- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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For Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves, there is no escaping the question that hangs over his program, casting a bigger shadow these days than the conference championship banners shading the court in Spokane.
It's a question to which many might fear they secretly know the answer. Or not so secretly, as the case may be.
"You're not going to be very good without Courtney," one critic rather bluntly suggested to the coach.
The person so pessimistic about life after All-American Courtney Vandersloot? William Graves, the coach's sixth-grade son.
"I mean, I love the kid, but " dad chuckled as he left the thought unfinished.
Indiana State without Larry Bird. Missouri State without Jackie Stiles. College basketball history is full of reminders that the very players capable of lifting mid-major programs to the greatest heights are also those whose departures frequently engender the most precipitous tumbles. The Sycamores waited more than two decades just to get back to the NCAA tournament after Bird led them to the championship game in 1979. The Bears have been to the NCAA tournament three times since Stiles took them to the semifinals in 2001 but have not won even a first-round game without her.
Gonzaga never reached a Final Four with Vandersloot, falling in the Sweet 16 two seasons ago and a regional final last season, but the program nonetheless achieved a level of national recognition the past two seasons unlike anything that preceded it. That attention would have found its way to Spokane even if the success was born of boring basketball, but an eye-pleasing, fast-paced style piloted by a player who seemed a cross between John Stockton, from whom she learned during the summers, and Pete Maravich made the program that much easier to embrace.
The run had the telltale signs of a smaller program catching lighting in a bottle, a supposition only bolstered when Vandersloot wasted little time emerging as a star in her first summer in the WNBA. Early skepticism in various preseason polls, where Gonzaga appears on the fringes if at all, suggests such logic is not a minority view.
This is how things work in college sports, after all, a world of haves, have-nots and have-not-for-longs.
Except perhaps in Spokane.
Xavier faces the same dilemma this season, the formerly formidable Musketeers picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10 without Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips and coach Kevin McGuff. Not surprisingly, Graves doesn't envision a similar fate for Gonzaga. But you don't have to take his word for it. His actions this summer said more.
A few days after Gonzaga lost to Stanford in a regional final and shortly before Vandersloot was selected with the third pick in the WNBA draft, Graves was offered the head coaching job at the University of Washington. While it's a program struggling to find its footing at the moment, hence the opening, Washington has history, a recruiting base rich in talent in one of the nation's biggest metropolitan areas and all the advantages of a Pac-12 athletic budget.
"Honestly, I think I have a better job," he said. "That's why I stayed. They gave me a great contract. One great thing about GU is we don't want to be a stepping stone. We've made it a destination. You look at [men's basketball coach] Mark Few, he's had many chances to leave. I don't get a pay raise by going to the Pac-12."
Gonzaga might not have football money, but it takes care of its basketball programs, men's and women's. Graves said he doesn't have budget restrictions on the nonconference games he schedules, and the team flies to most away games in a private charter, a luxury few women's programs in any conference enjoy. Gonzaga ranked 25th in the nation in attendance last season and recently passed 4,000 season-ticket sales for the upcoming season.
In a move that positively beats you about the head with symbolism, it was McGuff who accepted the Washington job.
Two talented coaches just entering the prime of their careers. One made a logical decision to move up. One made a logical decision to stay on top.
There is abundant on-court evidence for such optimism about the Bulldogs. The future looks bright as Gonzaga continues to attract high-level talent to stem the annual attrition -- even superstar attrition. And while they might have to work a little harder this season without all those passes that appeared in their hands out of thin air, like dollar bills in the pocket of a coat not worn for months, Kayla Standish and Katelan Redmon are major star material in the present.
The two seniors are equally valuable, but any list of more intriguing talents than Standish is a short one.
"With Kayla it's always been about confidence," Graves said. "I remember when she came as a freshman she was a gangly, skinny kid from Ellensburg, Wash. If you've never been there, it's a pretty small town right in the middle of the state. It's right on I-90, so if you drive from Spokane to Seattle, it's the halfway point. You stop, you get your Starbucks, you fill your gas tank."
