If she didn’t know already, Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier got confirmation this week that the West Coast Conference is tougher this season than usual.
Conversations this week with rival coaches erased any doubts.
“I had wondered, ii it just us?” Fortier said as the Bulldogs – winners of 11 straight WCC regular-season titles – reside in the middle of the pack.
Well, a little: GU lost Sunny Greinacher and Keani Albanez to graduation, and Elle Tinkle and Emma Wolfram to injury. For now they’re also without starting forward Kiara Kudron, who’s expected back later this month after suffering a wrist injury two weeks ago.
But that’s not the only reason the Bulldogs are only 8-5 and in fifth place in the WCC going into Saturday’s home game against Portland.
Coaches and players say it every year: “The conference is tougher this year.” This time they really mean it. For one thing, teams are heavier than usual in upperclass starters – “more players who are a threat to score,” according to GU post Shelby Cheslek.
At the top, there’s BYU, led by the undoubted conference player of the year-to be, Lexi Rydalch. At 12-1 overall and 19-4 overall, the Cougars are ranked ninth – let that sink in, ninth – in RPI, and are on track for at at-large berth should they fail to win the WCC tournament that unfolds in three weeks in Las Vegas.
Saint Mary’s is a surprising 48th in RPI – recall that GU earned last year’s at-large bid the NCAA’s at No. 41 – while San Diego is 66th, Santa Clara 67th and the Bulldogs at 88th.
It all adds up a ninth-place overall RPI, down one spot from the end of nonconference play, but one notch better than a year ago.
“It’s a challenge every night,” Fortier said.
The bottom of the league is tougher as well, something the GU players and coaches know all too well after GU’s escape act last month at last-place Portland, the same team that visits the McCarthey Center on Saturday.
After trailing by as many as 17 points in the first half, GU pulled out a 71-63 win. “I watched it again this morning,” Fortier said during her weekly media availability on Wednesday. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
There’s no danger of overconfidence in the rematch, the Bulldogs catch a break by having only one game this week.
“It gives us a chance to take a quick break, hopefully get a little bit of our legs back, and of course we have some things to work on,” Fortier said.