ST. LOUIS — Being picked to finish eighth in the preseason Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball poll wasn’t a shock to Illinois State coach Barb Smith.
Actually, it might have done the Redbirds a favor.
“It can be motivation for our team because we’re hungrier than we’ve ever been, more together than we’ve ever been and had better leadership than we’ve had in a very long time,” said Smith, in her fourth season as the Redbirds’ coach.
“A lot of things are going for us right now. We look at this poll and say we can do better than this.”
The poll, voted by league coaches, media and sports information directors, was released Tuesday at the MVC Media Day gathering at the St. Louis City Center Hotel.
Drake is the overwhelming favorite, gathering 34 of 40 first-place votes for 392 points. Defending champion Northern Iowa was selected second, getting four first-place votes and 317 points. The other two first-place votes went to Missouri State, which was picked third with 313 points.
ISU finished seventh in the league last season with a 6-12 mark and went 8-22 overall. The Redbirds have welcomed seven newcomers to the squad.
Senior guard Taylor Stewart can’t wait to see how it all comes together when ISU opens the season Nov. 11 at Arizona State.
“With how young and new we are, I guess I’m a little surprised how well we click on the court and how well we play together,” said Stewart. “We’re going to be very balanced this year. I like the way we’re gelling right now. I think we’ll be a surprising, scrappy and hard-nosed team.”
Sophomore guards Katrina Beck and Viria Livingston are the lone returning starters. ISU brought in six freshmen and 6-foot junior forward Hannah Green from the College of the Canyons.
“They bring a lot of energy, scrappiness and they work hard,” said ISU senior guard Brechelle Beachum of the newcomers. “It’s a fun atmosphere in practice every day.”
Smith is anxious to see how far along her team is when it faces Harris Stowe in an exhibition on Nov. 1 at Redbird Arena.
“There’s so much growth with this basketball team,” she said. “Our upperclassmen have done a tremendous job helping get everyone lined up, showing them the ropes, and how we practice and how we play.”
Drake has two preseason all-conference selections in forward Lizzy Wendell and guard Caitlin Ingle. Wendell is the Preseason MVC Player of the Year who has led the league in scoring each of the last two seasons as well as being a three-time all-league first-team choice.
“We’ve done everything from being at the bottom to competing for a championship,” said Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk, whose team has been second each of the last two years. “We’re trying to focus on enjoying each moment.
“The last two years we’ve tried to learn from going from an underdog to having target on your back and what that looks and feels like. We’ve done some great things with it and learned some lessons with it. You’ve got to bring it every day to get better.”