Whatever pressure there is on the Gonzaga University women's basketball team to repeat last year's success, 5-foot-8 point guard Courtney Vandersloot will likely be shouldering a significant chunk of the burden.
Vandersloot has already been named a preseason All-American and to the 2010-11 John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 30 List and is unquestionably the best point guard on the west coast if not a candidate for best point guard in the nation. She can play. And after losing a senior class that included the team's first-ever players to be invited to WNBA training camp, Vandersloot will probably be the focal point of a team that hopes to build on last year's history-making success.
Of course, given their losses, taking the next step of getting to the Elite Eight will require a team effort, although they could conceivably have a built in advantage by hosting the first two rounds with Washington State University hosting a regional as well.
But still, the overarching question heading into this season is: how far can Vandersloot lead Gonzaga after losing their first pro-caliber talent?
1. What exactly did Gonzaga lose with the graduation of their seniors?
As Vandersloot acknowledged in her first blog yesterday, there will be no replacing the seniors they lost, arguably the most talented group of seniors they've ever had.
Talking Hoops With 'Sloot: Blog Entry No. 1 - GONZAGA OFFICIAL ATHLETIC SITE
There is no questioning the loss we took from our seniors that graduated last year. We had an incredible senior class that was our leaders throughout the season and in the tournament. I know there has been a lot of concern regarding how we are going to replace such valuable pieces to our team. Well first I want to make clear that we have not found another Heather Bowman, or in that case another Tiffanie Shives or Vivian Frieson. I think we all know that those types of players and people are irreplaceable.
Frieson was the first-ever Gonzaga player drafted by the WNBA and although she was one of the first players released from the Tulsa Shock during training camp, that she and Bowman cracked the WNBA training camp barrier speaks to how far the program has come. But that increased recognition will come at a cost to the program.
However you might define "most valuable player", Bowman and Frieson were two of the team's top three players and Shives was a deadly three point shooter (41.55%). Although Frieson stole the spotlight with one of the biggest shots in program history to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, Bowman was the team's leading scorer (15.1 ppg) and Frieson the team's leading rebounder (7.38 rpg). All accounted for, those three players accounted for 40% of the team's overall statistical production.
Where these losses will hurt the team the most is with the huge advantage they had over opponents in scoring efficiency and, to a slightly lesser extent, rebounding.
Shives' three point shooting helped her to a team-high 59.23% true shooting percentage while Bowman was second among rotation players with a true shooting percentage of 57.71%. Add in Bowman's team-high free throw rate of 34.04% and it's obvious that the team is going to need to find new ways to score.
Bowman was adept at running block to block in transition and just always seemed to be in the right spot to receive passes in stride from Vandersloot. Although Frieson might not have been the most efficient scorer for the team during the season, she showed off her talent during the sub-regional in Seattle, probably best embodied by her game-winner against Texas A&M - her ability to create scoring opportunities for herself was a huge asset for a team that relied heavily on Vandersloot to create baskets otherwise.
While neither Bowman nor Frieson were the strongest offensive rebounders by percentage on the team (8.1% and 8.97% respectively), Frieson's 17.13% defensive rebounding percentage was obviously a significant factor in reducing opponents' second-chance opportunities, especially as a team that could be considered on the undersized side by many people's standards.
So there are big shoes to fill and the Bulldogs have a few options with which to do so.
2. How much will the newcomers contribute?
One place to begin looking for where to make up the production they've lost is with their newcomers and they all seem to have something in common: basketball IQ and versatility.
In 6-foot-3 freshman Stephanie Golden, Gonzaga adds a post player who will bring finishing skills on the block as well as a versatile inside-outside game, according to coach Kelly Graves.
GoZags.com: Women's Basketball Signs Three Players For 2010-11
"There is no question in my mind that Stephanie will be a tremendous Zag," said Graves. "Along the lines of the great power forward we've had here over the years, she blends the ability to play inside and outside making her a perfect fit for our style of play. Stephanie's versatility and ability to contribute in a variety of ways will allow her to be a matchup headache for our opponents."
Their other two freshmen will look to contribute on the wings.
