It took ex-head coach Kelly Graves nearly a decade to get the ball rolling, and current head coach Lisa Fortier has done a fantastic job continuing the momentum. The Gonzaga Bulldogs women’s basketball team is a perennial NCAA Tournament squad.
In the past 10 years, the Zags have only missed the NCAA Tournament once. In that time span, they have made the Elite Eight once and the Sweet 16 three times. Last season, a massively injury-depleted squad stayed competitive against No. 4 Oregon State, ultimately falling short in the second round.
In virtually every NCAA sport across the board, there is a wide talent gap between the top level schools and the rest of everyone else. Women’s basketball is no different. Thanks to the powerhouses of the Connecticut Huskies, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Baylor Bears, and Stanford Cardinal, only 14 different schools have appeared in the Final Four in the past decade—none with an enrollment nearly as small as GU’s.
Now, this is supposed to be a blog post about how it can all go wrong. No one has expectations of this squad making the Final Four, and if you do, you are severely misplaced. The momentum issue is real, however. The women’s squad hasn’t made it out of the second round in three years now. Just like their male counterparts in the early 2010s, the women have found it hard to make it to the second weekend of the tournament.
One could argue that last year shows that even if it all goes wrong, this team can gut out a victory with the best of ‘em. Last season, over the course of 48 hours, the Zags lost their two top playmakers to season ending injuries and, because the world can never be cruel enough, coach Fortier lost her brother to complications of muscular dystrophy. Suddenly, the entire body of work the Zags worked on throughout the year was in question after falling to BYU for the third time that season, in the WCC Championship.
The Zags lost huge pieces from last year’s squad in Zykera Rice, Chandler Smith, and Laura Stockton. They retain more than enough to still qualify as a NCAA-caliber squad, but they will need to earn their way into the tournament.
The worst case scenario at this point in the development of the program is missing the NCAA Tournament. That essentially applies to every single school. That is also the low hanging fruit. The Zags are at the point that we should expect a NCAA Tournament appearance each year, so in reality, the worst case scenario is that the women’s squad is not able to build off any momentum from last season, and once again finds itself watching the tournament from home during the second weekend.