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Zags, Graves chart new course for WCC women

Gonzaga women's Head Coach Kelly Graves watches the selection show Monday, March 15, 2010, the Zags learn they'll play North Carolina in the opening round of the NCAA Championship Tournament. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga women's Head Coach Kelly Graves watches the selection show Monday, March 15, 2010, the Zags learn they'll play North Carolina in the opening round of the NCAA Championship Tournament. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Kelly Graves was adding some broad strokes to the big picture of Gonzaga’s third appearance in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament when the coach was reminded of an important detail by one of the department’s detail guys.

“White jerseys,” said Chris Standiford, the senior associate athletic director. “You’ll be wearing white.”

In the NCAA bracket, the higher seed wears the home laundry.

Now, as Graves would note, the impact of learning your seed on selection day lasts only for the millisecond it takes to scan over and see your opponent. Then it’s all about a name and not a number.

But the symbolism certainly lingers.

The No. 7 assigned to the Bulldogs by the bracketeers Monday is the highest seed ever for a West Coast Conference women’s team, another exhibit for this team’s claim as the best the league has ever produced. Still, until someone duplicates USF’s Sweet 16 appearance from 1996, dissent will be legitimate, too.

So we arrive at the inevitable question: how far this time?

Just by virtue of its architecture, the NCAA bracket invites future imaginings before the present has played out. There has not yet been – nor is there likely to ever be – a Gonzaga team that can assume its way past a North Carolina, Saturday’s first-round opponent in embracing Seattle. But as Graves and his team peel their eyeballs watching tape on the Tar Heels, other interested parties are already chatting up the potential second-round rematch with No. 2 seed Texas A&M, which survived a scare from the Zags in Las Vegas just before Christmas.

But that’s a compliment, too. Such conversation only exists because the Zags won a tournament game last year.

“Watching the men’s stuff (Sunday), I don’t know how many times they mentioned that BYU has lost 12 straight first-round games, or nine or whatever,” said Graves. “And kids know. They hear it all the time. By winning a game, you take a little pressure off.”

And take on the expectation of winning more.

The men’s and women’s teams at GU have their own identities, but there isn’t a thick catalog of blueprints for building a basketball program and both Graves and athletic director Mike Roth are quick to point out the parallels in the evolution of the two.

Two distinct differences: the absolute Ground Zero the women were at nine years ago – Graves’ first team was 5-23 and winless in the WCC – and the pronounced national gap that still exists between the upper crust teams and the wannabes. Gonzaga is the latest upstart to try to bridge that gap, though of course it began long before the Zags began inching up in the polls a couple months ago.

It’s real estate painstakingly earned. They found that out winning the WCC regular season a couple of times and then stumbling in the league tournament – which, yes, happened to the men back in the 1990s – and again in their first NCAA foray in 2007.

“Seeing the way Middle Tennessee got after us,” said Roth, recalling the 39-point wipeout, “was eye-opening for everybody.”

By their second trip, the Zags were a possession away from the Sweet 16, so other eyes have been opened.

Because of the way the men have laid it out, March success for the women is no mystery. It starts with better players, of course; it continues with better scheduling.

“Honestly, we’re playing those teams more often now,” Grave said. “Last year, we beat Virginia and Utah and played Marquette to the wire. If you play those kinds of teams in the nonleague, when you see them in the NCAAs, it’s not as daunting.”

This year, he went out and booked Stanford, Texas A&M, Baylor and South Dakota State – and lost them all. But the A&M loss – a four-pointer after the Zags had been routed in the first half – “was the turning point of our season,” according to guard Courtney Vandersloot.

Explained Graves, “December was not a good month for us. We didn’t shoot well and we weren’t defending like we are now – and, granted, it’s relative.

“But after that game, I detected a sense of relief – that, ‘Hey, we can play witth these kinds of teams.’ We came back an entirely different team.”

Just one problem: no one’s been within two touchdowns of the Zags since.

“I don’t mean it to sound crass,” Graves said, “but we haven’t had a meaningful possession in a couple of months as far as ‘We have to get a basket here.’ ”

Well, they’re meaningful – immediately. In fact, the Zags must win a game some people may have already presumed they won already – by virtue of a number.

And the white jerseys. But it’s a color that looks good on the Zags.