CARBONDALE — The Missouri Valley Conference women's basketball race starts where it ended last season, with Drake.
The Bulldogs became the first team in league history to win the regular-season championship with an 18-0 record (SIU did it twice, in 1986 and 1987, when it was in the Gateway Conference). Drake won 22 straight games at one point, featured the league's player of the year in forward Lizzie Wendell, and finished a program-best 28-5.
Three starters return for the Bulldogs, including 2017 freshman of the year Becca Hittner and honorable mention picks Sammie Bachrodt and Becca Jonas. Bachrodt, a 5-foot-10 junior guard, and Hittner, a 6-foot sophomore guard, were preseason all-conference picks, but Drake must replace star point guard Caitlin Ingle and Wendell.
"The thing that I'm really looking forward to in this team is the togetherness. I love how close this team is," Drake coach Jenny Baranczyk said. "On the floor, off the floor, putting that together, and with that, it's because we do have some depth. We probably have more depth than we've ever had. Now, we don't have two consistent pieces yet. We haven't started, but the depth and the potential that we have, in a lot of different positions, is really exciting."
Drake also gets back the last two league freshmen of the year, 5-9 junior Maddy Dean (2015) and 6-1 sophomore Sara Rhine (2016), who missed part or all of last season with injuries. They'll try to lead the Bulldogs to their fourth straight 20-win season.
Missouri State, which finished second in the league's preseason poll, returns four starters off last season's 16-15 squad, led by preseason player of the year Liza Fruendt. The 5-10 senior guard averaged 16.7 points per game last season to help the Lady Bears to their third straight postseason appearance.
Missouri State lost 95-74 at Iowa in the NIT.
Five other teams return three or more starters, including Illinois State, which returns three for first-year coach Kristen Gillespie. Gillespie comes to Normal after two 20-win seasons at Division II Lewis University.
Newcomer Valparaiso returns four starters off last season's 10-21 squad that finished 4-14 in the Horizon League. Senior forward Dani Franklin, one of two seniors on the squad, enters her final season with 1,236 points, sixth-most in school history.
The Crusaders are coached by Tracey Dorow, who is 43-111 in five years. Dorow is 275-274 overall in 19 seasons as a head coach. She led Division II Ferris State to four 20-win seasons before coming over to Indiana.