- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The last time a team from beyond the spotlight of the major conferences reached the Final Four, it clinched its trip to the sport's showcase on a court in Spokane, Wash. Eight years after the school then known as Southwest Missouri State pulled off the feat in the city four hours east of Seattle, another Final Four run could begin there.
Meet Gonzaga, a team whose pursuit of elite status could shake up the landscape of a basketball season that Connecticut and Stanford otherwise threaten to wash over like the great glacial floods that shaped the area around Spokane at the end of the last ice age.
Reigning West Coast Conference champions, the Bulldogs return four starters from last season's team that beat Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament and had Pittsburgh on the ropes with two minutes to play in the second round.
"Last year we had a taste of success in the tournament, and we really liked it," Gonzaga senior Heather Bowman said when asked about the buzz surrounding the start of this season. "We have a lot of returners who got to feel that way. And then coming back, we know that we have a strong -- probably a stronger team. So we're really excited, and there is definitely a bigger atmosphere of excitement and just everything."
If you want reasons to believe in the Bulldogs, begin with Bowman. A starter since arriving from nearby Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, she was the WCC player of the year as a sophomore and will own plenty of real estate in the school record books after this final season. Of course, as good a story as Bowman is writing, it's not unique in the annals of mid-major programs. Unique is Bowman battling Ta'Shia Phillips and Pepper Wilson to a standstill in back-to-back postseason games while simultaneously fighting a labrum injury to her shooting shoulder that required offseason surgery and six months of rehab.
Gonzaga might be undersized, and it might like to get up and down. It may even have team yoga. But it is not a soft team.
Rounding back into shape after a longer break from basketball than she would have liked, Bowman is joined by the player who pilfered her crown as the conference's top player, junior point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Starters Vivian Frieson and Janelle Bekkering also return, as does Kelly Bowen, who started half of the team's games a season ago. And on top of all that returning talent, the Bulldogs will get a boost from the return of the former Michigan State transfer Tiffanie Shives, who missed most of last season with a knee injury (but hit 52 3-pointers the season before) and newly eligible Washington transfer Katelan Redmon.
Coach Kelly Graves has challenged his team during the nonconference schedule for a number of years, but this year's slate is particularly daunting. The Bulldogs open the season at South Dakota State, which beat them in Spokane last season. They also play USC at home, Stanford on the road, and Baylor and Texas A&M in Las Vegas.
"I think this year, in particular, we're playing a lot of the teams that we haven't played," Bowman said. "They haven't really heard much of us, so it's kind of us out there proving ourselves to an extent."
And when your senior leader (amazingly, the team still has just three seniors) just spent the last six months inching her way through the painstaking, tedious process of rehabilitation, it's unlikely that internal expectations and outside praise will distract them.
"I think we have talked about that; I think it's definitely necessary in any program," Bowman said. "But we have the kids -- we have enough veterans, I suppose, that we know how hard it is to play at that level. I mean, playing in the NCAA tournament last year, playing against these top-ranked teams, we know it's no cakewalk. We realize how hard it is and how hard we have to work in practice to be there."
Five more teams to watch
Boston College: Last season, Florida State shook up what had become a rather staid championship race in the ACC in recent seasons, and Boston College might be ready to stretch the title chase to northern climes this season. All five starters return for the Eagles, who managed a 7-7 conference record and 23 wins overall under first-year coach, and familiar ACC presence, Sylvia Crawley.
Most of the success last season came by way of taking care of business against teams of presumably equal or inferior caliber -- including the ACC tournament, Boston College went 0-6 against Florida State, Duke, Maryland and North Carolina, and 8-2 against the rest of the conference. But winning games you should win is not an insignificant accomplishment for a young team. Matriculating to the top tier, rather than acing the second tier, begins with preseason all-conference center Carolyn Swords in the post, but this is a complete team. Need proof? In one of the more remarkable numerical achievements of last season, Boston College led the ACC in assists without placing a single individual player in the top 15 in the category.
With a much more difficult early schedule than a season ago -- Boston College plays Rutgers on Nov. 19 and takes on other potential NCAA tournament teams in Iowa, Baylor, Fresno State and Vermont before January -- we'll find out soon how much progress has been made. Where I rank Boston College: No. 19
San Diego State: The program was not in good shape when Beth Burns returned to San Diego State in 2005, almost a decade after she left the first time, having posted a 73-18 record in her final three seasons. The Aztecs bottomed out in her first season back, going 3-24 in 2005-06, but Burns has not-so-slowly rebuilt on the crumbled foundation she originally put down. Last season brought a 24-8 record and a first-round win in the NCAA tournament, and in a city known for meteorological simplicity, this season's forecast is no less sunny.
