For the Gonzaga women’s basketball program, crafting a nonconference schedule is something of an art form.
The schedule should hold some challenges – but not too many – with one overarching goal: to give GU the best possible chance to reach March Madness should the Zags fail to win the West Coast Conference Tournament.
This year’s 13-game slate appears tougher than most, with more than the usual risk and reward.
In addition to the annual matchup with Stanford, the Zags face a loaded field in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament as well as potentially tough games against Long Beach State, Wyoming, Stephen F. Austin and UC Davis.
“It will be a lot of fun, and challenging,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said.
Bottom line: To reach the NCAAs, the Zags probably need to win at least eight of those 13 games while losing at most two contests in the WCC. That would put them at 24 wins (with a decent strength of schedule) and probably get them off the tournament bubble.
Here’s a look at the Zags’ nonconference schedule, along with a rough assessment of the Zags’ chances in each game.
Long Beach State (Nov. 10 in Spokane): Fortier has mentioned it more than once during preseason interviews: Long Beach is probably the toughest nonconference home game the Zags will face this year.
It’s also the first one on the schedule. That might explain Fortier’s anxiety; however, GU should be a heavy favorite.
Long Beach returns only six letterwinners from a team that went 19-9 overall and 12-6 in the Big West Conference.
Long Beach is led by senior guard Ma’Qhi Berry (7.7 points, 2.5 rebounds per game last year) and junior guard Kianna Hamilton-Fisher (7.5ppg, 2.5rpg).
Southern Utah (Nov. 12 in Spokane): The Zags will be an even bigger favorite two nights later when Southern Utah visits the Kennel.
Last year, the Thunderbirds went 18-12 overall and 14-6 in the Big Sky Conference. However, they’ve moved to the tougher Western Athletic Conference, where they are picked to finish sixth.
SUU standouts include guard Cherita Daugherty, who averaged 10 points and six rebounds last year, and Idaho State transfer Tomekia Whitman, who averaged 12 points and was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
Wyoming (Nov. 15 in Laramie, Wyoming): There will be no overlooking the Cowgirls, who took GU to the limit last year in the Kennel before losing 54-47. This time they will meet in the rarefied air of Laramie, elevation 7,165 feet.
Wyoming returns three starters from a team that went 17-13 overall and 11-6 in the Mountain West Conference. That was enough to be picked for a fourth-place finish.
New coach Heather Ezell will count on super seniors Tommi Olson and Quinn Weidemann, the latter averaging 11 points a game and shooting 42% from long range last year.
Louisville (Nov.19 in Paradise Island, Bahamas): The Gonzaga players have been looking forward to this trip since last spring, when the Zags were picked to play in the prestigious Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis.
The eight-team field offers top-quality competition, starting with the program that ended GU’s season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Louisville loses three starters from that team, which finished 29-5 and reached the Final Four. However, the seventh-ranked Cardinals return forward Olivia Cochrane and guard Hailey Van Lith, a junior from Cashmere, Washington.
If form holds, GU will play a consolation bracket game against Marquette, the only team in the field that didn’t make the NCAAs last season. The other possibility is Texas, which reached the Elite Eight last year and currently sits at No. 3 in The Associated Press media poll.
And no matter what happens there, the Zags will have their hands full in their final game, as the other half of the bracket includes Tennessee, UCLA, Rutgers and South Dakota State.
Bottom line: GU fans should be ecstatic to get two wins out of this event.
Eastern Washington (Nov. 26 in Spokane): The Eagles’ rebuilding project is ahead of schedule after the Eagles went 9-21 overall and a surprising 7-13 in the Big Sky Conference last year.
The Eagles return all five starters and several key reserves. Second-year coach Joddie Gleason also added Arizona State grad transfer Jamie Loera of Moses Lake, the younger sister of former Gonzaga star Jessie Loera.
The Eagles will count heavily on sophomore forward Jaydia Martin, a versatile 6-footer who averaged a team-high 15.2 points last year.
EWU’s improvement notwithstanding, the Zags will be a heavy favorite.
Maine (Nov. 28 in Spokane): The Black Bears will travel a long way for a game that should easily go Gonzaga’s way.
Maine returns four of its top six scorers from a squad that went 20-12 overall and 15-3 in the America East Conference.
The Black Bears return three starters, led by all-conference preseason guard Anne Simon (16.0 ppg and 2.8 steals per game last year).
Stephen F. Austin (Dec. 1 in Nacogdoches, Texas): Three days later, the Zags will be deep in the heart of East Texas for a game that had better command their full attention.
One of the nation’s better mid-major programs, the Cowgirls gave GU a tough battle last year in Spokane. That game was deadlocked at 52 with less than three minutes left before the Zags won 64-54.
SFA went on to go 28-5 overall, 17-1 in the WAC and reach the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Picked to repeat as WAC champs, the Cowgirls are led by forward Aiyana Johnson (14ppg, 6.5rpg).
Stanford (Dec. 4 in Stanford, Calif.): On paper, this is the toughest game of the season. But wait, GU fans might ask: Didn’t the Zags take Stanford to the wire last year in Spokane?
Yes, but the Cardinal were without All-American guard Haley Jones. A few weeks later, a full-strength Stanford squad handled the Zags by 16 in the Bay Area.
That’s where this year’s rematch will take place, and the Cardinal are loaded as usual. They lost the Hull sisters to graduation but come back as No. 2 in the preseason polls.
Along with Jones, they have All-American forward Cameron Brink and stellar 3-point shooter Hannah Jump.
Queen’s University of Charlotte (Dec. 6 in Spokane): Two days later, GU faces probably its easiest game of the year.
The Royals are coming off a 6-19 season and are moving from the South Atlantic Conference to the Atlantic Sun, where they are picked to finish last out of 14 teams. Third-year coach Jen Brown has zero returning starters.
UC Davis (Dec. 11 in Spokane): Revenge is best served cold – in this case a year later. Last December at UC Davis, the Zags blew a 17-point lead and lost 69-66.
Point guard Kayleigh Truong was at half-strength for that one, but a healthy GU squad should be a solid favorite this time.
Last year, the Aggies finished 15-13 overall and 8-8 in the Big West Conference. Picked to finish fifth this year, they return all-conference guard Evanne Turner (12.8ppg).
Montana (Dec. 21 in Spokane): In a quirk of the schedule, the Zags’ last nonconference game will be played four days after they open WCC play – at home against BYU, no less.
However, the Griz won’t be overlooked. Last year in Missoula, GU pulled out a 67-60 win that was every bit that close.
Picked to finish second in the Big Sky Conference, the Griz are led by Colfax product Carmen Gfeller, who averaged 13.9 points last year while shooting 43% from long range.
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