Gonzaga's basketball team is nationally ranked and drawing record crowds. They've won the West Coast Conference regular-season championship and appear primed for a run at the NCAA tournament.
The Gonzaga men's team is pretty good, too.
The Bulldog men are sensational, of course -- but then we've come to expect that in recent years. Gonzaga's women, on the other hand, have traditionally played basketball as if the ball was made of lead.
Everything started to change for the Gonzaga women when ever-smiling Energizer Bunny clone Kelly Graves put his career on the line five years ago by leaving WCC powerhouse Saint Mary's to take over the zip-less Zags.
Five seasons after Graves' first Gonzaga team finished 0-14 in the WCC and seemingly drew about 14 fans per game, the 24th-ranked Bulldogs completed a 14-0 WCC season last Saturday in front of a near-capacity crowd of 5,825 at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
"We've been really bad over the years," fearless little point guard Shannon Mathews told fans during basket-cutting ceremonies after the game, "so it's been nice to finally give you a good show out here."
An ancient sports axiom maintains that coaches receive too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go wrong. That said, it would be impossible to overstate Graves' impact on the Gonzaga program.
Pre-Graves women's basketball at Gonzaga was painful to watch for the few blood relatives and faithful friends who dared to endure the endless stream of air balls, errant passes and blowout losses. Things actually got worse in Graves' first year, when he was hired too late for extensive recruiting and then lost four players to knee injuries during a 5-23 nightmare of a season in 2000-01.
"They were horrible," senior guard Raeanna Jewell recalls.
"They didn't have any facet of a game," Mathews says.
One year later, Jewell, Mathews and Ashley Burke arrived on the scene, and Gonzaga women's basketball has never been the same. All three seniors have started virtually every game the past four years, plastering their names all over the Bulldog record books.
More important, the Bulldogs followed an 11-18 season (and another last-place finish in the WCC) in 2001-02 with back-to-back 18-12 campaigns and second-place ties in the WCC. This season, the Bulldogs are 25-2; they're ranked in the Top 25 nationally for the first time in school history; and their current 21-game winning streak is the longest in NCAA Division I women's basketball this season.
"It's been a thrill," Graves said last Saturday night as he and his players signed autographs and posed for photos more than half an hour after Gonzaga's 81-45 thrashing of the Portland Pilots. "These kids deserve it. It's a hard-working group, especially the seniors. They've been through the good times and the bad times. I think because of that, they appreciate it more.
"They're a humble group, a very humble group. I'm really proud of that. They don't take things for granted."
Graves could be excused for taking winning for granted prior to his arrival at Gonzaga. The St. George, Utah, native was wildly successful as head coach at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake from 1989-92, as an assistant coach at Portland from 1992-97 and as head coach at Saint Mary's from 1997-2000.
Graves, 42, won at least 20 games each of his three seasons at Saint Mary's and made one trip to the NCAA Tournament and another trip to the Women's National Invitational Tournament. So, uh, Kelly ... why leave Saint Mary's for the women's basketball wasteland that was Gonzaga?
"I'm a family guy," Graves says simply, "and family comes first. I just thought this was a better place for my family. Personally, I liked California, but my wife [the former Mary Winter] was born here in Spokane."
For that, Gonzaga fans will forever be indebted to Mary. Her husband, too.
"He's a great recruiter, a great coach and a great teacher," Mathews says.
The Bulldogs roster consists of players from five states and three countries, but Graves has taken advantage of the Inland Northwest's national reputation for quality high school girls basketball. Five Bulldogs grew up a long 3-pointer from Gonzaga, including starters Juliann Laney (Gonzaga Prep) and Jewell (Central Valley), reserves Katy Ridenour (Post Falls) and Katie Prichard (Riverside) and injured redshirt Sarah Schramm (Chelan). University High's Jami Bjorklund comes aboard next season.
"They have the best talent in the conference, but they're the hardest-working team in the conference, too," says Portland coach Jim Sollars, a close friend of Graves.
The WCC is lightly regarded in women's basketball, and Gonzaga's two losses were lopsided affairs against two of the three ranked teams the Bulldogs have faced (New Mexico, where Graves played, and Arizona State). The Bulldogs have been aiming for their first-ever NCAA tournament all season, but Graves fears his team might be headed to the WNIT for the second straight year if the Bulldogs are upset at the WCC Tournament.
"We're telling our kids we have to win the tournament," Graves says.
For now, Graves just wants to bask in the glow of an undefeated WCC regular season and a 21-game winning streak. After last Saturday, when the Bulldogs drew the largest on-campus crowd in WCC women's basketball history, Graves acknowledged that it was nice to be known no longer simply as the "other" head basketball coach at Gonzaga.
"Now I know what it's like," Graves said with a laugh, "to be Mark Few."
The Gonzaga men's and women's basketball teams have already won the regular-season championships of the West Coast Conference, but technically, the WCC refuses to recognize them as league champions.
The official WCC champion for each gender -- not to mention the league's lone automatic qualifier for the NCAA Division I Tournament -- is the winner of the single-elimination conference tournament in Santa Clara, Calif. All eight WCC schools participate, and both Gonzaga teams are seeded No. 1.
Gonzaga's men (23-4), ranked 12th nationally and riding a 10-game winning streak, receive a bye into Sunday's semifinals against a team to be determined that plays Friday and/or Saturday. The Bulldogs play at 6 pm Sunday (on ESPN2) and, if they win, at 9 pm Monday (nationally televised on ESPN).
The Gonzaga women (25-2), ranked 24th nationally and winner of a Division I-leading 21 straight games, open against No. 8 seed Portland (6-21) at 2:15 pm Thursday. The women (who receive no byes) take Saturday off, then play the semifinals at noon and 2:15 Saturday to set up Sunday's 1 pm title game.
KGA (1510 AM) will broadcast all Gonzaga men's and women's games live from 4,500-seat Leavey Center on the University of Santa Clara campus. The women's championship game will be televised on tape delay on Fox Sports Northwest at 9 pm Sunday.
Both Gonzaga teams are led by the WCC Player of the Year -- senior forward Ronny Turiaf for the men, and senior point guard Shannon Mathews for the women. Gonzaga also swept WCC Coach of the Year honors, with Mark Few winning on the men's side and Kelly Graves selected for the women.