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Gonzaga on track for historic finish

The Zags, ranked a program-best No. 13 twice this season, still have room to grow.

Zykera Rice leads her team in scoring, but Gonzaga’s strength is its team play.
Courtesy of Gonzaga Athletics via Twitter

The Gonzaga Bulldogs, in the midst of their second-best season in program history, are enjoying some deserved time in the spotlight.

Gonzaga has been the West Coast Conference regular-season champion 12 out of the last 13 years, missing the NCAA Tournament just twice since 2007. Prior to this season, their highest-ever national ranking was No. 15 back in March 2010, but their most recent No. 13 ranking — a mark they’ve hit twice this season — is their best in school history.

But the program has not always been such a dominant force. Prior to Kelly Graves’ tenure, which began in 2000 and ended in 2014, the Bulldogs had not finished above sixth in the conference since the 1993-94 season. The Graves era did not get off to great start, as Gonzaga finished last in his first two seasons with the program.

The 2004-05 campaign would see the Zags’ first regular-season championship since 1988, and the 2006-07 season would see Gonzaga’s first WCC Tournament championship and their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. From 2008 to 2014, the Bulldogs never lost 10 games in a season, appeared in the Sweet Sixteen twice, and made one Elite Eight trip.

Lisa Fortier, who came on to Graves’ staff in 2007, would become the head coach in 2014 after Graves left to coach at Oregon. Fortier would lead Gonzaga to the Sweet Sixteen in her first season, but after a subsequent trip to the WNIT, the last two seasons have ended in first-round losses in the NCAA Tournament.

This year has been great for the Bulldogs. Gonzaga has lost just three games and is on track for a third straight WCC regular season championship. The Bulldogs’ 22 wins have come by an average of 19 points, with their closest and most impressive win coming against then-No. 8 Stanford by six points.

Despite Saturday’s loss to BYU, Gonzaga still has a half-game lead over the Cougars and will still be favored to win the conference. Expect the Bulldogs to face BYU for a third time in the WCC championship game. Gonzaga has been a fixture in the final game, missing it just twice since 2007.

Fortier is definitely taking the team approach to the season. Eight of her 11 players average more than 10 minutes per game, with seven of them averaging over 20 minutes. The scoring has been relatively spread out as well. Of players playing at least 20 minutes in a game, the lowest points per game average is 5.9 with the leading scorer, Zykera Rice, averaging 13.9 points per contest.

The Bulldogs have achieved great success, but still have room to grow. College basketball programs are judged by their performances in March. Gonzaga has not been out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in three seasons.

That said, the Bulldogs are getting respect from the NCAA selection committee, currently projected as a 4-seed, which would be their highest-ever seed in the tournament. Gonzaga was a 7-seed in 2010 and a 6-seed in 2014, but has traditionally found its success a double-digit seed. As most mid-majors do, Gonzaga will likely have to win out and win the WCC Tournament to earn a high seed.

Gonzaga is easily the best mid-major program in the country, but they are looking to take a more permanent leap into the national conversation. Making some noise in the NCAA Tournament would definitely advance their cause.