Michelle Smith Feature: Let’s call this an L.A. story featuring UCLA and USC women's basketball

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Let’s call this an L.A. story.

The USC Women of Troy are at one end of the Pac-12 non-conference spectrum, sitting pretty at 8-0 with the toughest game of the preseason schedule still to come.

Meanwhile, over in Westwood, UCLA is still finding its way. The young Bruins, whose roster features six new players, snapped a four-game losing streak last Friday with a strong win over Fresno State and sit at 4-5.

The thing they have in common, both coaches feel as if there is a lot of room for improvement as the non-conference schedule winds down over the next few weeks with Pac-12 play around the corner.

“We are happy to be 8-0, but we have a lot to work on,” said USC coach Mark Trakh, whose team is tied with Cal and Utah for the best non-conference marks thus far. “We have some things to iron out, but I think we will be competitive (in the Pac-12). Whether we are good enough to be in the upper half, I don’t know.”

An early season schedule against mid-major teams has allowed a young team to get a lot of playing time, good experience and confidence.

“We will be upgrading the schedule in the future, but this schedule got people playing confidently and we will see if that works,” Trakh said.

And a December 19 date against Texas A&M in College Station will be a serious barometer check.

USC has depth the it simply didn’t have a year ago, when Trakh often played just five players for major minutes. No one else on the roster outside of the starting five averaged more than 15 minutes per game. This season, 10 players are averaging double-digit minutes.

“I feel like we can play eight, nine, 10 people,” Trakh said. “We are getting good play off the bench.”

The Women of Troy have found a way to win despite an ankle injury to last year’s leading scorer Aliyah Mazyck, who set the program record for three-pointers made in a season last year, that has caused her to miss four games. Point guard Minyon Moore, the team’s current leading scorer, missed a game with injury, as has Kayla Overbeck.

Mazyck is expected back in the lineup in the next few days.

The Women of Troy open the Pac-12 schedule with UCLA, Stanford (road), Cal (road), Oregon and Oregon State. Four of those five teams are currently ranked nationally and among the teams contending for the conference title.

USC is trying to put itself in strong postseason position with a strong start. Last season, the Women of Troy finished the season with 20 wins and failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

“I’d certainly rather be 8-0 at this point than anywhere else,” Trakh said. “But we are taking baby steps. And it’s going to be a process. I just appreciate that our kids are playing hard and that they are good kids.”

Bruins seek consistency

UCLA coach Cori Close is also feeling good about the effort of her team. But she is looking for more consistency and on-court leadership as the Bruins retool this season after the graduations of Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, two of the most pivotal players in program history and WNBA draft picks.

Last Friday’s win over Fresno State ended a rough stretch of four straight losses – the program’s first four-game losing streak since 2014-15 - including a confidence-shaking 0-3 performance in the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam Tournament against North Carolina, Kentucky and South Florida. Those losses came after a big early-season win over national power Georgia.

Three of the Bruins losses have come by a combined margin of nine points.

“I think they can see that we aren’t far away,” Close said. “We have one of the toughest rotations in the Pac-12 schedule and I am realistic about that, but I am trying to get this team revved up for January.”

Close said she needs veterans Kennedy Burke, the Bruins leading scorer who missed the last game with a minor knee sprain, and Japreece Dean – who scored 23 points and pulled down 10 rebounds (both career highs), to become more consistent emotional leaders on the floor, qualities that she has seen in stretches this season. She wants better awareness on the floor on offense and improved defense in the middle of the court, rather than allowing the opposition to get the ball into the paint or shoot well from beyond the arc. UCLA ranks 12th in the conference in scoring offense (68.1 ppg) and scoring defense (68.3 ppg).

“Every game I feel like I’m choosing something different and that’s part of the frustration," Close said. “It’s hard to feel like you are making progress. I’ve really challenged them on that.”

Close said her team’s early roller-coaster was something she anticipated heading into the season.

“I have been telling people, that we are going to be really up and down in November and December, but we would be molding into something for the Pac-12 season,” Close said. “As much as I said that out loud, maybe I hoped we would be a little better. I did anticipate some degree of this.”

The Bruins must be aware of digging themselves a hole that could knock them out of NCAA Tournament consideration after three straight appearances and last year’s best-ever run to the Elite Eight. “

Close said the Bruins’ rough start building character and toughness that will come in handy as conference season begins.

“I believe in the pieces that we have,” Close said. “We need to become better together than we are individually and we are not there yet. When you don’t get the results you want right away, that’s where you have to persevere. That’s the battle.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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