- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Two years have passed since Courtney Vandersloot wore a Gonzaga uniform and transformed Spokane into a women's basketball destination.
For the fans, at least. The talented recruits have been coming to eastern Washington for a while now.
"We had four WNBA draft picks come out of here the last three years; that's second most of any team in the country," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. "But this might be the best freshman class I've ever had. I really like this team."
The Bulldogs are 6-1 this season. They have strong wins over Southern California and Wisconsin and a painful stick-in-your-craw loss to Louisville last week in a holiday tournament in Puerto Vallarta.
But the biggest test of the season is coming -- literally. Top-ranked Stanford travels to Spokane for a Sunday afternoon matchup at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
And Gonzaga had best spend some time shoring up an offense that has been more come-and-go this season than Graves would probably like. It certainly was against No. 7 Louisville, where the Bulldogs sputtered to a disappointing finish, losing 55-42 after failing to score in the final eight minutes of the game and missing a plum opportunity for a signature nonconference win.
"We can't score like we used to," Graves said. "That's not our makeup as a team right now."
The Bulldogs don't have a dominant inside presence like former star Heather Bowman. They are settling for jump shots and not scoring enough in transition.
"We need more balance," Graves said. "We are not there yet, but we are trying to push the ball. Right now, we are a little more of a half-court team than we've been. That's a new position for me as a coach and us as a program. We are doing things differently."
Different indeed. Gonzaga was one of the top two scoring teams in the country (along with Connecticut) two years ago and ranked in the top 10 last season. The Bulldogs are currently averaging 66 points a game, nearly 10 points fewer than last season's 75.1 and nearly 20 points a game lower than 2011.
But the Bulldogs are picking up the slack on the defensive end. They have held all but two opponents to fewer than 60 points and haven't given up more than 70 yet.
"We are a lot better defensively than we've been in the last six or eight years," Graves said.
And the coach likes that new identity for his young team. Gonzaga has 11 players who are freshmen or sophomores on the roster. Only three are left who played with Vandersloot, who led the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight in Spokane Arena in 2011. Graves has already played three sophomores and two freshmen on the court together at times this season.
Haiden Palmer, one of two returning starters along with Taelor Karr, is leading the way thus far, averaging 12.0 points a game. Sophomore guard Keani Albanez is the only other scorer in double figures, at 10.1 points a game.
"This is my most talented and athletic team, and the future looks really, really bright, but we are just young," Graves said.
And that has forced Graves to slow down and teach. He joked that he has "no more hair to pull out."
"We are not nearly as far ahead as we've been at this point," Graves said. "There is a lot more teaching, and practices are less fluid. But I'm learning that I have to just coach. I can't stop and correct everything. We are definitely making mistakes. But these are the kind of players that will get it."
Albanez said she doesn't feel her team is in the middle of a makeover.
"I feel like we are a really good defensive team when we are clicking, and we are most consistent on defense right now," the 5-foot-10 guard said. "We've always had different players step up. And we definitely have people who can do that."
There is another significant difference in Gonzaga's universe: The potential for hot recruiting competition from the University of Washington and second-year coach Kevin McGuff.
Graves has been the Northwest's best recruiter over the past decade.
But McGuff is moving in. Last year, the Huskies beat Gonzaga and signed Katie Collier from Covington, Wash. Collier will miss this season with an ACL injury incurred over the summer.
McGuff and Graves have gone head-to-head for three players -- Collier, Heather Corral of Vancouver, Wash., and Chelsea Waters of Lewiston, Idaho. McGuff landed Collier and Corral. Waters went to Gonzaga.
This year, Kelsey Plum out of La Jolla Country Day committed to the Huskies. Plum is considered the No. 26 recruit in the class and was the highest-ranked recruit in the Class of 2013 to pick a Pac-12 school that wasn't Stanford. She reportedly considered Gonzaga.
Graves said he hasn't noticed a big change in recruiting but is "glad the Northwest is getting better."
In his own team, Graves sees a group that will be much better come March. The Bulldogs will be heavily favored to win another West Coast Conference title and then will be home to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, with the potential to repeat the magic of 2011 by moving over to Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena for the regional.
Albanez said her teammates feel a "duty" to be playing in that regional come spring.
"We should be there," she said. "Our fans are amazing and we want to be there for them."
Graves is looking at the brightest possible side of what many people might consider a rebuilding season for a program that hasn't had to rebuild in a while.
"I think we could be pretty good," he said. "I'm kind of enjoying this, remaking our team. In a crazy sort of way I was looking forward to this year, because I didn't know what I had. I've always had marquee kids coming back and I had no clue what this was going to be like. It's been fun."