Gonzaga University is one of 27 schools this year that can claim both their men's and women's basketball teams as NCAA Tournament participants and the women's team is poised to make the type of Cinderella run that the men's team had in 1999 to bring the mid-major program into the national spotlight.
Despite getting questionably seeded #11 after winning 18 games in a row en route to a WCC Championship, the Bulldogs will definitely be aided in their quest to get to the Sweet 16 by a home crowd at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane this weekend that could at least help them beat turnover prone #6 Iowa Hawkeyes team and a #3 UCLA Bruins team that thrives off turnovers. Gonzaga had a school record 3,000 season ticket holders for the women's program this season and tickets are likely to be sold out by game time on Saturday.
Yet beating the #2 Xavier Musketeers, should both teams get the opportunity, would be another matter entirely that will depend heavily on whether Gonzaga can contend with their size and rebounding inside. And not only was overcoming bigger and more physical teams a problem during this season, but actually during last season as well as already described on SBN's Swish Appeal.
Women's NCAA Bracket 2011 Predictions: How Gonzaga Can Upset UCLA & Xavier In Spokane - Swish Appeal
Gonzaga has not only been outrebounded on the offensive end in all four of their losses, but there appears to be a pattern of rebounding well in the first half and then having a let-down in the second half in their Notre Dame, Ole Miss, and USC losses. And that's similar to what happened against Xavier in the Sweet 16 last season - Gonzaga hung rebounding at a rate of only 1% below Xavier in the first half and that ballooned to a 39% differential in the second half.
This statistical problem early in the season appeared to be one concrete manifestation of a deeper more intangible problem that has troubled the Bulldogs: against both Notre Dame and USC the subject of needing to be more aggressive came up for Gonzaga.
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves has noted that Gonzaga is not a power team, so the fact that they've managed to shoot as well as they have as primarily jump shooting team is actually really impressive. However throughout their game against Notre Dame in the State Farm Holiday Classic at Key Arena, Graves could be heard imploring his team to be more aggressive in getting to the basket.
"He doesn't want us to settle for jumpers, especially games like this where we're not knocking shots down we need to be able to get to the rim and that's something we need to improve on," said Gonzaga point guard Courtney Vandersloot, after their 70-61 loss to Notre Dame in which they shot 28.2 percent in the second half, including 1-for-12 from three. "Down the stretch we need to get to the rim when our shots aren't falling."
One thing that stands out as a sign of Gonzaga's tendency to settle for jumpers is their free throw rate: they only had 11 free throws against Notre Dame and 16 per game during non-conference play. Given that they shot 75 percent from the charity stripe for the season, going to the rim and drawing contact is to their benefit.
Although people might already have penciled in Gonzaga to beat Iowa in the first round, against an aggressive athletic team like UCLA and a potential Sweet 16 re-match against Xavier they can't afford to have lapses in aggression even if they are a finesse team.
Nevertheless, they faced a similar challenge last season in the Seattle sub-regional at Hec Ed against a bigger North Carolina team and an aggressive defensive team in Texas A&M and made it to the Sweet 16 against Xavier. With a home crowd in even closer proximity, it's difficult to count them out this season.
Predictions from Swish Appeal (click here for a preview of the full Spokane region bracket):
#1 Stanford def. #16 UC Davis
#9 St. John's def. #8 Texas Tech
#5 North Carolina def. #12 Fresno State
#4 Kentucky def. #13 Hampton
#11 Gonzaga def. #6 Iowa
#3 UCLA def. #14 Montana
#7 Louisville def. #10 Vanderbilt
#2 Xavier def. #15 South Dakota State
Stanford def. St. John's
North Carolina def. Kentucky
Gonzaga def. UCLA
Xavier def. Louisvile
Stanford def. North Carolina
Xavier def. Gonzaga
Stanford def. Xavier
For more on the bracket, check out our Women’s NCAA Tournament StoryStream.To break down the bracket with Gonzaga fans, be sure to stop by SB Nation’s The Slipper Still Fits. For everything women’s NCAA hoops, stop by Swish Appeal. To fill out your own bracket, check out the Yahoo Women's Basketball Tournament Pick'Em.