March 2, 2024

Cori Close is not concerned with being among the top four teams in the polls. The UCLA coach is concerned only with being among the final four teams standing.

The No. 4 Bruins have their highest preseason ranking since 1999-2000. They have four of five starters returning, last season’s top-ranked freshman class is a year older, they landed one star transfer and feature a healthy, versatile frontcourt that turned a weakness into what coaches are calling the team’s “super power.”

No wonder expectations are soaring.

“Really [the ranking] just shows potential and talent level. And we have a lot of potential and a lot of talent level,” Close said. “Now, what are we going to do with that?”

The possibilities could be historic. The Bruins have been to the Elite Eight only twice and not since 2018. They’ve never been to the Final Four. They are one of five varsity sports at UCLA without an NCAA championship among the school’s 121.

But Close knows any hopes of postseason glory must start with hard, consistent work in practice.

“When that ranking came out, I said, ‘Well, are you training like the third-ranked team? Are you training like a championship team?’” said Close, whose message was inspired by a preseason talk with UCLA women’s soccer coach Margueritte Aozasa. “So if you want to talk about Final Four, give me Final Four habits, give me Final Four training, give me Final Four mind-set.”

UCLA's Charisma Osborne waves her arms toward the stands and grins after defeating Oklahoma during the NCAA tournament

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne (20) celebrates after the Bruins beat Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 20 in Los Angeles.

(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

With a five-player freshman class that still was growing into the college game, UCLA was one win from its first conference tournament title since 2006 last season, falling to Washington State in the final. The Bruins used momentum to fuel their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2019. Freshman guard Kiki Rice averaged 12.8 points and 3.3 assists during the postseason tournaments after delivering 11.3 points and 2.9 assists during the season. In her first year after a significant knee injury, forward Emily Bessoir blossomed with five double-digit scoring performances in the seven postseason games and her first double-double.

After top-seeded South Carolina crushed UCLA’s resurgence in the regional semifinal, guard Charisma Osborne reflected on the late-season surge. She was a projected first-round WNBA draft pick, but the future in Westwood felt even brighter.

As the team came together during the preseason, Osborne felt validated in her choice to return when she texted Close in awe about how good the team could be after a scrimmage.

“Even if I’m having a bad game, we have 11 other people who are probably going to have a good game,” said Osborne, who led the Bruins with 15.9 points and 5.9 rebounds last year. “I think the potential is crazy.”

Days after Osborne announced her intention to return, the Bruins solidified their standing as championship contenders with the addition of transfer center Lauren Betts. The 6-foot-7 sophomore averaged 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds in 9.7 minutes per game last year at Stanford, where she came off the bench in 33 games.

Betts was the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class but was searching for a change of scenery in the transfer portal. She reunites with Close, her coach on Team USA’s under-19 team. The pairing already has resulted in a title as Betts helped the United States to a gold medal in the FIBA U19 World Cup in 2021.

“She builds me up every day,” Betts said. “She’s hard on me, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day, I know she loves me on and off the court.”

Betts’ arrival changed UCLA’s frontcourt that struggled to contain post powers like Stanford’s Cameron Brink and South Carolina star Kamilla Cardoso. UCLA also is expecting the healthy returns of forwards Angela Dugalić and Izzy Ansty. Dugalić, a 6-4 former five-star prospect, missed last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered while playing with the Serbian national team. The 6-4 Ansty played just six games last season after undergoing hip surgery.

Including freshman Amanda Muse, a McDonald’s All-American, UCLA has five available players 6-4 or taller after just one last season. The growth spurt has expanded UCLA’s inside-out game, Osborne said.

“It’s just easier for me just getting in the paint,” Osborne said. “They can’t help off of me because now I’m just going to lob it to Lauren.”

UCLA's Lauren Betts spreads her arms and posts up in front of a male practice player during a preseason workout.

UCLA’s Lauren Betts (51) posts up in front of a male practice player during a preseason workout.

(Courtesy of Nikiah Perry / UCLA Athletics)

Betts joins last year’s recruiting class that already was tops in the country. Rice was the No. 2 national recruit and named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team with guard Londynn Jones. Among players who played more than six minutes a game, Gabriela Jaquez led the Bruins in field goal percentage at 45.5% while averaging 6.3 points and 3.5 rebounds. Forwards Lina Sontag and Christeen Iwuala can be difference makers in their ability to stuff UCLA’s “passion play” stat sheet, which account for plays like charges and deflections that don’t appear in box scores.

After the freshmen dominated the spotlight last year, Close is wary of a potential sophomore slump as the heralded group takes on larger responsibilities while helping the Bruins live up to lofty expectations. While some sophomores may lack the “urgency” to get better every day, Close knows she doesn’t have to teach work ethic to this class. After a recent high-tempo, two-hour practice, Jaquez and Jones still were on the court getting extra three-point shots more than 30 minutes after practice ended.

“I don’t want to over-complicate it. I just think, ‘Hey, are you getting better today and how are you making someone else get better?’” Close said. “If we can just stick to that, I just think our talent will take care of itself. … I just want them to give and grow.”

UCLA was unranked in the preseason last year for the first time since 2018 and happily worked its way into the spotlight as underdogs. The Bruins aren’t sneaking up on anybody this season.

Instead of trying to dismiss expectations as outside noise, the Bruins are welcoming the attention but have a “responsibility to reshape” the conversation, Close said.

“My whole thing is how does it help you get better today?” said the coach, entering her 13th season at UCLA. “How does it make you be a better teammate today? How does it help you create habits that we’re going to need in the most pressurized moments? You may not be able to ignore it, but you sure have an opportunity to shape it.”

If successful, the Bruins can reshape program history.

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