Storylines to follow as the Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball tournament plays out over the next four days at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline:
Last year’s senior-dominated teams have led to a youth movement throughout much of the Missouri Valley this season.
Five sophomores were among 11 players awarded first-team all-conference honors on Wednesday and only three players — Missouri State senior Liza Fruendt, Southern Illinois senior Kylie Giebelhausen and Drake sophomore Becca Hittner — received the same honor a year ago.
"There are some terrific young players in the Valley this year," UNI coach Tanya Warren said. "They’re going to help our teams succeed not only now, but into the future."
Fruendt, at 16.2 points per game, leads the conference in scoring, but rebounding leader Megan Maahs of Northern Iowa is a sophomore, assist leader Sammie Bachrodt of Drake is a junior and steals leader Paige Saylor of Illinois State is a freshman.
Giebelhausen was the only senior named to the league’s all-defensive team, which also included Saylor.
"There is so much good young talent in the league this year," Loyola coach Kate Achter said. "A lot of them are already playing at a high level, but it will be interesting to watch how they react in a tournament environment."
Winning with defense
While conference regular-season champion Drake is built on offense, Northern Iowa continues to find success with its work on the defensive end of the court.
Mikayla Morgan typically draws the assignment for the Panthers of dealing with the opponent’s top offensive player, and in 16 of UNI’s 18 league games she has held that player below her season scoring average.
"It’s always about the details," Morgan said. "If you want to be a good defensive team, you’ve got to lock in on the opponent, take care of business and get the stop. It’s a part of the job, and in the college game, it makes a difference."
Morgan and the Panthers open MVC tourney play against an Illinois State team that has found its defensive mojo, rebounding from a 2-7 start to go 6-3 during the second half of its conference schedule.
Illinois State allows a league-low 54.9 points per game, and Northern Iowa isn’t far behind at 57.4 points.
Repeating the feat
Drake will attempt to be the first Missouri Valley tournament champion to repeat since Wichita State won three straight titles from 2013-15.
"It’s not an easy thing to do," Bulldogs coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "To me, the key is to not get ahead of yourselves. It’s one game, one day at a time and nothing more. Our thoughts are all on Friday’s game. It has to be that way."
The longest day
Northern Iowa and Illinois State play at the end of the tournament’s longest day on Friday, taking the court at 8:30 p.m.
The late start has coaches thinking about ways to fill the day and keep their teams off their feet leading up to the match-up between the third-seeded Panthers and sixth-seeded Redbirds.
Warren suspects her team may watch a little action during the afternoon session, while Illinois State coach Kristen Gillespie was contemplating taking her team to a movie to fill some midday hours.
"It’s probably worse for the staff and coaches, too many hours to think, but we will do what we can to keep them off their feet," Gillespie said.
Indiana State was 2-9 and off to an 0-2 conference start when it turned its women’s basketball team over to Josh Keister in January.
The Sycamores responded by winning nine of their last 16 games and finishing fifth in the conference race. They will face fourth-seeded Southern Illinois in their tourney opener at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
"The biggest thing we tried to do was get the kids to relax, just play hard and play the way they are capable of playing," Keister said. "We’ve had shorter but efficient practices, and the second half of the conference season, we’ve played better basketball."
As part of a yearlong celebration of the 25th anniversary of women’s athletics in the Missouri Valley, the conference will host a brunch Friday celebrating the past and recognizing the Missouri Valley 25th Anniversary Basketball Team.
Jill Hutchison, the head women’s basketball coach at Illinois State from 1970-98, will emcee the event, which will include panel interviews of conference pioneers and leaders and recognition of past coaches and players.
Newcomer Valparaiso makes its Missouri Valley Conference tourney debut today, facing ninth-seeded Loyola in a 4 p.m. opener at the TaxSlayer Center.
But, it won’t be the first time the Crusaders have played in a postseason conference tourney in the Quad-Cities.
Valparaiso was in the Summit League when that conference hosted both its men’s and women’s tournaments in Moline in 1998 and 1999, finishing as a runner-up to Youngstown State in the 1998 event.
This year’s team is led by all-conference forward Dani Franklin, a senior from Cedar Rapids Washington, but will be without its coach for this week’s games.
Tracey Dorow was placed on medical leave Tuesday, and assistant coach Justin Rees will run the team in Dorow’s absence.
Two Quad-City area players have seen action in reserve roles for Missouri Valley teams this season.
Karli Rucker, a Northern Iowa freshman from North Scott, has averaged 4.2 points and 12.1 minutes per game as a back-up point guard for the Panthers. Rucker has made three starts this season.
Annawan’s Celina VanHyfte is a redshirt junior at Southern Illinois, where she averages 3.3 points and 16.9 minutes per game. VanHyfte has started eight games for the Salukis.