Burns can coach with the best of them, but she also knows as well as anyone that talent is a coach's best friend. And perhaps nothing did as much to re-establish the program as keeping local product Paris Johnson home. At 6-foot-4, Johnson is an agile post player who took a successful freshman campaign and turned it into a breakout sophomore season by averaging 13.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and 1.6 steals a season ago. The Aztecs also return leading scorer Jene Morris and sisters Coco and Quenese Davis in the backcourt, but what could complete the puzzle is the 6-3 Baylor transfer Jessika Bradley. Eligible after last season's redshirt, Bradley should team with Johnson for perhaps the best frontcourt duo outside the major conferences this side of Xavier. Where I rank San Diego State: No. 22
St. John's: The Red Storm managed just a 4-12 record in the Big East last season, but that obscured signs of growth that could lift them into the top half of the league and back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since a second-round run in 2006. In addition to a win at Boston College out of conference, St. John's also took its share of hard-luck losses in the league, losing by three points at Notre Dame, one point at home against Louisville and 13 points at Connecticut -- one of the narrower defeats any team endured against the national champions. And while Monique McLean, last season's leading scorer, has moved on, four starters and two reserves who averaged double-digit minutes per game return.
McLean is gone after averaging 17.2 points as a senior, but sophomore forward Da'Shena Stevens remains and provides the program with a signature presence. The Big East freshman of the year, breaking Connecticut's hold on the award, led her team in rebounding and blocks but also finished third in assists and steals. And while Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins enters the season as the heavy favorite to earn top freshman honors this time around, the Red Storm have a shot at making it two in a row with Shenneika Smith, a 6-1 guard rated the nation's No. 7 prospect by HoopGurlz.
Where I rank St. John's: No. 30
Arkansas-Little Rock: Middle Tennessee State understandably gets most of the attention out of the Sun Belt, given its track record under Rick Insell, but the Blue Raiders are not guaranteed an easy run through the league as long as Arkansas-Little Rock is there. The Trojans return four of five starters, and six of seven players who averaged double-digit minutes, from a team that went 26-7 last season and beat Oklahoma State and Mississippi out of conference.
Like their conference rivals, who won both meetings between the two teams a season ago, the Trojans have individual star power casting a wider net in pursuit of recognition. Chastity Reed averaged 18.1 points and 7.8 rebounds as a sophomore. Playing as a full-time starter for the first time, Reed seemed to grow into her role, averaging 20.9 points and shooting 49.5 percent from the floor in Sun Belt play.
But this isn't a one-woman show. Point guard Asriel Rolfe followed up a standout freshman campaign by again ranking among national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, while backcourt mate Kim Sitzmann provides outside range and a similarly solid assist-to-turnover ratio. If sophomore center Marian Kursh can improve on a good debut season to help erase any team rebounding deficit, the Top 25 might await. Where I rank Arkansas Little Rock: No. 34
Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders return all six players who averaged double-digit minutes last season for a team that went 28-6 overall, beat LSU in Baton Rouge, and dropped what amounted to a first-round road game in the NCAA tournament by a single point at Michigan State. So while the team is ranked in the preseason for the first time, it seems a little peculiar that the ranking comes on the fringes of the Top 25.
The headliner is clearly Alysha Clark, who averaged 27.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and went for 37 points and 12 rebounds in that win at LSU and 34 points and 10 rebounds against Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. As those numbers suggest, she's not just a product of an up-tempo system and inferior competition. But what makes the Blue Raiders so dangerous is how well the rest of the roster complements both Clark and coach Insell's system.
The five other returning rotation regulars averaged better than eight 3-pointers per game and collectively had 100 more assists than turnovers. Brandi Brown, Chelsia Lymon, Jackie Pickel, Emily Queen and Anne Marie Lanning move the ball well, take care of it and can punish defenses that fixate on Clark. It's not a team that's going to thrive trading half-court possessions, but it's designed to avoid such situations. Where I rank Middle Tennessee State: No. 12
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.