Building a nonconference basketball schedule is tougher than it sounds, especially for the Gonzaga women.
It must be challenging but not overly so, with the big games nicely spread out and most of them in the friendly confines of the Kennel.
“That’s because a lot of teams won’t come out here,” coach Lisa Fortier said Tuesday as the Zags prepared to open the season Thursday night against Montana State.
“So we have to find teams that we want to play and that want to play us so we can put together a good resume.”
This year’s 12-game nonconference schedule fits the bill with a reach-for-the-stars game against defending national champion Stanford, tough challenges against Pac-12 teams Washington State and Utah, and five other games against programs that made the NCAA Tournament last year.
GU should be solid favorites in nine of the 12 games, and there doesn’t appear to be anything that screams “trap game.”
Combined with the 18-game West Coast Conference schedule, that appears to give the Zags a solid shot at hitting the 25-win plateau that would lock up an NCAA Tournament at-large slot should they falter at the WCC Tournament.
Here’s a look at the Zags’ nonconference schedule:
Montana State, Thursday: The Bobcats, 17-7 overall last year, are coming off a third-place finish in the Big Sky Conference and feature athletic junior point guard Darian White.
The Bobcats were picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky this year, but MSU struggled at home Tuesday against NAIA program Carroll before winning 69-60.
At Montana, Sunday: The Grizzlies gave GU everything it wanted last year in the Zags’ only nonconference home game, falling 58-51 in an empty Kennel.
Montana went on to finish sixth in the Big Sky and 12-11 overall. The Grizzlies go into the new season picked in the middle of the pack under new coach Brian Holsinger and have three starters back in Abby Anderson and Sophia Stiles and Colfax product Carmen Gfeller.
Idaho State, Nov. 18: If there’s a trap game on the schedule, this is it. Stanford comes to the Kennel three days later – a good reason to look past ISU.
The Bengals (22-4 last year) are the overwhelming favorites to win the Big Sky, and have four starters back from a squad that took Kentucky to the limit in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Stanford, Nov. 21: The last time Stanford visited McCarthey, it was stung by a hot-shooting GU team in one of the best wins of Fortier’s career.
The odds are steeper this time. The Cardinal enter the season on a 20-game win streak after winning their third national championship in program history in April.
Stanford returns 12 of its 13 players from last year’s championship squad, including former Central Valley High School stars Lexie and Lacie Hull.
Utah, Nov. 26 in Manoa, Hawaii: The Zags open the Rainbow Wahine Showcase against a Pac-12 program. Expectations remain low for the Utes (4-15 in the conference and 5-16 overall last year).
Picked to finish 10th in the conference, Utah returns 12 players who saw action last year. The top returnee is junior guard Bryanna Maxwell (12.8 ppg) from Gig Harbor, Washington.
Eastern Illinois, Nov. 27 in Manoa: The Panthers are coming off a so-so season that saw them finish 9-11 in the Ohio Valley Conference and 11-15 overall.
EIU has a pair of preseason All-OVC selections in Abby Wahl and Lanah Washington.
At Hawaii, Nov. 28: The tournament hosts are picked fourth in the Big West Conference after finishing fourth last year. Hawaii returns four starters, including senior Amy Atwell and sophomore Daejah Phillips.
Wyoming, Dec. 3: The Zags had perhaps their most dominant performance of the preseason last year at Wyoming, romping past the Cowgirls 89-50.
The Cowgirls went on to finish 14-10 overall and 8-8 in the Mountain West, but won the conference tournament to reach the NCAAs. They return senior stars Tommi Olson, Alba Sanchez Ramos and Quinn Weidemann .
Washington State, Dec. 8: In some ways this is the biggest game of the nonconference season for GU. The Cougars are a regional rival with a bona fide star in sophomore guard Charlisse Leger-Walker and are coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years.
GU has won six in a row from the Cougars, last falling 55-48 in Pullman in 2015.
Stephen F. Austin, Dec. 12: Another tricky matchup comes four days later, when the Ladyjacks visit the Kennel. SFA won the Southland Conference last year, but is now in the Western Athletic Conference. Picked to finish second, the Ladyjacks are led by senior guard Stephanie Visscher (12.6 ppg last year). Sophomore Tyler McCliment-Call, a Spokane native, played high school ball for Post Falls and University.
At UC Davis, Dec. 19: Another potential trap game comes in the form of defending Big West Conference champion Aggies. UC Davis, which has won the last five Big West titles, returns four starters, including conference MVP Cierra Hall.
At Eastern Washington, Dec 21: The Eagles are coming off a 6-17 season that ended with the departure of several players and the dismissal of 20-year coach Wendy Schuller.
New coach Joddie Gleason will rely heavily in returning guard Aaliyah Alexander, who averaged 10.7 points per game as a freshman.
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