UCLA Bruins (9-2)
It was hard not to watch UCLA forward Markel Walker in her freshman year and think you were witnessing special in the making, even with the presence of a healthy Jasmine Dixon around to take some of the spotlight.
She had the combination of athleticism, size and skill necessary to be considered a triple-double threat on any given night and her agility was perfect as a defensive weapon to wreak havoc in then-coach Nikki Caldwell's aggressive defensive schemes.
So far in her senior season, Walker has UCLA off to a strong start, a top 25 ranking, and what most reasonable people would probably expect to be a NCAA tournament appearance. Yet based upon their upset loss to CSU Northridge at home - arguably the biggest upset in women's basketball to date given that UCLA is ranked -
Four Factors statistics for the UCLA Bruins during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for the UCLA Bruins during non-conference play.
Narrative summary: Another dominant rebounding team in the Pac-12, but in keeping with the pattern from the Nikki Caldwell era the Bruins' offense hasn't been quite as smooth as some other teams in the conference.
SOS: 59.67 (13th nationally)
Upset wins: at Oklahoma
Upset losses: vs. CSU - Northridge
MVP: Markel Walker, F (6'1", Sr., 14.11 MVP)
Walker, as alluded to above, was a player I'd had an eye on as a WNBA draft prospect from her freshman year. She can do a little bit of everything, from rebounding to ball handling to passing to scoring (13.7 ppg, T-11 in Pac-12). The problem, perhaps moreso as a draft prospect than as the leader of a college team, is that while she's good at a number of things she's not particularly great or efficient at any one thing.
As an example, while her ball handling ability is often what stands out as a 6'2" player, she turns the ball over at a rate higher than what you might want for someone who handles the ball as often as she typically does. And that upset loss to Northridge is a perfect example as she nearly had a quintuple-double in that game: 12 points (on 5-for-12 shooting), 12 rebounds, 9 assists, 7 steals, and 9 turnovers. That's amazing versatility; it's also a lot of turnovers for someone who often ends up being the focal point of her team's offense.
Yet there's still no question that with a talent like that on the floor a team can win games by putting the right pieces around her.
- UCLA is yet another dominant rebounding team and they have depth on that front in a way somewhat similar to Colorado. But the major difference for UCLA is that their best rebounder by percentage - Alyssia Brewer (14.85% offensive rebounding percentage) - has also been playing big minutes. But they have five players on the roster that would be considered good rebounders by percentage, which is a huge plus.
- Defensively this is still a very good team. Part of that is turnovers and opponent shooting percentage, but the rebounding is still what stands out when thinking about the sort of ugly way that Caldwell's teams would win games.
- Not only are they not a particularly efficient shooting team, but the players who use up the most possessions trying to score for UCLA (Walker and Nirra Fields) also happen to be particularly inefficient with 2-point percentages under 45% (though Fields, it must be noted, is a 40.9% 3-point shooter right now).
- Similarly, as stated above, Walker is one of the more turnover prone players on the team and has the ball in her hands quite a bit. Brewer could be placed in the same category, albeit to a much lesser extent.
X-Factor: Jasmine Dixon, F (6'0", RS Sr., 5.69)
Dixon's injury that led her to miss all of last season has clearly affected her so far this season: she has gone from being arguably the team's most valuable player statistically in 2010-11 to the fifth most valuable this season. It's probably unfair to expect her to completely return to form, but how much will she improve over the course of the season and how close can that contribution get UCLA to competing with the top two teams in the Pac-12, not to mention other tournament teams once March Madness comes around?
Key question: How well do they matchup with the rest of the conference?
Unlike Colorado - or maybe even Cal - the question with UCLA isn't so much how good they are as it is the more immediate issue of how well they match up with the rest of the conference. Their turnover and shooting struggles could be a real problem against teams that like to press and run, but in the Pac-12 UCLA has been that team. While it's probably too simplistic to point the finger at Walker for that, the way their team functions places an inordinate weight on games when she's particularly turnover prone and surely Pac-12 coaches will take note of that.