LOS ANGELES — Cori Close perks up at the thought of starting her eighth year at UCLA. A new season always brings a smile to her face.
“It’s a new art project every year,” the UCLA women’s basketball head coach said after practice less than one week before the Bruins’ season opener against LMU on Tuesday.
After losing key seniors Jordin Canada, Monique Billings and Kelli Hayes from last year’s Elite Eight squad, Close’s canvas looks especially blank, but she still expects a beautiful painting in the end.
“Our expectations have not changed and we don’t really care what anyone else thinks,” Close said. “We’re going to build and grow into a really good team this year and it’s just going to be a matter of when not if.”
The Bruins were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 by coaches and the media. It’s the first time in Close’s eight-year tenure that UCLA was tabbed to finish lower than fifth in the conference preseason coaches poll. The team was a preseason top-10 team for the past two seasons but didn’t crack the initial AP top 25 after sending both of its star seniors to the WNBA.
Canada and Billings were instant offense for the Bruins. The pair of WNBA draft picks scored 44.6 percent of UCLA’s points over the past two seasons.
But Close isn’t worried about replacing those points. The Bruins have Japreece Dean, who Close called a “Russell Westbrook-type” scoring point guard, Kennedy Burke, a versatile senior guard from Sierra Canyon who can play up to four positions for the Bruins, and redshirt freshman Lindsey Corsaro, a former McDonald’s All-American.
What does concern Close is having to replace Canada and Billings’ defense.
“In a defensive situation, we don’t have the experience and we don’t have the reps yet to play at that level,” Close said, “but I’m hopeful because the desire and the work ethic is there.”
Canada and Billings were named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team five times combined, and the 5-foot-6 Canada won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive years.
Dean, who is also generously listed at 5-6, is “markedly better” on defense, Close said. The Bruins also get a boost from freshman guards Kiara Jefferson and Ahlana Smith who use youthful energy and pride to overcome their inexperience at the college level. Dean said the Bruins will define themselves on the defensive end this season.
“Most people don’t like to defend, but in order to win games, you got to,” Dean said.
Dean is the heir to Canada’s point guard role. The senior Texas Tech transfer averaged 11.8 points per game in four NCAA tournament games last year, including 16 in the Elite Eight matchup against Mississippi State. Close thinks Dean is even more of a natural scorer than Canada, but needs the senior to also “think like a leader” this season.
In an exhibition win over Westmont on Saturday, Dean scored a team-high 22 points with six assists. Corsaro, who is coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries, played a team-high 31 minutes and notched the team’s only double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. She was three steals away from a triple double.
While many may look at what the Bruins lost, they remain confident in what they still have.
“A lot of people may doubt us, but we’re still the same team,” redshirt senior Lajahna Drummer said. “The goal remains the same.”
UCLA BRUINS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Cori Close, 8th season
Last season: 27-8, 14-4 in Pac-12, Elite Eight
Who’s gone: Jordin Canada (17 ppg, 7.1 apg); Monique Billings (15.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg); Kelli Hayes (6.2 ppg)
Who’s back: Kennedy Burke (10.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Lajahna Drummer (6.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg); Japreece Dean (7.7 ppg)
Who’s new: Ahlana Smith (guard, Mallard Creek/Charlotte, N.C.); Kiara Jefferson (guard, West Campus/Sacramento)
The skinny: UCLA lost Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, stars who served as the cornerstones of an unprecedented run of success that included the school’s first-ever back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances and a trip to the Elite Eight for just the second time in school history. But with 10 returning letterwinners, including versatile senior guard Kennedy Burke, the Bruins still have high expectations for themselves.
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