- Blair Angulo, Reporter, WeAreSC.com
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UCLA women's basketball coach Nikki Caldwell has a hunch.
The second-year coach knows a good thing when she sees it. And believes what she sees now is only the start of better things to come.
It's not as though anyone can really question her intuition. Three titles at perennial power Tennessee -- two coming as an assistant under legendary coach Pat Summitt and one as a player nearly 20 years ago -- stand out on Caldwell's résumé. She recently added a Pac-10 coach of the year award to that list. An award she won despite Tara VanDerveer's Stanford team going 18-0 in conference play and 31-1 overall.
"I want the team accolades," Caldwell said recently.
The Bruins are getting close. They earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament -- their first bid in four years. UCLA's 24 wins heading into Sunday's matchup, in the Kansas City region against No. 9 seed NC State, are the most for the program in more than a decade.
There's something happening here. And it's not going unnoticed.
UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel acknowledges it. Last week in the Pac-10 tournament semifinal against USC, Neuheisel was three rows behind UCLA's bench at the Galen Center. He winced when the shots weren't falling. He checked the video board for replays. He was anguished over referees' calls.
Neuheisel was highly invested after walking into the locker room at halftime and speaking to the team.
"He talked about this being a great opportunity," Caldwell said. "He's proud of them and loves how hard they're working. It was very positive energy."
Men's basketball coach Ben Howland is noticing, too.
"He's been great as far as well wishes, congratulations and sending text messages after games," Caldwell said. "It's a great atmosphere when you've got Ben Howland rooting for you and Rick Neuheisel coming to the games. It's unbelievable to have that kind of support from our men's teams."
With Howland's team watching the men's tournament from home, the UCLA women have the stage to themselves. Caldwell is hoping to satisfy their basketball fix this month.
"We're going to do our part as the women's basketball program," she said with a large smile.
Caldwell has had plenty to smile about. UCLA won 10 straight games before falling short in the conference final to No. 1 seed Stanford. The team's two leading scorers, Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker, are only going to get better. Dixon, a sophomore who transferred from Rutgers, and Walker, a freshman from Pennsylvania, combine to average more than 26 points per game -- nearly 40 percent of UCLA's scoring coming from two new players.
"I've been able to recruit some of the best players in the country and coach some of the best players in the country," Caldwell said. "These two have the makings."
"They're young -- they're just rookies -- but they're carrying this team. You can have some rookies that can be scared of that responsibility but they relish in it. When the game is on the line, they want the basketball. I'm trying to pick who to go to, which is a great problem to have. They have this greatness about them; they have the ability to make everybody else better. Those two being a part of this program has really, really set us apart."
Caldwell credits her coaching staff for luring Dixon and Walker out west. Dixon was a standout at Long Beach Poly and went to Rutgers before deciding to come back home. Walker, a versatile forward who showed the ability to create her own shot off the dribble, says that moving from Philadelphia was the craziest thing she's ever done.
"We're going to continue to recruit the best players, not only in the state of California, but in the country," Caldwell said. "As everybody knows, you've got to have players. We've got the makings of attracting those players because of where were located and what UCLA has to offer a student-athlete. We've got to put this program on that national stage."
For the most part, Caldwell is a player's coach, often seen laughing and smiling during games. When junior Darxia Morris missed four straight game-tying free throws in the second half against USC last week, Caldwell summoned her to the bench and asked her who her favorite singer was.
There was no Keep your head up! Focus on the rim! Bend your knees!
"Beyonce," Morris answered.
So Caldwell told Morris to say Beyonce's name before her next two free throws. Morris missed again before sinking the game-tying free throw.
"I was like, wow," Morris said afterward.
In practice, Caldwell gives the team the responsibility to run its own drills, defensive alignment and plays.
"It's their team," Caldwell said. "We're just here to be the shell. I've been around and been in great practices. You kind of get a feel of the intensity level, especially when you're trying to go after a championship."
The championship may not come this season. But Caldwell has a hunch about what the future holds for UCLA's "other" basketball team.
"This team's future is untapped right now," Caldwell said. "We made strides in getting that recognition in the Pac-10, but were going to have to make those strides and get that recognition nationally."
Blair Angulo is the author of the UCLA Blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.