You can call Coach Kelly Graves and Gonzaga a lot of things. You can call them a high octane offense. You can call them the best team in the Pacific Northwest. You can even call them an underdog going into their 2nd round game vs. UCLA. Just do NOT call them a mid-major. Gonzaga, along with programs like Xavier, Marist, and Green Bay, are part of a growing trend of non-BCS schools making big noise come NCAA tournament time, especially on the women's side.
They have the best point guard in the country in Frances Pomeroy Naismith award winner Courtney Vandersloot. They even have three players averaging more than 17 ppg this season (Vandersloot, Katelon Redmon, and Kayla Standish). They have home court advantage for the game. So can they continue to shed labels and prove that their close games vs. #1 seed Stanford and #2 seed Notre Dame were no flukes?As I mentioned, Coach Graves, and also men's coach Mark Few, really dislike that mid-major moniker. According to Coach Graves, they think like a bigger program, schedule like a bigger program and act like a bigger program. So according to Graves, it's all in the eye of the beholder, and the success of non-BCS schools this tournament supports his claim.
The driving force behind Gonzaga's success is Courtney Vandersloot, who has put up absolutely ridiculous numbers this season: 19.1 ppg, and an obscene 10.1 assists per game, tops in the country. Her assists to turnover ratio of 3.24 is also the best in the country. When she got in foul trouble in last year's tournament, she went out over the summer and worked in the weight room to get stronger. Graves knows he is fortunate to have been able to coach his senior point guard.
Gonzaga is the highest scoring offense in the country, at 86.2 ppg, and behind Vandersloot also leads the country in assists and assists to turnover margin. They have great finishers in Standish (30 points in their first tournament game this season) and Redmon. When you have those types of players, you let them run Coach Graves says.
As they prepare to play UCLA tonight, one big advantage is that Gonzaga hosts the game, despite being the lower seed. The Spokane region has become an area of great interest in women's basketball in the last number of years, and they are packing the building with their fans. Most of Gonzaga's team is from the state of Washington, or relatively nearby areas like Canada and California. Coach Graves is well aware of how good he has it with these rabid fans, and the local high school talent.
Last year's Gonzaga squad achieved previous not attained heights. They ended the season ranked No. 12 in the final ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll, having put together a 20-game winning streak, which included a perfect 14-0 mark in conference play and it's the third WCC Tournament title. The Zags earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, their highest seed in school history, and defeated No. 10 University of North Carolina and upset No. 2 Texas A&M to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. GU's winning streak and season came to an end with a setback to Xavier University, who also entered the game on the heels of a 20-game win streak, in the Regional Semifinals in Sacramento.
So we sit here today, getting ready for Gonzaga to take on a #3 seeded UCLA Bruins team that has only lost to top-seeded Stanford this season. Where does this team stand in Coach Graves' thoughts, compared to last year's team, or any of the other success stories at Gonzaga?
Is he right? Does the season continue after tonight's game? We'll find out soon, but I for one, would not rule out an upset by this Gonzaga team. In fact, I picked them to win in my own bracket!
The entire interview with Kelly Graves can be heard here.