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College Basketball

UCLA Has Joined The Party

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 13: Kiki Rice #1 of the UCLA Bruins looks to pass during the first half of a game against the Troy Trojans at UCLA Pauley Pavilion on November 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

A funny thing happened at the first big college basketball tournament of the year, the exquisitely named “Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis.” Actually, a few funny things happened. The “good” teams all fell apart; Texas entered the tournament ranked the third-best team in the country, and finished the weekend the seventh-best team at the tournament. Louisville, a pretty fearsome Final Four contender last year, pulled down approximately one offensive rebound in three days and lost to South Dakota State. While all this nonsense went on, one plucky team decided to fill the power vacuum and win the whole thing. There are not many serious lessons to be learned from a mid-November tournament in the Bahamas, but there is at least one: The UCLA Bruins will be a cool and fun and good team to watch. Definitely in the future, and probably even this year, too.

The bright future begins with point guard Kiki Rice, a freshman who’s displayed an uncommonly mature game just three real weeks into her college career. A taller guard at 5-foot-11, Rice’s best skills might be her speed and driving ability; she’s able to get to spots with ease, and she’s paired this with an excellent mid-range shot that makes her a threat to score from anywhere. Typically, you’re meant to watch freshman point guards with low expectations. The general rule with them is to key in on the flashes of brilliance and ignore everything else. Trust that the sloppiness and carelessness and general frenzy will fall away with time. But Rice demands little patience. She doesn’t ask you to imagine much at all. Watching her, you get the odd sense that the excellence is pretty close to realized, that there isn’t a ton of ironing out left to be done.

Rice credits her footwork and instincts to her time playing high school soccer. (My colleague Dave McKenna would be upset if I didn’t mention that Rice is a product of the D.C. prep circuit. Her aunt Susan is, indeed, that Susan Rice.) Against Marquette, in the tournament’s championship game yesterday, she added 18 points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block. I was particularly taken with this block from UCLA’s opening-round game against South Dakota State:

When Rice committed to UCLA last November, she and fellow five-star freshman Gabriela Jaquez made UCLA’s the best incoming class in the country. Rice chose UCLA, she said, because she relished the “chance to bring a program on the cusp to its first Final Four.” Put another way, she chose UCLA for the same reason it seemed peculiar that she had chosen UCLA. Under head coach Cori Close, the program has produced some fine WNBA talent in the last few years—the Sparks’ Jordin Canada and 2020 Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere of the Liberty. But within the Pac-12, UCLA has been mostly overshadowed by other programs. Oregon, Arizona, and Stanford have all made deep NCAA tournament runs in the last few years, and it was just two years ago that the NCAA championship game featured two Pac-12 teams in Arizona and eventual winner Stanford. (Last spring, having dealt with injuries for much of the season, the Bruins missed the NCAA tournament altogether.)

So UCLA’s performance this weekend, which brought their record to 6-0 and earned them a No. 20 spot in the latest AP poll, might signal that there’s a new contender on the Pac-12 scene. The freshmen are quickly acclimating, and the veterans have looked sharp too. UCLA managed an upset of Tennessee on Sunday thanks to the scoring of Charisma Osborne, a WNBA-caliber distributor already, and someone clearly taking advantage of the better offensive talent around her.

There’s a decent case to be made that the Pac-12 is the deepest conference in women’s college basketball now, with few signs that its greatness will abate. It’s a full-on war out west. Last week, 2023’s No. 1 recruit JuJu Watkins announced her commitment to USC, passing over other finalists Stanford and South Carolina. ESPN ranked Arizona’s incoming recruiting class eighth in the country this year … and this made them only the sixth-best recruiting class in the conference. Talent! So much talent over there! Now if only there were some way to watch the Pac-12 Network…