With his opening game against Idaho only 24 hours away, Kelly Graves still didn't have a starting lineup nailed down.
The Gonzaga women would win that matchup against Idaho, but their head coach says the team is a "work in progress," and that he's "cautiously optimistic" about the season to come:
"Ever since 2010 (when Vivien Frieson, now an assistant coach for the team, hit that 15-foot jump shot to beat Texas A&M, sending GU to the Sweet Sixteen) we have always had two players who could do three things well; score, rebound and handle the ball."
With Taelor Karr, last season's West Coast Conference Player of the Year, having graduated, senior Haiden Palmer's play and leadership will be even more critical to the team's success this season.
"We now have kids who are doing one or two things well, but not three," said Graves.
He tossed out two examples: "Shelby Cheslek plays strong defense, but is still working on her offense. Jazmine Redmon can handle the ball and plays very tough defense; but she isn't a real scoring threat, nor is she even a natural point guard, yet that's the position we need her to play."
Several weeks ago Kelly told me that backup point guard was his biggest concern. While he hadn't decided on his full lineup, he had settled on a backup at the point: "Danielle Walter. We're going with Danielle; she takes care of the ball, is showing herself to be a competent passer, and can score."
The Zags are picked to finish first in the WCC. Graves, while positive about his team's chances, took note of four strong contenders: San Diego, BYU, St. Mary's and newcomer Pacific.
As it turned out, Idaho played one of those games Graves' teams have never liked — mostly halfcourt, with guards who can penetrate and kick out to hit 3-point shooters. Worse yet, GU had a terrible shooting night. Still, Graves' "work in progress," with Palmer putting the team on her back, found a way to win ugly. Keani Albanez started and scored 13 points. Graves played his entire bench as he and his staff searched for the combinations that worked best. Five players logged more than 20 minutes each. Another four played 10-plus minutes apiece.
Two days later against Tennessee-Martin, GU got the kind of matchup Graves' teams like best — a team that likes to run. With Palmer once again leading the way, Albanez showing off her summer work, Sunny Greinacher mixing it up on the boards and hitting her mid-range jumper, Walter impressing everyone in her role as backup point guard and the team's shooting back up to the 50-percent range, Gonzaga ran away, winning 91-54.
Last week the Zags headed to Oklahoma, where they lost 82-78 on Thursday to the 11th-ranked Sooners in a tight game that came down to the final minutes. Their nonconference schedule gets brutal in December, with road games against Wisconsin, Ohio State and third-ranked Stanford in the span of a week.
Still, Graves remains optimistic about his squad.
"I really do believe that we can compete against all these teams," he says.
A "work in progress," no doubt, but this much now seems clear: They can compete — winning ugly and winning on the run.♦