Building a college basketball team today is a lot like putting together a puzzle, or rather, an extreme version of the activity on a rainy day.
The pieces don’t all come in the same box and it takes work to get them together in the same place at the same time.
At least that’s how UCLA coach Cori Close sees it.
“We want to create a championship-level puzzle,” she said. “We look at what parts we think are missing and then what is needed to fill those parts.”
It’s not a random grab bag either. Sure, sometimes you get lucky with a player, and sometimes you barely miss it. But overall the pieces are collected based on relationships.
No matter where you get them.
And for UCLA, building the No. 4 team in the country took a little bit of everything. A star sophomore, a fifth-year senior and a sought-after transfer combine to form a team that, at least on paper, looks like a championship-caliber squad.
“There are a few teams that have decided to either, we’re going to build through the high school ranks or we’re going to build through the transfer portal,” Close said. “But I don’t think it’s an either/or thing.”
The first step that occurred came last year when UCLA brought in the No. 1 recruiting class, consisting of two five-star recruits: Kiki Rice and Gabriela Jaquez; two four-star hotels, Londynn Jones and Christeen Iwuala; and the German candidate Lina Sontag.
Jones was the first commit, sparking a flood of talent heading to UCLA.
“That was huge in my decision-making,” said Rice, the No. 2 player in her class. “We had the No. 1 recruiting class, which was huge because it added a lot of talent to an already good team.”
Watching the Bruins during the 2022-23 season, the overall talent was obvious, but so was their inexperience. A successful Battle 4 Atlantis included wins over South Dakota State, Marquette and a Tennessee team that was ranked 11th at the time. From there, the Bruins’ stock rose and so did their maturity. They had a checkered conference record, going 11-7, but when the postseason came into view, UCLA was at its best.
The Bruins defeated Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament after falling to them twice in the regular season and reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament before losing to South Carolina.
The Gamecocks, who won the title in 2021-22 and reached the Final Four last season, are proof of what can happen to a top recruiting class when it pulls together. It’s the kind of success UCLA is striving for.
This game also saw the second piece of the 2023-24 puzzle come together.
After the loss, senior Charisma Osborne had 48 hours to decide whether she would declare for the WNBA Draft. Osborne originally declared her intention to turn professional, but quickly changed her mind and decided to return for a fifth season.
The decision sparked debate about the merits of NIL and college basketball compared to the professional lifestyle, which lacks many of the resources college athletes have access to.
But for Osborne, the decision was much easier than anyone imagined.
After the loss to South Carolina, Osborne walked into her coach’s hotel room and asked, “What do you think?”
Those four words carried great weight, and Close couldn’t answer that question.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Close told her supervisor. “Start by making a pros and cons list and go through them. At some point your heart will begin to defend it one way or another.”
Osborne’s heart was defending UCLA.
“Honestly, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Osborne said. “But when you’re in practice every day, you realize there’s so much potential and so much talent. I knew it would be really fun to build that chemistry and see how it all came together.”
The final piece of the puzzle was one that Close knew her team needed but didn’t expect to get. In the Sweet 16 loss, South Carolina’s size was overwhelming. The Bruins needed a post player, but “there weren’t many out there,” Close said.
Then one day, the UCLA coaches were having a meeting when news broke that 6-foot-2 Lauren Betts was in the transfer portal from Stanford.
Close had recruited Betts heavily out of high school and felt at the time that UCLA had a good chance of landing the No. 1 player in the country. But when Stanford came on the scene, Close realized Betts would likely choose the Cardinal. Still, she stayed in touch throughout the recruiting process, and Betts even scheduled Close as her last phone call of the day, as the two tended to lose track of time while talking.
“We developed a real relationship with her in high school,” Close said. “I resent her because she broke my heart when we didn’t get her.”
But suddenly, in the middle of that meeting, the staff realized they had another chance to win Betts. Close was engrossed in the conversation and initially didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Close said she would call them after the meeting, but her staff had other ideas.
Assistant coach Tasha Brown made it clear. “Forget that,” she said. “Cancel the meeting and call her now!”
Close did, and the previous relationship she had cultivated with Betts paid off. The final piece of the puzzle came to UCLA.
“We’re really excited to have her here,” Close said. “I think it will be a great game.”
So far it is like this.
Betts, Rice, Jaquez and Jones already knew each other thanks to the USA Basketball system and all but Jones played together in the McDonald’s All-American Game before beginning their college journeys.
During the offseason, Osborne also had the opportunity to get to know Betts, as the two played together in the FIBA AmeriCup. Osborne knew immediately that bringing Betts to UCLA would mean something special.
“She’s a game changer for us in the post and the way she plays defense and scores literally everyone,” Osborne said.
Betts will slide into the center position alongside a core of forwards and defenders with established roles. Among them is the point guard duo Rice and Osborne.
The two spent most of last season playing together in the backcourt, shutting down the point guard duties and learning to play with each other. Now, after 37 games together, the guards have a strong relationship they can rely on when things get tough on the court.
“If I have Kiki on my team, I know we have about a 99% chance of winning,” Osborne said. “I trust her so much to do the right thing when she has the ball in her hands, and [she feels the same about me].”
The chemistry between Osborne and Rice is something UCLA wants to build throughout the team. Now that the pieces have been found, it’s just a matter of putting them together.
Close says her team prides itself on the authenticity of its relationships. “We don’t sweep anything under the rug,” she said.
Most of the time, she makes sure her players develop an organic bond, and Osborne said most of her relationship building happens off the field and away from the coaches.
“Then you don’t have to filter yourself,” she said, smiling. “You can just be yourself around each other.”
The coaching team also brings in speakers to talk to the team about current topics – they recently had guests from both Israel and Palestine. Working on their collective values and creating a holistic approach not only contributes to overall bonding, Close said, but also creates a culture of openness.
That comes in handy in women’s basketball, which Close calls “the most diverse sport there is.” Teammates need to learn about each other’s backgrounds to know where they come from and what they need from each other.
It all sounds pretty warm and fuzzy, but Close said that’s not always the case and she doesn’t want it to be.
“It’s not a fraternity,” she said. “It’s not ‘Kumbaya’ and we always have a good relationship. It needs to carry over into the way we compete with each other. And our off-court chemistry and the way we work hard allows for a level of trust that we need to challenge each other and hold each other accountable.”
And ultimately, UCLA wants to win. That’s what it’s all about, bringing all these pieces together and putting them together.
The No. 4 team in the country is bursting with potential but still has a long way to go.
“Last time I checked, the potential isn’t that great,” Close said.