Before the Bruins' first NIT game, Coach Cori Close invited a speaker to address the team: Ed Schilling, an assistant coach for the UCLA's men's team, spoke of his time at Memphis, when a talented but struggling team turned an NIT appearance into a springboard for a deep NCAA tournament run the next season.
"They learned how to win," Close said. "I thought our team captured a vision at that point."
The Bruins were rejuvenated. They won the NIT, and haven't lost much since.
UCLA (22-7 overall, 14-4 in Pac-12 play) is ranked No. 12 in the nation and is seeded No. 3 heading into a wide-open conference tournament, which begins Thursday in Seattle.
The Bruins haven't won a Pac-12 championship since 2006, but they have as good a shot as any team this season.
UCLA's starting guards, Nirra Fields and Jordin Canada, form "arguably one of the best backcourts in the country," Close said.
Little separates the Pac-12's top four teams, which all earned first-round byes. Pollsters aren't sure what to make of the logjam. First-place Oregon State is ranked eighth, second-place Arizona State is 10th, and third-place UCLA and fourth-place Stanford, which is 11th, are a just a few votes behind.
UCLA, which leads the conference in scoring, is the youngest and quickest team among the top contenders. Oregon State and Arizona State, the conference leaders most of the season, are stocked with seniors. And Stanford, which was the last Pac-12 team to reach the Final Four, has won nine of its last 10 games. Its only loss in that span came in overtime to Arizona State
Close said she "doubts very highly" that the tournament will go according to seeding.
Even a team like USC can be dangerous. The Trojans (18-12, 6-12) are seeded eighth and open against Washington State on Thursday.
The Trojans didn't lose a nonconference game, and they defeated UCLA at home in January. But they stumbled late, losing their last four, and likely must win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament.