Slipper Sits Down With Kelly Graves (Part II)

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Part one of our conversation with Coach Graves covered candid moments with Pat Summit, negotiations during this off-season's 10-year contract extension, and how a spur of the moment 'No thanks' uttered out of loyalty to another coach might've saved Graves from forming a new loyalty with former New Mexico and Baylor men's coach Dave Bliss, the man at the center of the most egregious scandal in college basketball history.

In our remaining hour he discussed the economics behind his program's ultra-competitively-priced $85 season ticket plan, whether an abundance of height will alter his team's trademark style of play this season, and how he plans on organizing a post-Vandersloot back court.

Click below for the second part of our interview with Coach Graves.

SSF: Courtney Vandersloot essentially averaged 20 points and 10 assists last year. That made her directly involved in, at minimum, 40pts a game, or 47% of your offensive production. With her departure, is there more of a focus this year on decentralizing the offense and getting away from having one central catalyst?

KG: You phrased that exactly right. We don't have that kind of catalyst, so we're going to have to play differently this year. We're probably going to keep the same style and run as much as possible, but we'll share the duties more. I'm going to have to ask Katelan Redmon to be more of a playmaker. Even though the shot clock didn't wind all the way down too often last year, we'd get the ball in Courtney's hands whenever it did and she'd make a play. I think Katelan's going to have to take a little bit more of that responsibility, as well as Haiden. They each might do it differently, but they're both capable of doing that. We were pretty good before Courtney got here. We were different, but we were still successful. People forget that we lost Vivian, Tiffany, and Heather two years ago (who were responsible for) 4,000 points and 2,000 rebounds. That was a lot of production, something like 57% of our production, and we were still able to succeed.

SSF: Who will fill the point guard position this year, and what about their abilities will enable them to do so out from under the shadow of arguably the greatest point guard the women's game has ever seen?

KG: We have four good candidates to take over the point guard position. Haiden Palmer is a terrific player, hard worker and great leader. She's a Zag in every way. People are going to be really surprised because they don't know how good she's going to be. (Incoming freshman and ESPN Top 75 prospect) Keani Albanez is also our type of kid: a long, athletic wing who shoots the ball better than the twos and threes we've had in the past. She's also a great athlete and can attack the basket. (Incoming freshman) Maiki Viela, who was the two-time Gatorade state player of the year in Hawaii and a Parade All-American last year, is the most like...a true point guard. Maiki's more comfortable in the role of a facilitator. (Redshirt freshman and ESPN Top 100 prospect) Danielle Walter played point guard in high school. We're probably looking at doing it by committee - we may not just have one pure point like we've had in the past. You're right: none of them are Courtney. Everybody, including the coaches, has to realize it's not Courtney. I think (those four players) will forge their own identity at some point. That's where coaching comes in. We have to put those kids in a position where they feel like...they can do it their own way and can be successful. That's what we've been talking about since the day we lost to Stanford: how are we going to do it differently this year to give these kids some success?

SSF: You've noted in past interviews that the exciting style of basketball Courtney helped facilitate is conducive to putting bodies in the stands. Was adopting that style of play part of a conscious effort to not only win games, but to also get more people in the stands?

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KG: It's not really coincidence. You saw Stanford. They're big, strong and tough. We have not been able to attract post players like they have. We call (Gonzaga's post players) "niche post players." When Katelan and Janelle Bekkering transferred to GU we suddenly had great wings that could finish. Kayla Standish, Heather Bowman - those are our prototypes, the 6'1", 6'2" athletes that can run and can play facing the basket. So, our style just kind of evolved. But, if you look at my early championship teams in '04-'05 and '05-'06, we slowed the ball. We didn't run. We were defense-oriented, really went possession by possession and used set plays. This new style of play has evolved mostly because we have thoroughbreds who can run.

SSF: Now that you're gaining incoming freshmen Shelby Cheslek (6'5") and Sunny Greinacher (6'4") do you plan on changing that style at all, or are you still going to predominantly run?

KG: We're still going to run. Shelby is not a grinder. She's thin and can move, and she's more comfortable facing the hoop. Now, she happens to be 6'5", which helps, but she is in no way a (former 6'4" Stanford bruiser) Jayne Appel-type. Same thing with Sunny, who's got a real shot at being somebody special here. At least we can start to match up a little bit better in the post-season against teams like Stanford, but even though we're a littler taller we're still not that type of back-to-the-basket team. Utilizing 6'5" and 6'4" girls for their speed is something that will continue to set us apart from other Division I teams.

SSF: Incoming freshman Shaniqua Niles has attended your team's summer camps since elementary school. Now she's on your team. Beyond that just being a cool story, to what extent have your camps become about creating a pipeline for recruiting future players?

KG: Any time you recruit you always want to start local, and we're blessed in this area to have great high school girls basketball. It's not just Shaniqua. Jazmine Redmon, one of our other freshmen this year, used to come to the camps when she was little. (Incoming freshman) Shelby did. We first saw Courtney at our camp as a little ninth-grader. She had come over to attend our position camp, and the rest is history. Obviously, the program has become a pretty good draw, so now those girls at camps come to games. These are kids that are going to grow up to be GU fans from the time they're little, and then when they get older and go to college maybe they'll stay here. What those camps do is give us a chance to get to know young players on a personal level where the NCAA rules are so restrictive; you don't get the chance to even get to know kids anymore. But with these camps, we do.

SSF: You have eight new players this season, not including Kansas State transfer Taelor Carr who will sit out this season. That's an enormous injection of new talent. Talk a little bit about how you plan on allocating it all.

KG: It's going to be tough because we're going to be deeper this year than we've ever been. You said eight new faces, but if you look at it, Haiden's been around the block. She's had a Pac 10 season, she knows what she's doing, plus she's had a year already with us. Danielle has had a redshirt year with us already. Sunny has played on the German national team, so she has international experience that a lot of people don't have at any level. Keani has played at a really high AAU level in California for years. And Taelor, who you mentioned, has had two Big 12 seasons under her belt, and can help with those young kids as a practice player. So, you're right, we have new players, but our freshmen are coming in a little more seasoned than our freshmen have in the past. I don't think (lack of experience) is going to be a huge issue. I'm blessed to have four great senior leaders (Kelly Bowen, Shannon Reader, Standish and Redmon) who have been in this program and know nothing but the NCAA Tournament, know nothing but advancing in the NCAA Tournament. They're good players and they're good people, too. I'm going to rely on them heavily to work with these young players.

SSF: You play your second game of the year against the same Stanford team who ended your season last year. How does playing such a high level opponent right out of the gate affect the tenor of your season?

KG: We've played them early the last couple of seasons, as well, and we had USC in the first game last year. We've got a pretty good group of players coming back; It's not like the cupboard is bare because we lost some pretty good players. The (date of the Stanford) game just worked out that way. It never really occurred to us when we were playing them. They're going to be good and they're going to be big anytime, so it doesn't matter when we play each other. Over the last three or four years we've been the two best teams on the west coast. That's why we should be playing. I'm glad we are continuing to play and I like the fact that they're not afraid to go anywhere and play. We've signed on to play four more years of home-and-home with them, in addition to the two we've already played.

SSF: After the NCAA Tournament loss to Stanford you said, "They're just a better team than us" and that they would have to be "a little off" in order for you to beat them. I appreciated you saying that because instead of resorting to platitudes you were bluntly honest with fans. Do you consciously take a straightforward approach like that?

KG: What I say is never for the fans. I say what I feel. Every player on Stanford's team was an All-American. I didn't have a single All-American on my team. (Ed's note: Courtney Vandersloot was named a Second Team All-American the same day Gonzaga lost to Stanford). I have some damn good players, don't get me wrong, but it's not like we're starting with the same people as Stanford. The Ogwumike sisters are special. Stanford had them, plus two first round draft picks, plus a whole bunch of others. I'm not the kind of guy that just says anything, but I thought I was being honest in that quote, and I don't think there would be many people out there who would disagree with me.

SSF: Is there extra motivation than usual to make it back to the tournament this season since the first two NCAA Tournament rounds will again be hosted at Gonzaga?

KG: Absolutely. We met on the first day of school last season and I used the opportunity to play at home (in the NCAA Tournament this past year) as motivation. We painted a picture on that day about a little blond haired girl, (all-time leading scorer in women's basketball) Jackie Stiles, who carried Southwest Missouri State all the way to the Final Four and did it through Spokane in 2001. They won the regional right here. Last season we said to ourselves, ‘hey, we have a pretty damn good little 5'8" blond haired guard, and a pretty good supporting cast." We played on that all year long. I didn't think there was chance they were going to (put the Spokane sub-regional within the Spokane regional), not in a million years, but I at least threw that possibility out there to them and said, ‘look at what an opportunity we could potentially have.'

