Wednesday December 17th, 2014

LOS ANGELES -- UCLA assistant Jenny Huth insisted it would work. Head coach Cori Close waved her off.

It was November 2012 and the UCLA women’s basketball team had just secured a commitment from Receé Caldwell, one of the top five guards in the country. With Caldwell’s pledge, Close figured the Bruins should let go of the idea that Jordin Canada would join, too. One of the other top guards in the country -- Caldwell was ranked the No. 19 overall player in the nation by ESPN, and Canada No. 4 -- Canada was entertaining offers from virtually every top 25 program. Why would she want to join a roster that already had a marquee point guard?

Being a talented, young and female comes with a series of headaches, as almost every superstar will tell you. Jealousy and pettiness often take root in high school and fest throughout college. (For the Cliff Notes version of what it can be like, watch the 2004 hit Mean Girls.) Close wasn’t sure Canada -- or any good player, for that matter -- would want to share the spotlight.

“I give all the credit to Jenny,” Close says. “I told her, ‘You can waste your time if you want, but Jordin is never going to come here.’”

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​Huth, now in her fourth year with the Bruins, went to work. So did Caldwell. A 5-foot-8 guard who played on an unheralded club team and was home schooled in San Antonio, Caldwell had built a friendship with Canada through USA basketball. They met at USA Team trials in Colorado Springs the summer going into their freshman year of high school and were referring to each other as “best friend” after just a few weeks. They sat next to each other on the flights, paired up for guard drills and, when they went back to their respective hometowns, talked or texted almost every day. Caldwell planned to use this to her advantage.

“We’d talk about whatever and I’d sprinkle in ‘You know, we could play together,’” Caldwell says. “I tried to put that idea in her head, but always wanted her to make her decision for her.”

A native of Los Angeles, staying close to home was important to Canada. And the more Caldwell talked, the more Canada liked the idea of “doing something special” at UCLA. The Bruins have 112 NCAA national championships in their storied athletic department, but none belong to women’s basketball. (They have won one national championship, in 1978, but that was under the AIAW; UCLA entered the NCAA in women’s basketball for the 1981-82 season.) Canada thought she and Caldwell could help change that. Two months after Caldwell committed, Canada called Close and said she wanted to be at UCLA. Those two, along with three other top-100 prospects, make up the best freshman class in women’s college basketball this season. Now in her fourth season, Close is benefiting from the recruiting coup she pulled off two years ago.

“I don’t know that I’d say I was surprised. It was more like, sweet!” Huth says. “There are lots of teams that play with two point guards -- even here, with the (WNBA’s Los Angeles) Sparks, they have Lindsey Harding and Kristin Toliver, so it can be done. You’re excited about them being mature enough to see that.”

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Says Close: “I was interested to see how it would play out. How would the upperclassmen respond to someone younger than them asserting themselves, how would they respond to each other? But it hasn’t been a problem at all. They celebrate each other so well.”

Still, there is work to do. In men's college basketball, where one-and-done rules, the best recruiting class often leads to the best team in the country and a deep NCAA tournament run. In women's basketball, where experience can be more crucial, freshmen often don't have the same impact. Newcomers typically don't step into heavy scoring opportunities straight away, giving them time to develop.

Close likes to talk about chasing greatness and stocking her roster with “uncommon women,” which is why she lined up a lethal non-conference schedule. By the time Pac-12 plays rolls around Dec. 30 -- when the Bruins host cross-town rival USC -- UCLA will have played Nebraska, Texas, North Carolina and Notre Dame, all ranked teams. Their toughest stretch starts Thursday, with games against Miami and Samford before a Sunday date at defending national champ Connecticut.

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Last week, Caldwell asked Close if she was regretting the schedule, then told her she had no reason to.

“She’s supposed to win here, that’s what you have to do at this level,” Caldwell says. “I think it’s easy for her to get caught up in the heat. She reminds us all the time that we’re building for March -- but I think we need to remind her, too.”

There have been pleasant surprises and tough lessons in the string of non-conference games. Close felt the Bruins created “a tough environment” at James Madison and had plenty of opportunities to win before falling 91-87 in overtime in the season opener. Against Texas “we had spurts where we played really well and you could see in their eyes, ‘OK, we CAN do this,’” Close says. In late November they led Nebraska by as many as 16 before wilting in the second half as the Huskers came back for a 71-66 win.

Though their record (3-4) might seem underwhelming, Close believes they’ve finally found an on-court identity. The starters, led by Canada, are deliberate and execution-oriented. The second unit, with Caldwell running the show, cause havoc defensively with their length and athleticism.

Their success going forward, both in and out of conference, will be dependent on two small guards with big-play capabilities. Close likes to run multiple guard sets with four out, and isn’t picky about which point guard brings the ball up the floor. When they play together, Caldwell comes off screens a little better while Canada can get into the paint and create for herself whenever she wants, so Close pushes Caldwell to 2-guard and has Canada play the point.

They distribute the ball evenly well: Canada averages a team-best 3.8 assists per game (to go with 8.8 points, in 26.8 minutes) and Caldwell dishes out 3.6 each night (in 25.6 minutes per game). They enjoy learning from each other. When Canada watched film with Close last week, she asked to see what Close had shown Caldwell from the Sacramento State game, even though Canada had sat out.

Together, they form one of the best backcourt duos in women’s college basketball. They also have no clue what they’re doing sometimes, Caldwell says. 

“The loosey-goosey stuff we did in high school does not work in college, let me tell you,” Caldwell says. “Everyone told me the adjustment would be hard, but I thought I’d be fine. Uh, they were right. Just things that seem simple, like getting open and getting separation from a defender, that’s hard. But I think we’re finally figuring it out.”

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There have been new off-court experiences, too. Because Canada, Caldwell and two other UCLA freshmen missed their scheduled speech final last week, their professor told them to line up their own audience for a rescheduled final. Monday night, Close, Huth and other coaches and support staff, along with the Bruins’ academic advisers, filed into an empty classroom as Caldwell gave a speech on GPA’s not being an accurate reflection of a student’s intelligence. Canada’s topic of choice: legalizing marijuana in California.

“It was, um, very interesting,” Canada says.

Canada crashed into an opposing player Dec. 10 against UC Riverside, bruising her left hip and lower back. She sat out the Bruins’ following game against Sacramento State and will likely be a game-time decision on Thursday. She’s taking this time to study Caldwell’s vocal leadership, perhaps Caldwell’s single best attribute.

“Receé talks 24/7,” Canada says. “It’s ridiculous. But she knows exactly where everyone is supposed to be on the floor, and she tells them. I need to be able to do that.”

With so many young and inexperienced players -- sophomore Kari Korver and junior Kacy Swain missed the 2012-13 season with injuries, so the only real veteran is all-conference guard Nirra Fields -- Close works to balance lessons from a tough schedule with rookies’ fragile confidence. But she sees a lot of “good growth moments,” and points them out at the end of every film session.

“Give us to the end of January,” Close says. “And then you’ll really start seeing some things.”

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