Indiana State coach Teri Moren has talked about making step-by-step progress since arriving in Terre Haute four years ago.
After being picked eighth, fifth then seventh, Moren has a team picked to finish at the top. For the first time since Melanie Boeglin led Indiana State to the 2005-06 regular-season crown, the Sycamores are the favorite to claim the regular-season title. The Sycamores received 26 of 40 first-place votes to beat out defending league champion Wichita State as the favorite.
"It says a lot about what we’ve been able to do the last three years," Moren said. "All of this has been a process in the making. We’ve talked about each year just trying to get a little bit better and trying to improve."
ISU finished 18-13 overall in Moren’s third year at Indiana State, tying for fourth in the MVC at 10-8. In addition to preseason All-MVC selection Anna Munn, Racheal Mahan had a breakout sophomore season, posting averages of 13.9 points and 7.9 rebuonds, and Marina Laramie and Kasey Johnson showed flashes of their potential throughout solid freshman seasons.
“With what they have coming back, they have to be the frontrunner,” said Northern Iowa coach Tanya Warren, the longest tenured and most successful active coach in the league. Warren’s Panthers, who have been picked in the top half of the conference for six straight years, was picked third behind Wichita State, which got 13 first-place votes.
“They’re very talented, they’re extremely well-coached, they’re very physical,” Warren said of the Sycamores. “They have some new kids, including a point guard from Memphis that will step in and do some things for them.”
That point guard is Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir, a double-figure scoring transfer from the University of Memphis. She joins the four returning starters led by Munn, who is the unquestioned guiding force for the Sycamores.
“Whether we’re picked last or first, we have to earn what we’re going to get,” Munn said Wednesday inside Gentile Arena at Loyola University.
Munn said she will help keep her team humble and working hard. That won’t be hard based on the effort the seven returning letterwinners put forth last winter.
“The key ingredient about the team last year is they played so hard, they bought in and had tremendous chemistry,” Moren said. “What I’m most proud of is this has been a work in progress.
Kids like Anna Munn, who’s been two-feet in since she came on campus, has really been the leader of this group. Every year we’ve gotten a little bit better and last year obviously you get 18 wins. On paper, you figure we probably should have got 21. You feel good about that, you get to the NIT for the first time in seven years. The culmination of all those things has put us in a position to get respect from the other teams in the conference and the media.”
Add in the seven newcomers who will be eligible by the time conference games begin and Moren could have plenty of options to call upon on her bench.
Kansas State transfer Stephanie Wittman and American University transfer Chelsea Small will be eligible following the first semester, and 6-foot wing Jasmine Grier, 5-10 guard Bobbie Beckwith, 6-0 power forward LaShonda LIttleton have all been productive junior college players for two seasons.
“I think that’s one thing that’s good about this team is that we only have one true freshman in Rhagen Smith,” Munn said. “Everyone else is transfers, they’ve got at least one or two years in college basketball. That will help us tremendously with our depth.”
The Sycamores will try to go 2-for-2 in living up to the external expectations. ISU has won two regular-season MVC titles going back to the inception in 1992; Boeglin and Kourtney Mennen helped coach Jim Wiedie tie for the crown in 2002-03.
“They have all the ingredients for a championship-caliber team. They’re definitely the team to beat,” Warren said.
Drake was picked fourth with Missouri State fifth and first-year league member Loyola was sixth. The Ramblers , who went 17-15 last season in the Horizon League, received one first-place vote.
Women’s basketball legend Sheryl Swoopes, a four-time WNBA champion and an NCAA champion at Texas Tech, said she did not vote her own team to win the title.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think they’re capable.
“Seeing how we are predicted to finish sixth, I love being in an underdog position. It takes a lot of pressure off myself, being a first-time head coach, and my players,” Swoopes said. “We should go out every day and try to get better. I do want to make some noise, I want to be a surprise.”
Wichita State’s Alex Harden was voted the preseason Player of the Year. The Shockers’ junior is an athletic wing player that can make a big impact at both ends of the floor.
“It’s an honor that all the coaches and players respect me, the biggest thing is proving it,” Harden said. “So come to every game, every practice, ready to compete.”