Building a college basketball team today is a lot like putting together a puzzle, or rather, an extreme version of the rainy-day activity.
The pieces don’t all come in the same box, and it takes work to bring 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 pieces we think are missing, and then what is it going to take to fill those pieces.”
It’s not a random grab bag, either. Sure, sometimes you get lucky on a player, and other times, you barely miss out. But overall, 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 top sophomore class, a fifth-year senior and a sought-after transfer all coming together to build a team that at least on paper, looks like a championship-caliber squad.
“There are a few teams that have picked either, we are going to build through the high school ranks or through the transfer portal,” Close said. “But I don’t think it’s an either, or thing.”
The first piece to slide into place came last year, as UCLA brought in the No. 1 recruiting class, made up of two five-star recruits in Kiki Rice and Gabriela Jaquez; two four-stars, Londynn Jones and Christeen Iwuala; and German prospect Lina Sontag.
Jones was the first commit, which started a snowballing of talent heading to UCLA.
“That was huge in my decision making,” says 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.”
The overall talent was apparent when watching the Bruins in 2022-23, but so was their inexperience. A successful Battle 4 Atlantis included wins over South Dakota State, Marquette and a Tennessee squad that was ranked 11th at the time. From there, the Bruins’ stock rose, and so did their maturity. They had an up-and-down conference slate where they went 11-7, but by the time the postseason came into view, UCLA was at its best.
The Bruins beat Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament after falling to them twice in the regular season, and went on to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament before losing to South Carolina.
The Gamecocks, who won the title in 2021-22 and advanced to the Final Four last season, are proof of what can happen to a top recruiting class if they stick together. It’s the kind of success UCLA is striving for.
That game is also when the second piece of the 2023-24 puzzle fell into place.
Following the loss, senior Charisma Osborne had 48 hours to decide if she would declare for the WNBA Draft. Originally, Osborne declared her intention to become a professional, but quickly changed her mind and decided to return for a fifth season.
The decision sparked a debate regarding 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 simpler than it was made out to be.
Following the loss to South Carolina, Osborne went to her coach’s hotel room, and asked, “What do you think?”
Those four words held a lot of weight, and it wasn’t a question Close could answer.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Close told her senior guard. “Start making a pros-and-cons list, and go over it. Eventually your heart will start defending it one way or another.”
Osborne’s heart defended UCLA.
“Honestly, it was one of the hardest decisions that I’ve had to make,” Osborne said. “But being in practice everyday you can see that there is so much potential, and so much talent. I knew being able to build that chemistry and see it all come together would be really fun.”
— UCLA W. Basketball (@UCLAWBB) November 7, 2023
The final piece of the puzzle was one 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 a lot out there,” Close said.
Then, one day, the UCLA coaches were having a meeting, when news broke that 6-foot-7 Lauren Betts was in the transfer portal out of Stanford.
Close had recruited Betts heavily out of high school, and at the time felt as though UCLA had a good chance to land the No. 1 player in the country. But once Stanford came on the scene, Close realized Betts would probably choose the Cardinal. Still, she kept in contact throughout the recruiting period, and Betts even scheduled Close as her last phone calls of the day because the two tended to lose track of time when they talked.
“We built a genuine relationship with her in high school,” Close said. “I tease 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 land Betts. Close, engrossed in the conversation at hand, didn’t understand the gravity of the situation at first. Close said she would call her after the meeting, but her staff had other ideas.
Assistant coach Tasha Brown set her straight. “Forget that,” she said. “Cancel the meeting and call her now!”
Close did, and the previous relationship she’d cultivated with Betts paid off. The final piece of the puzzle was coming to UCLA.
“We are thrilled that she’s here,” Close said. “I think it’s going to be a great match.”
So far, it is.
Betts, Rice, Jaquez and Jones already knew each other thanks to the USA Basketball system, and all but Jones played in the McDonald’s All-American Game together prior to starting their college journeys.
During the offseason, Osborne got a chance to get to know Betts as well, as the two played in the FIBA AmeriCup together. Instantly, Osborne knew bringing Betts to UCLA would mean something special.
“She’s such a game-changer for us in the post, and the way she’s able to play defense and score over literally anyone,” Osborne said.
Betts will slide into the center position alongside a core of forwards and guards with established roles. Among them is the point guard duo of Rice and Osborne.
The two spent most of last season playing in tandem in the backcourt, switching off point guard duties and learning to play with one another. Now, after 37 games together, the guards have a strong relationship to lean on when things get tough on the court.
“When I have Kiki on my team I know we have like 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 is looking to build throughout the team. Now that the pieces have been found, it’s all about putting them together.
Close says her team prides itself in the realness of its relationships. “We don’t brush anything under the rug,” she said.
Mostly, she lets her players bond organically, and Osborne said the majority of their relationship building happens off the court, away from coaches.
“Then you don’t have to filter yourself,” she said with a smile. “You can just be yourself around each other.”
The coaching staff also brings in speakers to talk to the team about topical issues — recently they had guests from both Israel and Palestine. Working on their collective values and becoming well-rounded not only helps with the overall bond, Close said, but it establishes 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 in order to know where they are coming from, and what they need from one another.
It all sounds pretty warm and fuzzy, but Close said that isn’t always the case, nor does she want it to be.
“It’s not a sorority,” she said. “It’s not ‘Kumbaya’ and feel good about each other all the time. It has to transfer into the way we compete with each other. And our off-court chemistry and how hard we work allows a level of trust that we need to challenge each other, and hold each other accountable.”
And ultimately, UCLA wants to win. That’s the point of bringing in all of those pieces, and making them fit together.
The No. 4 team in the country is bursting with potential, but it’s got a long way to go.
“Last time I checked, potential doesn’t cut down the net,” Close said.