The small-town kid wasn't a big factor as a freshman, but Graves charged her with watching Heather Bowman, an undersized but relentless forward who graduated in 2010 as the program's all-time leading scorer. The message was that if she worked like Bowman, she already had the physical gifts that neither Bowman nor any Gonzaga player ever had. Some questioned such an assertion. One of them was Standish, who came out and asked him at one point if he really thought she was that good. Her play last season as a junior confirmed his answer at the time.
A high school star in volleyball, track (hurdles and triple jump) and basketball, the 6-footo-2 Standish is in the same league as former Xavier star Harris as a forward with a natural athleticism that belies her frame.
"She can do almost anything," teammate Keani Albanez marveled. "Her versatility with the 3-pointer, her being able to dribble and do moves from the 3-point line but also use her body and post up and dominate you on the boards is ridiculous."
Standish averaged 17.1 points. 8.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per game last season and saved her best for last. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, she went for 30 points and seven rebounds against Iowa. Then she went out and totaled 30 points and 10 rebounds in the second round against UCLA.
"These small-town kids who are so good and gifted it comes pretty easy to them, so they don't work maybe as hard as they could," Graves said. "And when the game is stepped up a little bit [at the college level], they have confidence issues. And that was definitely the case with her. But, boy, to watch her grow, sometimes you saw it game to game."
Getting talented local kids and making them better is part of the blueprint for success. Nine players on this season's roster are from Washington or Oregon. But it's a mistake to think of Gonzaga as a roster of regional overachievers.
There is literally major-conference talent on the roster: Redmon (Washington), Haiden Palmer (Oregon State) and Taelor Karr (Kansas State) all averaged double-digit points for BCS programs before transferring to Gonzaga. But Graves is also getting that kind of talent out of high school. He went head-to-head with Louisville for 6-4 freshman Sunny Greinacher, a German who was Oregon's player of the year as a sophomore exchange student. And fellow freshman Albanez was a top-100 recruit who picked Gonzaga over Washington, among others.
Growing up in Southern California, Albanez wanted to play in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12). But when it came time to choose, she loved the transition style Gonzaga played and didn't feel she was sacrificing any of the prestige associated with a label. Rather than choosing the supposed big time, she picked the place where nothing is bigger than basketball.
"People are always coming up to me and my teammates and saying how excited they are for the season. I love it," Albanez said. "It definitely caught me off guard a little bit. Coach warned me [it was coming]. but I didn't really realize it until the first couple of weeks of school when people started coming up to me and saying it. It's definitely a little awkward, but you get used to it, and I love the support."
Gonzaga got a late start in women's basketball, fielding its first team in 1987. The program's all-time record was just 152-231 when Graves arrived 11 years ago. It is 228-119 since then, including seven consecutive West Coast Conference championships and four trips to the NCAA tournament in the past five seasons. There was a foundation in place prior to Vandersloot's arrival and the walls won't come tumbling down without her.
As he boarded a flight from Spokane to Seattle on the trip that would end with a job offer, Graves was recognized by some Gonzaga fans near the front of the plane who congratulated him on the season. As he made his way back through the cabin, more heads turned and more congratulations came.
"As I walked back, the whole plane was clapping," Graves said. "You can't get that everywhere. That made it really difficult to leave. I think you have to always look [at other offers]; I think you owe that to yourself as a professional, but GU is a pretty special place and I think the administration is really committed to our growth as a program."
How will they replace Vandersloot? They won't. They can't replace one of the best points guards in the history of women's college basketball. Between sophomore Jazmine Redmon, junior Meghan Winters, freshman Maiki Viela, Karr and others, they'll find players to handle the minutes and trust them to get the ball to Standish and Redmon. Or to the open shooter. Or to any of the big bodies being stockpiled (three players are taller than Standish).
"There's a lot of people questioning that because she was such a once-in-lifetime player," Graves said of life after Vandersloot. "As a coach, quite frankly, it motivates me to even work harder. But I have confidence in my team, and I really do think we're at a point where we're continuing to get great players. We have a great system; my assistant coaches do a great job of preparing the player and making them better -- players improve when they come here.
"This is a big year. But they all are, for heavens sake."
And so they will continue to be at Gonzaga.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Even Kelly Graves' young son questions how good Gonzaga can be this season without Courtney Vandersloot. But there was a foundation in place prior to her arrival and the walls won't come tumbling down without the superstar point guard.