Nikki Caldwell seeks to raise UCLA women’s game

Nikki Caldwell is building her private Los Angeles in and around Playa Vista. There is her cafe around the corner, the lunch spot where the servers know her name, the gym where she has kickboxing class, her bowling alley, her movie theater, and so on.

“I’m from a small town,” the UCLA women’s basketball coach said. “So I’ve got to make L.A. a little smaller.”

She’s two years into it since being hired, but she’s getting comfortable. The same goes with her team.

“That’s the difference between last year and this year, we are more comfortable with each other,” she said.

That partly explains the Bruins’ success this season: a second-place finish in the Pacific 10 Conference, a 15-3 record in league play and 12 wins in their last 13 games to earn a No. 2 seeding in the State Farm Pac-10 women’s tournament, which begins Thursday at the Galen Center. (UCLA opens on Friday, meeting the winner of Thursday’s Washington-Oregon State game.)

Another aspect is improved inside play, behind newcomer forwards Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker, who combine to average 26.2 points and 15.5 rebounds. “It’s given us a whole new dimension,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell comes from success, having played and been an assistant coach at Tennessee under legendary Coach Pat Summitt. “I’ve been exposed to it, so I have a hunger for it,” she said.

She uses many of Summitt’s techniques, sometimes quoting her word for word. She’ll tell her players they’re underdogs. She’ll use inspirational quotes to theme practices. And if a player is lacking enthusiasm or isn’t communicating well, she’ll send her home.

“If she thinks you should be at a certain level, that’s what she’s going to set it at and you’re going to have to go from there,” Dixon said.

The success she wants takes time. At Tennessee, women’s basketball has an enormous fan base. Here, Caldwell competes for attention with night life, the beach, professional teams and other college teams. At Tennessee, recruits of the highest caliber could be signed from any state. Here, Caldwell struggles to sign the best from California.

Last year, when UCLA failed to make the NCAA tournament, Caldwell was sick. She had never been home for spring break and vowed never to be there again. “You either have spring break and we’re playing or you’re having spring break with me,” she told her players.

Even opposing coaches have encouraged her.

“We want them to be a national power, so to speak, just to shift the balance from the East Coast more to the West Coast,” said Tara VanDerveer, coach of top-seeded Stanford.

Caldwell is trying. Landing Walker, a McDonald’s All-American, was a significant step.

Recruiting should be a strength, because the coach’s Southern charm literally radiates. She was raised in Oak Ridge, Tenn., population about 27,000, and tells people her hometown was a main research site for the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb. There is still a plant there, she adds, that manufactures and stores nuclear weapons.

“Dim the lights, I may glow a little bit,” she said, laughing.

UCLA is shining with her.