Kelly Graves is a charming fellow who can “sandbag” with the best of ’em. Sandbagging, of course, is the ancient art practiced by many coaches of downplaying the talent on their team. When the mood strikes, Graves can make his Gonzaga women’s team sound like 20-point underdogs to the fi fth-grade girls team at Little Sisters of the Poor.
This season, however, Graves has no choice but to come clean about the Bulldogs. The team is loaded with talent, experience, size and athleticism, and Graves makes no attempt to disguise his confi dence or excitement about the upcoming season.
“This is the most talented team I’ve coached — ever,” Graves says.
That’s saying a lot, since Graves has guided seven teams to NCAA tournaments as a head or assistant coach. That includes two of the past three teams at Gonzaga, where Graves has been head coach since 2000.
The Bulldogs return virtually everyone off a 27-7 team that won the West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament championships, then beat 20th-ranked Xavier for Gonzaga’s fi rst NCAA tournament win.
“We still lack the size — ‘the big aircraft carrier’ — in the middle. Other than that, I really do think we have a little bit of everything,” Graves says.
Gonzaga has rarely cracked the Top 25, and the Bulldogs are 34th in the Associated Press preseason poll.
“It really doesn’t matter to us,” senior forward Heather Bowman said. “If anything, it’s motivation to prove we belong there.”
“We’re still a team that’s kind of flying under the radar to some degree,” Graves says. “I almost prefer that.”
Graves notes that Gonzaga can prove its worth playing a schedule that includes road games with No. 2 Stanford, No. 7 Baylor, No. 26 Texas A&M and No. 30 South Dakota State.
PREDICTED FINISH: First in the West Coast Conference (WCC coaches poll);
2008-09 RECORD: 27-7 overall, 12-2 WCC (first), won WCC tournament, advanced to second round of NCAA tournament;
COACH: Kelly Graves (172-109, 10th year);
SEASON OPENER: At South Dakota State on Friday, Nov. 13, at 6 pm (no TV, KEYF 1050);
OUTLOOK: A veteran, talent-laden team is led by honorable mention All-American point guard Courtney Vandersloot and senior forward Heather Bowman. Vandersloot was the WCC Player of the Year last season, and Bowman (a Lewis and Clark High School product) won the award the previous year. Versatile and athletic Vivian Frieson is back for her senior year; Janelle Bekkering spent the summer with Canada’s national team; former Lewis and Clark star Katelan Redmon (a transfer from Washington) looks like a great addition; and Tiffany Shives has recovered from last year’s knee operation.
BONUS ROUND: Vandersloot and Bowman are among 31 players on the preseason watch list for the Women’s Wooden Award as college player of the year. The three other teams with two players on the watch list are ranked 1-2-3 in the nation, but Bulldogs did not crack the preseason Top 25.
PREDICTED FINISH: Seventh in the Big Sky Conference (Big Sky coaches poll);
2008-09 FINISH: 10-19 overall, 5-11 Big Sky (three-way tie for seventh, or last), no post-season;
COACH: Wendy Schuller (94-136, ninth year);
SEASON OPENER: At Portland on Saturday, Nov. 14, at 5:05 pm (no TV, radio);
TICKETS: (866) 4-GO- EAGS
OUTLOOK: The Eagles still have only two seniors, but they return all five starters off a team that won six more games last season than the previous year. Eastern still lacks a dominant go-to player, but 6-foot-1 junior forward Julie Piper made All-Big Sky honorable mention last season after leading the Eagles with 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Junior Kyla Evans boasts the highest career 3-point shooting percentage (38.4) in school history.
BONUS ROUND: Everyone talks a good game about caring about academics in college athletics, but most fans nod off when academic awards are discussed. Here’s one worth staying awake for: Eastern’s team grade-point average has ranked in the Top 25 in NCAA Division I women’s basketball for eight straight years. Indiana State is the only other school that can make that claim. The Eagles came in ninth last season at 3.42.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
PREDICTED FINISH: Sixth in the Pacific-10 Conference (Pac-10 coaches poll);
2008-09 RECORD: 11-19 overall, 4-14 Pac-10 (eighth), lost in first round of Pac-10 tournament;
COACH: June Daugherty (16-43, third year);
SEASON OPENER: Home vs. UC Davis on Sunday, Nov. 15, at 2 pm;
TICKETS: (800) GO-COUGS
OUTLOOK: Admittedly, Coach Daugherty is so perpetually optimistic, she would view the Johnstown Flood as a great way to get a free car wash. Still, Daugherty can’t be blamed for thinking the Cougars have a legitimate shot at their first winning season since — egad! — 1994-95. “We’re going to be way more athletic and versatile than I think any team’s ever been at Washington State,” Daugherty said. Wings April Cook and Jazmine Perkins — WSU’s top two scorers and best players as freshmen last year — lead a senior-less team that added former WAC scoring champ Katie Madison (an Idaho transfer) and 6-foot-5 Carly Noyes, a freshman out of Moses Lake. Cook was fifth in the Pac-10 with 14 points per game. Look for the Cougars to run and press constantly.
BONUS ROUND: Jessica Oestreicher, a 6-8 sophomore who is redshirting due to knee surgery, had a quick response when asked what she’d search for on Craigslist: “A tall boyfriend.”