UCLA welcomes top recruiting class

UCLA coach Cori Close sat in a hotel room in Seattle last March and cried after learning that one of her senior guards wasn't going to be able to play in the Pac-12 tournament because of a concussion.

"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," Close said. "It was the first time I sort of broke. It was really difficult."

That word might understate what the Bruins went through in 2013-14, a spate of injuries to key players that reduced her rotation to six players by the end of the season and reduced her team to a 13-18 record. The eighth-place finish in the Pac-12 was UCLA's lowest conference showing since 2001-02.

Close held the program together while losing a third of her roster to injuries and concussions. And the Bruins worked hard to make do, beating then-No. 10 Oklahoma with just eight players in the nonconference schedule before the lack of healthy bodies began to take a toll.

"I haven't been that proud of a team in a long time," said Close, entering her fourth season in Westwood. "This was a brick-and-mortar team, the team that shifted our culture."

The kind that lays a solid foundation for the silver lining of a season to come.

The silver lining has arrived in the form of five five-star recruits, the nation's No. 1 recruiting class -- the first in program history. Guards Jordin Canada and Recee' Caldwell and forwards Kelli Hayes, Lajahna Drummer and Monique Billings were all rated among the top 30 prep players in the country last year. Canada, Caldwell and Drummer were McDonald's All Americans.

Close wrote each of the freshman a letter at the end of last season. She wanted them to understand what had come before they arrived.

"I told them, 'We are ready for you because the sacrifices of this team,'" said Close, who starts the season with 15 players on the roster. "We have a healthy environment for these players because of the commitment of [last year's] group."

The Bruins' infusion of young talent has energized the program and created some enthusiasm about the prospects for immediate success. UCLA is ranked No. 23 to start the season (the only team in the AP Top 25 preseason poll to finish last season with a losing record) and was tabbed to finish fourth in the coaches' poll in the Pac-12, a high compliment in what should be a competitive conference race.

Close is cautiously optimistic and reluctant to embrace labels. She is quick to say that she didn't label the class "No. 1" and admits she is wary of predictions.

"I think we have to earn things. I don't put a lot of stock on it because I want to get better today," Close said. "We're not a really good basketball team yet, but I have a lot of energy and optimism."

She also has a full complement of players, and that's not to be taken for granted. In addition to the freshmen, sophomore guard Kari Korver, junior forward Kacy Swain and redshirt freshman Paulina Hersler are back on the floor after missing last season.

Junior Nirra Fields is the Bruins' leading returning scorer. The junior guard, who ranked second on the team last season at 17.6 PPG, is "grateful" for the experience of last season.

"It was the hardest I've ever worked," Fields said. "We just didn't have bodies. But I feel like going through that made me a stronger player and a stronger person."

Fields was one of the youngest players on Canada's national team that lost in the quarterfinals in September's world championship in Turkey. Fields said last season gave her the mental toughness she needed to compete in Turkey, and in turn, the world championship taught her lessons about world-class play, particularly on the defensive end.

"Playing with these elite players taught me a lot about what I didn't have yet," Fields said. "I tried to learn from their experience, how they make 3s, and how they play on the ball. It helped my game and with that I'm trying to make our team better."

Fields will lead on the floor, but the Bruins will be relying on a freshman point guard, whether it's Canada or Caldwell.

"There isn't another option," Close said. "I don't know everything yet. Things could look very different from game to game."

The Bruins will once again take on one of the nation's most demanding schedules, including early matchups against North Carolina (Nov. 16), Texas (Nov. 23) and Nebraska (Nov. 28), and back-to-back December games against UConn (ESPN2, Dec. 21) and Notre Dame (Dec. 28).

Close said she promised these young players that she would put them up against the best.

"We want to create a legacy," Close said. "We are one of the only teams at UCLA to not have won a national championship. You try walking around that office. I promised that we would go for it, that we wouldn't hold back. ... Our schedule will force us to grow up very quickly."

As UCLA's young roster makes its way through this difficult schedule, Close expects some rough days.

"As talented as they are -- and they are talented -- you cannot substitute for experience," Close said. "It's going to be a roller-coaster ride, but it's going to be a fun one."