Danielle Walter was a HoopGurlz Top 100 recruit and comes in as a combo guard reputed for her ability to create scoring opportunities for herself and others. Jazmine Redmon is best known as a defensive stopper.
3. Which returners might step up?
In addition to the newcomers, a few returning players will have the opportunity to step up and fill the minutes left behind by the departed seniors.
WCC Newcomer of the Year and University of Washington transfer Katelan Redmon finished the season strong, showing ability as a scorer and a three point shooter. 6-foot-2 forward Kayla Standish was the top defensive and offensive rebounder in the rotation by percentage last season (17.67% and 11.23% respectively) and figures to be a prime candidate to fill one of the frontcourt spots left behind. 5-foot-11 sophomore Meghan Winters shot a team-high 44% from the three point line.
The remaining players played so few minutes last year that it's rather difficult to determine how much they can contribute if asked to play bigger minutes.
4. Might the team's style of play change?
Last season, the team thrived in transition with Bowman beating opponents down the court and Frieson utilizing her athleticism and mid-range jumper (during the tournament) to keep opponents off-balance.
One thing that becomes clear is that this year's rotation might be a little bigger this season, but Graves still seems to be talking about the type of individual versatility the team had last season in Bowman and Frieson. Graves could still have shooters at his disposal and will have players in the frontcourt that can step out beyond the paint and hit jumpers.
While it's feasible that could find players to fill the lanes like Bowman, the truth is that nobody will do it as well as the former WCC Player of the Year did. They could well slow down and rely upon a longer rotation with more movement in the halfcourt to utilize their versatility in the post. But that's difficult to determine without watching this current unit in action. One thing's for sure though: figuring out how to run an offense is much easier with Vandersloot running the show.
5. How good can Vandersloot be in her senior season?
Vandersloot is arguably the best distributor in the nation and has the statistics to back that up when comparing her to the other point guards among those generally considered "elite" - she led the nation in assists with 9.4 per game and dropped 15 dimes in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In addition, her 57.07% true shooting percentage makes her one of the most efficient scoring point guards in the nation although she's far from a volume shooter. But the numbers aren't really what matter for Vandersloot - at her best, she's a player that appears to be in complete command of everything on the floor, possessing court vision and game awareness that seems to be far superior to her peers.
If there was any way one could critique Vandersloot, it's that she could certainly cut down on her turnover ratio of 16.38% (which, by the way, is in the same ballpark as many of her point guard peers). Of course, when considering a point guard like Vandersloot, the fact that her turnover ratio is counterbalanced by an assist ratio of 36.28% means that she more than makes up for her mistakes. However, some of her turnovers come from trying to make extremely difficult plays or from simply mishandling the ball. If she could cut down on those types of turnovers at the extremes - aggression and lapses - she would be an even more efficient ball handler.
But more importantly as related to this season is that Vandersloot might have to become a higher usage player - a player who uses a higher percentage of her team's plays trying to score - in order for the team to be successful this season. By way of comparison, one of the reasons why players like Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis, Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson, and Duke's Jasmine Thomas are less efficient scorers than Vandersloot is that all of them had usage percentages approaching 30% (Thomas was the highest at 30.65%). In contrast, Vandersloot was at 22.79% dividing scoring duties with Bowman and Frieson.
If we assume that nobody is going to completely fill the shoes of those departed seniors, Vandersloot would immediately become the prime candidate to pick up some of that scoring slack. The question is how well she can increase her scoring while remaining an efficient distributor and shooter. Given her talent, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if she managed to pull off the feat of increasing her usage while remaining an efficient scorer but it is certainly no simple task either.
The bottom line for this team is that there is probably far too much uncertainty surrounding this team to predict how far they can go in the tournament. And they're probably not thinking about that right now anyway. But in terms of style of play, this might become a team that will be even less reliant on individuals than they were last year and far more focused on maximizing their strength as a unit by drawing on the collective contributions of a longer rotation.
No matter what happens, a team run by Vandersloot will be fun to watch. The difference is that this year she will be the floor leader and the primary focal point rather than dividing the spotlight with more senior players. How well she gets the team to rally around her in that position will probably determine how good this team can be.
For a preview of the Gonzaga men's team, visit the preview at SBN Seattle.