SSF: Would you rather host the tournament and have a lower seed than earn a higher seed and play somewhere else?

KG: Yes. Playing at home trumps anything. Going into last year's tournament we thought we would be an 11 seed, which is the seed that ends up avoiding the one seeds the longest. I don't think seeds matter. It's all about match ups in Screen_shot_2011-09-03_at_4the end, anyway, so you'd much rather play at home. The NCAA loved us last year. We made them a ton of money and we got a lot of publicity. I guarantee you Spokane and the McCarthy Athletic Center are going to be on that regular rotation of host sites. They like us now. I have to give credit to the host schools (Gonzaga and Washington State). They helped enhance the whole product and they did a nice job of marketing it. They realized if they made it appealing and fun for the fans that they could grow it. But if Gonzaga wasn't winning then people weren't going to come regardless of how they market it.

SSF: Speaking of marketing, the women's program didn't even offer season tickets when you first worked here. This upcoming season you will have sold well over 4,000 and are the fiscal envy of other programs in a sport known for not making money.

KG: It's the best deal in town. Over the last five years our season ticket sales have grown 400%, maybe even 500%. (Our prices) have gone up a little bit and will continue to do so, but I don't think we'll ever get to the level of the men's prices. The men can ask for more. They have a waiting list. At some point the (the athletic department) could cap the number of women's season tickets - let's say we sell 4,500 this year - because maybe that's all they want to sell since they still have to leave some for the faculty, staff, students and opposing teams. If we sell out at 4,500, then guess what? We have a waiting list and the price goes up. Five years ago season tickets were $50. Let's say we sold a thousand at $50. That's $50,000 in season ticket revenue. 4,000 at $85 is $340,000 in season ticket revenue. That's a huge difference, and that's not including walk ups. Only a handful of women's programs can (say they have that level of economic presence). We're definitely in the top 20 to 25 in the country. We outdrew the rest of the WCC combined in attendance by over 1,000. And here, a season ticket holder's ticket is not counted at the end of the night if they don't actually go through the gates. Some of the WCC schools don't scan attendance. LMU's the worst. One night we counted 75 people in the stands at a game down there. They tallied it as 587 on the official attendance list. Come on.

SSF: If you factor in Bulldog Club membership fees, the average cost of attending one men's game becomes significantly more expensive than the cost of attending every single women's game combined this season. Does your pricing plan cater to a different demographic of fans than the men's program's?

KG: Of course we are. We're not going after guys like you. We have a demographic - families with small kids, tons of little kids - that's different than the men. It's either a slightly older clientele or a very young clientele. We have a huge home court advantage that really helps us. It makes you feel good and I think the school has priced it right. The fans you see at our games probably don't know a lot about us and women's basketball on the national landscape, whereas a guy is typically a fan of men's basketball. Guys know things that are going on. That's why in women's basketball you see pockets of huge popularity some places and pockets of zero popularity in others. If you look across the nation, students don't go to women's basketball.

SSF: Would a Kennel Club at women's games help resolve that?

KG: That's not my decision, but I wish that they would form one. Any time people get together and organize it's great. The students aren't organized. We typically get 150 to 200 students that go to each game, but they're all interspersed. (Student sections) don't happen at very many women's basketball programs.

SSF: What is the single most important goal for this program to accomplish over the next five years?

KG: We want to continue to be in the national spotlight, which means we want to continue to be a significant player in the post-season. That's what our goal is every year. We always want to win the conference championship and we've been blessed enough to win seven in a row. Seven in a row. There's only four teams in the country who have streaks as long or longer. Stanford's one of them. Green Bay, I think, is one of them, and Marist. We're fourth. (Ed's note: No Pac-12 team has ever won as many consecutive conference games as Gonzaga has, either. Gonzaga's mark of 36 straight is good for ninth all time). And we didn't just win the four years we had Vivian, Heather and Courtney. We've done it with two or three different groups of players. Only two teams in the Pac-10 have had back-to-back seasons better than what we've had. It was Cheryl Miller's USC teams in the 80s, and Stanford on many occasions. So, we've done something that most Pac-10s haven't even done. I think we have a good enough team to win the WCC Tournament championship and to go to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament again this next year.

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