Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Some things haven’t changed.

Drake returns to the Quad-Cities and this weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball tournament as the top-seeded team and with an unblemished 18-0 run through conference play during the regular season.

But, some things have changed for the tournament’s defending champs.

Out of necessity, this Drake team is a different breed of Bulldog.

Drake has won the last 40 times it has stepped on the court against Missouri Valley competition, but this year’s team is younger, utilizes more depth and isn’t thinking much about the past.

Coach Jennie Baranczyk’s team had to replace three senior starters from a year ago, developing its own identity while building on the foundation of the program’s up-tempo read and react approach to offense.

"We learned a lot from last year’s team, the way they worked together, the way they competed, the leadership they provided," said sophomore Becca Hittner, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer. "But, it’s a new year. We understand that we have to earn everything all over again."

Reaching that point took some time and a few lesson-filled experiences along the way.

Drake brings a 23-7 record into this year’s Missouri Valley tournament, winning its last 18 games since a 79-66 loss at Iowa on Dec. 21 left the Bulldogs 5-7 on the season.

"We had a rough December, but I feel like we’ve learned from it," Baranzcyk said. "I feel like this group understands now how every day has to be our best day, on the practice court or in a game. They’ve put a lot of energy into getting better, and as we worked through the conference season, they’ve continued to show up and perform every single day."

Drake begins defense of its 2017 tournament championship at noon on Friday, facing the winner of today’s 4 p.m. tournament opener between eighth-seeded Missouri Valley newcomer Valparaiso and ninth-seeded Loyola.

The tournament’s second and third seeds, Missouri State and Northern Iowa, take the court for the first time on Friday night, while the fourth and fifth seeds, Southern Illinois and Indiana State, meet at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.

"We know we will need to be at our best," Baranczyk said. "We’re excited to get to Moline, and we know it will be another incredible environment for our tournament."

The Bulldogs don’t take anything for granted, understanding that nine other teams want the same thing Drake is chasing this weekend at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline — the Missouri Valley’s automatic berth in the NCAA tourney and the only guaranteed opportunity to extend the season.

"The level of competition in the Valley has been good this year," Drake forward Sara Rhine said. "We’ve had a lot of close games, and I think that has helped us come together as a team and develop the chemistry that we have."

Beyond the Bulldogs’ run of success, Missouri State brings a seven-game win streak into the tournament, and Northern Iowa won its last four regular-season games.

Liza Fruendt, a Missouri State senior who leads the conference in scoring, doesn’t expect to feel any pressure this weekend.

"You want to be loose, have fun with it," Fruendt said. "When we played three games in three days (in winning the 2016 tournament), that was the approach. Be relaxed, play your best and just let it happen."

Northern Iowa forward Megan Maahs, the rebounding leader in the Missouri Valley, expects the Panthers at 17-12 to build on their recent momentum.

"We feel like we are on top of our game right now," Maahs said. "We need to continue to play good team basketball, move the ball well, play good team defense and keep playing the way we have."

Missouri State coach Kellie Harper expects that of her team as well, building around a core of four seniors who were part of her first recruiting class.

That experience will be significant as the Lady Bears work to add to a 19-10 record.

"Drake did a fantastic job in the conference this year, and we’re proud to have finished a strong second," Harper said. "This is a new start for all of us — a chance to win a championship."

If a Missouri Valley team is going to deny Drake a repeat of the league tourney title it won a year ago, Southern Illinois coach Cindy Stein believes offensive execution is where it must begin against a Bulldogs offense that averages 83.1 points per game — 13 more than any other team in the league.

"If you’re going to beat Drake, you better be able to score a lot of points," Stein said. "They’re an offensive machine. Not to put down their defense because it’s pretty good, too, but if you aren’t scoring, you’re not going to win against them."

The Bulldogs count on that.

Rhine, the Valley’s top shooter at 58.4 percent from the field, gained a better understanding of what makes the Bulldogs’ offense work a year ago when an injury led to a redshirt season but allowed the sophomore to grow in other ways.

"It allowed me to see the bigger picture," she said. "I see things during a game now that I wouldn’t have seen on the court a year ago. It comes from sitting there and watching and listening last season, understanding how one situation leads to another."

Some of that comes from experience.

"As a player, it takes some time to fully understand how our offense works," Hittner said. "It’s all read and react. We have great passers, and we set each other up for success. It’s an offense that is a lot of fun to play, but it takes time. Even now, we’re learning every day, and we’re excited about the tournament to see what we can do."