This is the sixth in an annual season preview series of the Pac-12 teams.
The UCLA Bruins exceeded expectations and preseason predictions last season with their strongest performance in 17 years. After going 26-9 overall, tying for third in the Pac-12 and losing to Oregon State in the Tournament championship game, the Bruins advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to Texas. It was a culminating moment for a sophomore class that were ranked first in the country when they were signed.
UCLA takes a hit this year with the loss of dynamic starting guard Nirra Fields (15 points, 5.4 rebounds per game), as well as center starter Kacy Swain (6.6 points, 6.9 rebounds per game). Key reserve Lajahna Drummer (6.2 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) is also out until at least midseason with a knee injury.
So why did Pac-12 coaches pick the team to finish first in the conference this year? It is for the improvements of the returnees and the strengths of the newcomers.
"Jordin is realizing that she doesn't need to take that much on. She is distributing the ball and is making better decisions at high speeds," Close said. "She has grown as a vocal leader."
Junior forward Monique Billings (12.7 points, 8.1 rebounds per game) - the other emerging star of 2015-2016 - has also grown by leaps and bounds. Together, Canada and Billings' on-court chemistry was nothing short of explosive last year, and promises to be more so this season.
Key reserve guard Kennedy Burke (5.8 points, 3.7 rebounds per game) has grown steadily, and Close said she expects her to step up this season. Also returning is senior sharp-shooting starter guard Kari Korver (7.9 points, 3.1 rebounds per game) and reserve junior guard Kelli Hayes (4 points, 2 rebounds per game).
Oklahoma transfer Nicole Kornet is ready to play after sitting out last season. Close expects her to surprise.
"She adds such an offensive punch with her ability to shoot the three," Close said.
The Bruins also have two freshmen that could contribute immediately. Guard Lindsay Corsaro averaged 25.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in high school, and was a McDonald's All-American. Forward Ally Rosenblum was ranked 58th in her class and averaged 17.7 points and 8.2 rebounds in her senior year.
Close said the team will miss Fields most on defense, where she wreaked havoc. For that reason, they are stronger right now on offense.
"I feel good because we will play differently, but use our pieces more creatively," she said.
A good sign for UCLA is that they beat their male practice squad on their first scrimmage with them.
"We've beaten the guys before, but never on the first scrimmage," Close said.
UCLA plays Baylor, Michigan and South Carolina before beginning Pac-12 play Dec. 30 at home against Utah.