By every measure, last year’s Gonzaga women’s basketball team had the best nonconference season a coach would want.
The Bulldogs lost just one game and won 11, a launching pad for what turned out to be the best regular-season record and highest ranking in school history.
That’s a high bar for this year’s players, and this year’s nonconference schedule is full of landmines.
As GU coach Lisa Fortier said Monday, the games will be “as easy or as tough as our team shows up to be.”
In addition to a Nov. 17 game at third-ranked Stanford, the Zags face several tough matchups (Dayton and possibly Auburn and No. 20 Arizona State) in the Gulf Coast Showcase.
GU also has road games three days apart in early December, at Big Sky Conference preseason favorite Montana State and Washington State.
The nonconference season ends with a tricky pair of games, Dec. 17 at Wyoming and three days later in Spokane against a Missouri State program that returns four starters from a team that reached the Sweet 16.
“There’s not a lot of T-shirt teams besides Stanford … but there are lots of good opponents for us to play,” Fortier said.
Here’s a rundown of Gonzaga’s nonconference opponents:
Cal State Bakersfield (Sunday): With only five returning players off a 14-17 team, the Roadrunners don’t figure to give GU much of a challenge.
Ninth-year coach Greg McCall has only one senior, 5-foot-2 guard Dalis Jones.
“I don’t prefer to open with Stanford,” Fortier said. “I want to get our feet wet a little bit, especially in a year like this with people in the new roles they’re taking.”
Tennessee Martin (Nov. 14): Four days into the season and with the Stanford game three days away, this is GU’s first trap game.
The Skyhawks return four starters from a squad that went 23-9 overall, 13-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference and fell one game short of an NCAA berth.
Coach Kevin McMillan is chasing a seventh straight 20-win season with plenty of weapons, the biggest being All-OVC forward Chelsey Perry.
“They’ve done very well lately,” Fortier said.
At Stanford (Nov. 17): This is the only game in which the Zags will be a heavy underdog, and with good reason: Stanford is at home, sublimely talented and ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls.
Yes, the Zags won at Stanford three years ago, but this Cardinal team looks special. After going 31-5 last year, coach Tara Vanderveer returns four starters and the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class.
The Cardinal have three national award winners in guard Kiana Williams, forward DiJonai Carrington and post Maya Dodson. Vanderveer also expects a big contribution from the Hull twins, Lexi and Lacie of Central Valley.
Eastern Washington (Nov. 22): After narrowly missing a spot in the NCAA Tournament last year, the Eagles (13-20 overall, 9-11 in the Big Sky Conference) have some rebuilding ahead.
Eastern has a solid foundation in Grace Kirscher, a 6-foot sophomore from Sandpoint who averaged 10.4 points per game, sixth best among freshmen in EWU history.
Dayton (Nov. 29): There are no gimmes in the eight-team Gulf Coast Showcase, which begins the day after Thanksgiving in Estero, Florida.
The Flyers went a modest 17-14 overall and 10-6 in the Atlantic 10 last year, but they return all five starters and are a preseason No. 2 pick in the Ohio Valley Conference behind Virginia Commonwealth.
Win or lose, GU will face another tough game on Nov. 30. Auburn returns three starters from an NCAA team that finished 22-10 overall and 9-7 in the SEC. Middle Tennessee State went 23-11 last year and reached the WNIT.
The other half of the bracket includes No. 20 Arizona State, Maine, Purdue and Drake, all of which reached the postseason past year.
At Montana State (Dec. 5): Three days after departing the beaches of Florida, the Zags will fly into chilly Bozeman and a tricky game against an MSU program that went just 16-15 overall last year.
The Bobcats, however, return preseason Big Sky Conference MVP Fallyn Freije and another first-teamer in Oliana Squires. They’re also picked to win the conference.
At Washington State (Dec. 8): This is an important game for regional bragging rights, and GU has won the last three meetings.
That streak should continue unless the Cougs find some help for forward Borislava Hristova (19.9 ppg last year) and point guard Chanelle Molina (16.5 ppg, 5.1 apg).
Last year, the pair accounted for almost 60 percent of the scoring for a Cougars squad that finished 9-21 overall and 4-14 in the Pac-12.
Texas Southern (Dec. 14): The Tigers (15-15 last year) are best known for their former and current coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, a four-time WNBA Finals MVP. A women’s basketball Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist in 1988, Cooper-Dyke coached at Texas Southern in 2012-13, then four years at Southern Cal.
Now she’s back, inheriting a program that went 15-15 last year. Senior forward Niya Mitchell is the reigning Southwest Athletic Conference offensive and defensive player of the year.
At Wyoming (Dec. 17): Instead of a breather for their last road game of 2019, the Zags will be gasping for breath in Laramie, elevation 7,220 feet.
Fortunately for GU, the Cowgirls return only two starters, senior guard Taylor Rusk (9.1 ppg, 3.2 apg) and sophomore Kayla Erjavec, from a team that went 25-9 overall and 13-5 in the Mountain West Conference.
First-year head coach and longtime assistant Gerald Mattinson welcomes back nine letterwinners.
Missouri State (Dec. 20): The Zags are saving the best for last. While not a big-name program, the Bears (25-10 overall, 16-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference) are coming off a season that ended in the Sweet 16.
A month later, MSU lost coach Kellie Harper to Tennessee. Her successor, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, returns three starters in Brice Calip (10.1 ppg), Alexa Willard (12.3 ppg) and Jasmine Franklin (7.6 rpg).
The Bears are off to a fast start, knocking off No. 23 Minnesota 77-69 on Tuesday.
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