The Gonzaga women have a 9-2 record, some signature wins and a full head of steam heading into West Coast Conference play.
They also have the memory of last year and some unfinished business: The Bulldogs were picked to win the WCC but finished fifth after an injury-plagued season.
“That was something we weren’t accustomed to, so there’s definitely a feeling that we have something to prove,” said GU senior Elle Tinkle, whose meniscus injury was a major reason the Bulldogs finished 10-8 in WCC play.
“We’re used to seeing our name at the top,” said Tinkle, who had won conference titles in her first three years.
Most experts agree, picking GU ahead of BYU in a preseason vote announced two months ago. The Bulldogs have done everything to confirm that pick, knocking off Stanford, Washington State and Northwestern en route to coach Lisa Fortier’s best start in three years.
Better yet, the Bulldogs are injury-free.
“We have 12 healthy bodies at practice and not just eight,” forward Zykera Rice said after last week’s nonconference win over Colgate.
“We’re ready for the next phase,” said Fortier, whose club opens conference play Thursday night at Pepperdine, then hurries home for a Saturday matinee against Pacific.
The WCC’s new compressed schedule is the other wild card this year. To give teams extra time off during the holidays, the conference slate will last nine weeks instead of 10.
Teams could face some split weeks with one home game and one on the road.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Fortier, noting that GU won’t be able to settle into the same hotel during road trips to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Fans also need to pay attention to the schedule: Only twice this year will GU host traditional Thursday-Saturday home games.
None of that will matter if GU is able to maintain its high level of play and balance. The frontcourt of sophomore Jill Barta (who’s averaging 17 points and 7.2 rebounds) and senior Kiara Kudron (9.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg), combined with Tinkle on the wing and a deep backcourt led by point guard Laura Stockton should make GU the team to beat.
The biggest challenge for Fortier and her staff may be sorting out the rotation in the backcourt, especially at shooting guard. Junior Emma Stach has started all 11 games and is averaging 20 minutes a game, but transfer Makenlee Williams is shooting 46 percent from long range and could earn more playing time than her current 15 minutes.
Another transfer, Chandler Smith, is playing almost 17 minutes a game while helping GU hold opponents to 26 percent shooting from outside.
All that has helped the Bulldogs land at 68th in the Rating Percentage Index, although they dropped several spots last week despite the win over Northwestern.
BYU, picked to finish second in the WCC, is only 6-5 but ranks 58th in RPI thanks to a rugged schedule. The Cougars graduated WCC Player of the Year Lexi Rydalch, but junior guard Cassie Broadhead is averaging 16.5 points a game.
“That’s become a rivalry that you look forward to playing,” Fortier said.
GU hosts the Cougars on Feb. 2 and finishes the regular season in Provo, Utah, on Feb. 25.
The Cougars get an early test Thursday at Santa Clara (5-6), which was picked fifth but is 87th in RPI. The Broncos have four players averaging double figures.
Meanwhile, San Diego – the coaches’ No. 3 pick – has struggled to a 6-4 record with losses to Northern Colorado and North Dakota of the Big Sky Conference.