CARBONDALE -- At 6-foot-2, SIU forward/center Dyana Pierre towered over Mercedes Griffin when she faced up near the top of the key and drove the left side of the lane at Tuesday night's practice.

Griffin -- five inches shorter than Pierre -- didn't allow the Salukis' leading scorer and rebounder last season a third dribble as she recovered on the drive, sneaking in to strip her during the 1-on-1 drill at SIU Arena.

Pierre led the Missouri Valley Conference in double-doubles (12), rebounding (9.6 per game) and was ninth in the league in scoring (14 points per game) as a sophomore.

Griffin, who was forced into point guard duty because of the loss of Rishonda Napier and Cartaesha Macklin to medical issues in the first month of last season. She averaged 7.2 points per game and led the team in steals .

Griffin will move back to her original position with Napier and Macklin's return, and is one of only two seniors on the squad, but may have to do more than ever to find minutes this season.

"It's just me back out on the wing, running lanes. Get a rebound, I don't have to wait to outlet it to a point guard, I can just take off, so, last year, in a way, helped me," Griffin said. "Competition is fun. In the open gym, everybody is going at it and competition is always a good thing. Practice, during strength and conditioning in the weight room, everywhere."

Napier has started 30 of 35 career games. Macklin, a preseason all-conference guard in 2013-14, will likely earn that distinction again as a fourth-year junior and could help the Salukis at either guard spot. Second-year coach Cindy Stein also recruited three high school players, two of them guards, and a junior college combo guard that could play right away.

"We didn't recruit 'em to sit," Stein said. "We're gonna play the best kids, regardless of what age they are, but at the same time, we felt good about this group because they were so competitive."

Celina VanHyfte, a 6-foot forward from Annawan High School, led the Bravettes to the Class 1A state championship in March. A first team all-state pick by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, she averaged 21.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and could push Pierre, Azia Washington and Kim Nebo for minutes as a true freshman.

Freshman guards Kylie Giebelhausen (East Peoria High School) and Micah Norris (Blackman High School in Tennessee) give the Salukis big-time length at the guard spot and some shooting ability on the perimeter. Norris, a three-star recruit by ESPN.com, helped lead her AAU team to the national championship in 2013 and helped Blackman finish No. 1 in the nation in USA Today after winning the state title in Tennessee. Blair Stephenson, a 5-7 guard from Lake Land College, could start at the point or the shooting guard after an All-American season for the NJCAA Division II program.

Even with Pierre earning SIU's first nod on the all-conference first team in seven years, the Salukis finished 5-25 overall and 3-15 in the league. They won only one game away from SIU Arena all season, a two-point decision at Central Arkansas in the sixth game of the year.

This year, though, it feels like something big may be brewing with eight upperclassmen and, possibly, two preseason all-conference players in Pierre and Macklin.

"With all those kids coming back, I just think there's a lot of excitement because we feel like we're gonna be pretty good," Stein said. "When you can have that type of confidence going into it, and kids are working hard on top of it, I think it proves for us to do some damage this season."

todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com

618-351-5087 / On Twitter: @THefferman

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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