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The LOW Down: UCLA women’s basketball is a case study of an evolving collegiate landscape

Members of UCLA women’s basketball huddle on the court. The Bruins will welcome back every starter next season except for graduate student guard Gina Conti, who has exhausted her eligibility. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)

By Lauryn Olina Wang

April 20, 2023 11:51 a.m.

This post was updated April 20 at 10:10 p.m.

Coach Cori Close admitted she’s not a fan of the transfer portal prior to the 2021-2022 campaign.

“But it really doesn’t matter what I think,” she said in October 2021. “My job is to lead our program well, and I think the transfer portal is something very strategic that we can leverage.”

And now, look no further than UCLA women’s basketball’s roster to understand the dynamism of the collegiate women’s basketball landscape. The current era of the sport is increasingly shaped by the transfer portal, an extra year of COVID-19 eligibility and the advent of name, image and likeness compensation. The Bruins’ roster is bolstered by all three factors, setting the stage for a stacked roster ahead of the 2023-2024 campaign.

UCLA most recently secured an intra-conference transfer in center Lauren Betts, which the former Stanford freshman announced Tuesday. Betts was the No. 1-ranked prospect in the class of 2022, narrowly eclipsing current UCLA freshman guard Kiki Rice, who slotted in at the No. 2 spot. With the transfer, UCLA is now home to the No. 1, No. 2, No. 19, No. 22 and No. 49 recruits from the class of 2022.

Standing at 6 feet, 7 inches, Betts is a sizable addition to the Bruins’ lineup, which couldn’t muster a match to South Carolina’s inside presence in the Sweet 16. Redshirt sophomore forward Emily Bessoir, UCLA’s tallest player at 6 feet, 4 inches, stacked up against a Gamecock interior featuring three players that height or above.

A two-time Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year, Betts is the tallest player to see the court in the Close era and the first true center to don the blue and gold since 2015. She also graduated from the same high school as decorated Bruin and sixth-overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft Michaela Onyenwere.

Betts will likely make an immediate impact for the Bruins, a welcome change resulting from the April 2021 rule revision that enabled a one-time transfer between Division I schools without a redshirt year.

Since the redshirt year requirement for transfers was stripped, an increasing number of athletes are opting to enter the transfer portal. Currently, there are more than 1,000 NCAA women’s basketball athletes in the transfer portal ahead of the 2023-2024 season.

Coach Cori Close waves to the stands at the Pac-12 tournament. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)

The Bruins factored on the other side of the coin early last season, losing redshirt sophomore guard Dominique Onu to USC in December. Onu played the first six games of the year for the Bruins, missed the next four, and then was spotted behind the Trojans’ bench during the two rivals’ December meeting.

But Onu’s departure likely created scholarship space to court Betts, especially after senior guards Camryn Brown and Charisma Osborne announced April 5 that they would be returning for fifth seasons.

The veteran duo is taking advantage of the extra year of COVID-19 eligibility, and Osborne cited the pandemic’s effect on her unconventional college experience as one of the factors in her unexpected return.

The multiple All-Pac-12 honoree and UCLA’s ninth all-time scorer added that she consulted current WNBA players, including Onyenwere, when weighing her options. The New York Times reported that an undisclosed WNBA coach illuminated some of the unfortunate realities of playing in the 12-team league during a candid conversation with Osborne and Close.

“Does Charisma want to make more money and stay in college and get massages, fly charter, have everything paid for, have a nutritionist, and have her own trainers that are paid for?” Close recalled the WNBA coach saying. “Or does she want to have none of those things and fly Southwest with us?”

The prospect of making more money in the NCAA than in the WNBA is relatively novel, coming on the heels of the June 2021 Supreme Court ruling in favor of college athletes to profit from NIL. Close told The Athletic that she expects her players to earn anywhere between $50,000 and $70,000 through NIL deals each season, a range that nearly matches the $74,305 rookie WNBA draft contracts for the top four picks. The rest of the first-round picks stand to earn salaries between $68,295 and $71,300, while second and third-round picks earn at most $65,290.

Despite being projected as a top-10 pick this year by some mock drafts, Osborne would likely tread uncertain waters in a league so saturated with talent yet depleted in roster spots and salary caps. Three days after announcing her return, Osborne revealed that she signed with Klutch Sports Group – an agency that represents athletes – joining the ranks of Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, No. 1 pick overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft Aliyah Boston and USC-bound five-star recruit Judea Watkins.

Osborne’s story is one of many characterizing the women’s collegiate basketball landscape, which is evolving at a rate with which the WNBA has failed to keep pace. Restructuring and salary increases are unlikely in the near future, but accruing NIL profit in college can help some players build capital and savings to alleviate the financial pressure that forces some WNBA athletes to play overseas in the offseason.

UCLA’s navigation of the transfer portal, extra COVID-19 eligibility and NIL profitability is the product of a leader who understands: Get ahead or get left behind. Close was correct – it really didn’t matter what she thought in 2021. Her current roster is an indubitable embrace of the changing collegiate landscape.

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Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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