- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Gonzaga narrowly missed out on opportunities to muscle its way into the top 25 rankings during the season's opening weeks. The Bulldogs lost to Stanford shortly before Thanksgiving, after being tied with 5:29 to play, and to Notre Dame shortly before New Year's, after leading with 8:28 to play. As Gonzaga prepares for the relative seclusion of conference play, don't mistake those results for an indication it lacks the resources to repeat last season's sprint to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
In the geography of basketball, Spokane might be a mid-major outpost in the West Coast Conference. But when it comes to the strength, speed and athleticism to compete with any opponent, McCarthey Athletic Center is a major source of talent.
So it is that juniors Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish find themselves on the brink of stardom for the most successful Division I program in the Pacific Northwest.
"I wouldn't trade rosters with anybody in the Pac-10," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. "I like my team; I think we have talent. The mid-major thing, with me, is I look at the whole package. And when you look at the whole package, there's nothing about our program, other than the league we play in, that shouts out mid-major. That's not to slight my conference. I love my conference, and I think there's great coaches in the conference. But every player on my roster was offered scholarships and took visits to BCS or power conference schools. So it's not like I'm beating out other 'mid-majors' for our talent. We're recruiting top-100 kids."
Topping the talent list, of course, is a familiar name in senior Courtney Vandersloot. A fixture on preseason award watch lists, Vandersloot is doing what might be expected of her, leading the nation in assists per game by a ridiculous margin. At 9.4 apg, her lead on her next closest competition is almost equivalent to that separating No. 2 from No. 50.
It's all rather remarkable, considering not one of those assists went to former Bulldogs Heather Bowman, Vivian Frieson and Tiffanie Shives, three players who accounted for 482 of the 897 field goals Vandersloot didn't score last season, or 54 percent of the team's non-Vandersloot field goals. That Vandersloot is piling up assists like never before without those players says something about her unique ability. It also says something about the emergence of Redmon and Standish.
A season ago, the pair combined to average 19.2 points per game as two of the team's three primary options of the bench. Starters in every game this season, they're averaging 33.7 points. Redmon ranked among the top 25 in the nation in scoring until a recent modest dip dropped her below 18 points per game -- a dip that not coincidentally paralleled a six-game stretch in which Standish averaged 21 points per game.
In Redmon's case, it isn't just supposition that she plays like someone who could succeed in a major conference. She did succeed in one, leading the University of Washington in scoring while starting 31 games as a freshman and earning Pac-10 All-Freshman honors. A Spokane native, she originally signed with the Huskies in part because she wanted to go farther afield but also, as she has said, because there is an undeniable luster to a league like the Pac-10. Yet when the circumstances of a regime change in Seattle left her looking for what she felt would be a better fit, there was little hesitation in proving Thomas Wolfe wrong and going home again.
"I always felt, for some reason, that she'd be here," Graves said. "I wasn't wishing for it, but you know how we play -- [she's] a perfect fit. I saw it from her freshman year in high school on, and I always felt, 'You know what, she needs to play here.' This is a perfect system for her skills and athletic ability. I was hurt when she went away. It didn't surprise me. But for some reason, in the back of my mind, I always hoped and felt she would be back here."
A 6-foot-1 wing with a frame, give or take a couple of inches, and set of skills not unlike former Connecticut standout Kalana Greene, Redmon has the speed and strength to get to the basket and the athleticism and touch to create space and knock down mid-range jumpers (she's a 52.8 percent shooter in 50 games at Gonzaga). Athletically, she's unlikely to be at a disadvantage in any game Gonzaga plays, a profile she's intent on trying to round out with her strength.
"I love to be in the weight room," Redmon said. "Other than being on the court, that's probably my next-favorite place to be. Just working on getting stronger because I'm not the thickest kid in the world. I am extremely skinny, and so one of my disadvantages is I have to work on getting stronger and being able to compete with some of those bigger girls."
A state finalist in triple jump and hurdles as a high schooler in Washington, the 6-foot-2 Standish is no less accomplished an athlete. Emerging as almost as polished a player, she's one of a small group nationally averaging at least 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game this season, a list on which she shares space with names like Brittney Griner, Amber Harris, Victoria Dunlap and Amy Jaeschke.
"I've coached some really good post players over the years; she's probably the best athlete, just pure athlete, that I've ever coached inside," Graves said. "She's so gifted, and skill-wise she's just tremendous. She just had never had the opportunity, having played behind Frieson and Bowman for her first two years."
Gonzaga's isn't the only model for success outside a power conference. Perennial postseason participant Green Bay certainly won't ignore interest from any highly touted recruits attracted by all the program has to offer, but after a win against in-state rival Wisconsin earlier this season, coach Matt Bollant noted that none of his players were recruited by the Big Ten school. Essentially that same roster came within minutes of the Sweet 16 last season and enters the new year ranked in the top 25, where it spent much of last season.
But for Gonzaga, a model of consistency in a talent-rich region of inconsistent power-conference programs, Redmon and Standish are the latest proof that Spokane is home to a lot of major talent.
"We are a national team now, and we want to keep it going," Redmon said.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Gonzaga juniors Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish are on the brink of stardom for the most successful Division I program in the Pacific Northwest.