San Diego State
Tonight, 7 p.m.
No. 16 UCLA opens its season on the road against a San Diego State team that made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
San Diego State basketball usually doesn’t command the respect that a Texas or West Virginia program would.
The Aztecs have been labeled as the perennial cellar-dwellers. Just four seasons ago, the Mountain West team finished 3-24, and was winless in conference play.
But in the 2009 NCAA Women’s Tournament, the Aztecs defeated both the Longhorns and the Mountaineers ““ two top-20 nationally recognized programs ““ before falling to No. 6 Duke.
SDSU coach Beth Burns had much to do with that, turning a winless conference team into one that won the conference tourney.
On a similar note, UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell guided the Bruins to a 25-9 finish in 2010, their best finish in more than two decades.
That finish warranted a No. 16 ranking in the AP poll, but in the Bruins’ exhibition victory against Vanguard Monday night, Caldwell found multiple glaring issues, and is wary of tonight’s game against the Aztecs.
“I thought we did some really not-smart things both offensively and defensively,” she said. “We did not know time possession, we missed a lot of coverages and, to me, that is a sign of a team that did not play as a unit.”
As a unit, the Bruins turned the ball over a whopping 21 times and shot just a hair more than 40 percent ““ not stellar numbers for a ranked team against an obviously disadvantaged NAIA squad.
Otherwise, the full-court press worked quite well, forcing 29 Vanguard turnovers.
“If we get into walls offensively, since we are not so much of a half-court set team, we get our defense going and get a couple baskets in transition,” senior guard Doreena Campbell said. “That gets us into rhythm, and that gets us ready to go.”
That rhythm perhaps needs to be established earlier on against the Aztecs, who jumped all over UC San Diego in a preseason game Nov. 4 and won 86-43.
The teams are similar in that both rely on quick guards to push the ball in transition. SDSU guard Coco Davis is a solid playmaker, orchestrating the Aztec offense to the tune of 12 points and 10 assists against the Tritons.
Seniors Jessika Bradley, who had a triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks, and Paris Johnson, who was 7-7 from the field in 20 minutes of play, will give the Aztecs significant production in the paint on both sides of the court.
The Bruins counter in the frontcourt with junior forward Jasmine Dixon and senior forward Christina Nzekwe, but if anything, the Bruins will look to get out in the open court to get defensive stops and easy buckets.
“We have a lot of athletic players on our team that can run 94 feet and side-to-side,” senior guard Darxia Morris said.
“Transition is one of the strongest things to go to because we are all quick and everyone gets out wide and everybody knows their position.”
Tonight poses a major test to the Bruin’s quickness, even if the Aztecs haven’t received much national recognition.