Vandersloot stands strong for Zags
Point guard needs 44 points to become first D-I player with 2,000 points, 1,000 assists
For all of her statistical milestones, national accolades and basketball skills, Courtney Vandersloot's greatest strength as a point guard remains nothing more complicated than her ability to make everyone around her that much better.
But after piloting Gonzaga to the first Sweet 16 appearance in program history last season, she reflected on the postseason run and realized there was one player on the court whose limitations she felt might hold the team back at a time of year when championships are decided. So it was that the best point guard in the country decided there was one more player she could make better.
And if her greatest strength remains the effect she has on teammates, her actual strength is no longer a liability.
"She got pushed around a little bit in the spring," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves, whose team beat traditional powers Texas A&M and North Carolina in the 2010 NCAA tournament, said earlier this season. "And I think she's smart enough and is competitive enough to say, 'Well, that's not going to happen again.' So she really went in and put a ton of time in the weight room. I think it's really paid off."
Vandersloot, who had 15 assists and five steals in a first-round victory against North Carolina, could only watch from the bench against the Aggies in the second round as Vivian Frieson put the team on her back in the closing minutes. The point guard was already on the bench with five fouls and 11 turnovers at that point, an uncharacteristic line to say the least. Her mind was willing (she did get the assist on a 3-pointer that gave the Bulldogs a three-point lead with a little more than two minutes to play), but after four and a half months and more than 1,000 minutes on the court, her body ultimately hit a wall against an aggressive, strong Texas A&M perimeter defense.
"I think the Texas A&M game was really when I realized that, physically, I wasn't to the level that I needed to be to compete with the best teams in the nation," Vandersloot said. "I know I had the skill set and everything, but I was too weak; I wasn't able to stand my ground on the court. Watching that game, it was kind of a wake-up call. And I was fortunate enough to have another offseason to really work on the strength part. I put all the work in I could."
Whether she had time to master the no-look biceps curl, the 5-foot-8 guard packed on muscle without losing any of the quickness and agility that so often allowed her into harm's way in amongst the trees in the first place.
As she dryly noted of any potential sacrifice, "I was to a point that I was so skinny, so physically weak that I had enough room to work with."
The result is the kind of senior season worthy of someone who stands apart from Samantha Prahalis, Danielle Robinson, Jasmine Thomas and any other point guards anyone wants to throw in the conversation from leagues and regions with higher profiles. Vandersloot enters the NCAA tournament as the nation's leader in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, and she's operating in a different statistical stratosphere than her competition. When it comes to assist-to-turnover ratio, she has more total assists than the players in second and third combined. And not only is she the only player in the nation with more than 300 assists (327), she was the only player with more than 200 when the week began.
Earlier this season, she became just the fourth player in Division I history to total at least 1,000 career assists, and needs 44 more points to become the first to reach both that milestone and 2,000 career points.
That last mark is particularly notable as it relates to this final season, one played without Heather Bowman, Gonzaga's all-time leading scorer, and Frieson, a double-digit scorer in each of the past two seasons. Not only is Vandersloot averaging more than 10 assists per game without those proven scoring options, she's picking up the offensive slack by averaging a team-high 18.6 points per game, good for 26th in the nation.
"I think that's the one area where she's elevated her game or improved her game," Graves said. "She's now, instead of always looking to make that pass when she penetrates, she's looking now to take the little pull-up in transition or get in the paint, which is really nice."
She has scored or assisted on 49 percent of her team's field goals this season. To give that some context, Maya Moore, who leads Connecticut in points and assists, has done the same on 45 percent of her team's field goals.
As someone whose first, second and third instinct was to pass when she arrived at Gonzaga, selfless selfishness has not always been an easy balance to strike. There have still been times this season, in fact, when Graves would have liked her to look a little more for her own shot, such as after a 70-61 loss against Notre Dame in late December. But more common are the performances like the one she provided in a six-point loss against Stanford, when she totaled 24 points, 10 assists and one turnover in 38 minutes, or the WCC final against Saint Mary's, which offered 18 points and 16 assists.
She might love to pass, but she has come to understand that threading the needle at the expense of finding the net can be a weakness.
"I think a lot of point guards go through that, and it's almost like there's a fine line and it's not very concrete," Vandersloot said. "Every situation is different. But to be able to get that balance of when to score and when to pass is definitely the difference between great point guards and not. There are some point guards that can pass the ball better than anybody, but if they can't score, it makes that less of an opportunity because defenders can read that and they know that."
It says something about how little Vandersloot dwells on all the numbers that in her mind, the team's season included what she recalled as a three-game losing streak. Her memory is a little off -- Gonzaga never lost even back-to-back games. But for a team coming off a Sweet 16 trip, it's easy to understand how a 2-3 start to the season, including disappointing losses at Southern California and against Mississippi on a neutral court, might morph into a losing streak in hindsight.
But one more time, Vandersloot looked to turn a potential weakness into a strength. As much flash as there is in her game when she gets into the open court and goes into Kasparov mode, making passes two or three moves ahead of the competition, she can be equally reserved or inscrutable when play stops. Providing the off-court leadership the team needed to gather itself and enter the NCAA tournament with 26 wins in its past 27 games took some work.
"I don't think it's natural," Vandersloot said. "On the court it's natural for me because of my position, my style of play. But off the court, you know what, it's not really my thing -- I'm pretty quiet, and I kind of just expect people to do the right thing. I did have to get some help, and I talked to my coaches a lot. They didn't think that we were getting -- not just from me, but they didn't think they were getting the leadership from our seniors in general.
"I talked to them a lot and they were just basically laying out what they want me to do and what they expect from me. It helped a lot, and I think I developed that as the season went on."
The Bulldogs have been here before, in every sense of the word. Gonzaga will play its first-round game against No. 6 seed Iowa on its home court in Spokane. And while it was technically the favorite by seeding in last year's first-round game against North Carolina, it is familiar with what will be required to advance to a potential second-round game against third-seeded UCLA and who knows what beyond that.
"We're excited and we're ready and we're prepared," Vandersloot said. "And we have that with us, that since we've had success in the tournament we can kind of carry that and take that with us."
And if you think you can take that opportunity from Vandersloot, you already missed your opportunity. The best point guard in the land is getting stronger by the day.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.