The gut checks came early for Nikki Caldwell's team, far removed from the glare of a big game.
At any given moment during a preseason practice, the UCLA women's basketball coach would make her players line up on the court and, one by one, look at themselves in a mirror that had been pulled off the locker room wall.
If a player felt she had given a full effort, she would give a thumps-up and move on. If not, she would flash a thumbs-down and the entire team would commence an intense two-minute cardio workout.
Caldwell started each session of self-examination with a robust cry of, "Gut check!"
"You're going inside the core of who you are," she explained. "Can you say you're doing your very best?"
After a season in which the Bruins achieved their first national ranking in four years and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, they are hoping their best can knock Stanford out of the Pacific 10 Conference's top spot for the first time since 2000.
Asked about Pac-10 coaches picking UCLA to finish second in the conference behind the Cardinal, Caldwell was refreshingly blunt for someone with a degree in public relations.
"I never want to finish second," said Caldwell, whose No. 16 Bruins open their season Friday night at San Diego State.
It's hard not to be bullish about UCLA's chances considering its top four scorers are back, led by forwards Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker. Senior guards Doreena Campbell and Darxia Morris are poised to provide the veteran influence required to make a run at the Bruins' first regular-season conference title since 1999.
Caldwell, in her third year with the Bruins, wasn't the least embarrassed that she didn't know the year her team last won a conference title. When you come from a powerhouse program such as Tennessee, she reasoned, you lose track of such things.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, Caldwell said, "never put a huge emphasis on it. You just take care of business day to day and the championships will come."
The mirror used in practice is not a gimmick imported from Caldwell's days playing and coaching under Summitt. It's all Caldwell.
"Not only does it make us accountable," Campbell said, "it makes us take ownership and become responsible for our team."
When the Bruins reflect on the possibilities for this season, they like what they see.