has enabled her to make advancements in recruiting to the point where she's beginning to bring in talent on the same level as the traditional elite in the women's college basketball world.