CARBONDALE — SIU women's basketball coach Cindy Stein could go 10 deep this season, and they will be a strong 10 after how hard she worked the players in the offseason.
After what Stein called a disappointing 15-15 season in 2018-19, when the Salukis finished sixth in the Missouri Valley Conference with four starters back from the previous team, the 24-year coach changed things up. SIU returns all five starters, five more letterwinners and added four promising newcomers.
"The student-athletes today want to be very comfortable in what they do. They want to know what you're doing, if it's going to be hard, how many, how long," Stein said. "We basically told them that you're not going to know what happens in a game, so we just tried to apply that to our game situations, and they've gotten a lot more used to that."
In a year with 60% of the starters from the previous season back in the MVC, the Salukis return more experience than most. Nine of the top-10 scorers in the Valley from last season are back, as well as seven of the top-10 rebounders and four of the top-five assists leaders. Senior forward Nicole Martin, a first team all-conference pick the last two years, was SIU's leading scorer (14.8 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (7.4 boards a game) last season. Junior guard Makenzie Silvey, an honorable mention all-conference pick last season, led the Salukis in minutes (33.2 per game), 3-pointers (68 of 210, .324) and was the team's second-leading scorer at 14.4 points per game.
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"I was telling one of our recruits that came in the other day that playing with someone like Nicole Martin is a highlight for any guard because you can throw the ball anywhere and she's going to go get it," Stein said. "Then she scores with it. Makenzie Silvey is another young lady having a really good fall. She's shooting the ball well and I like that she's using her length, defensively. We still have to get her to play defense all of the time, but she's going to be really good, defensively."
Silvey, a two-year starter, had 49 steals last season, second on the team to senior point guard Brittney Patrick's 52. The 5-foot-11 guard even managed to block seven shots, and is committed to becoming a better all-around player.
"Just be better all around, just be better off the drive," Silvey said. "And I think being a better defender will just make me more versatile and harder to guard. And if everybody has to help off me a little more, it'll get my teammates open more."
The Salukis return all four of their top 3-point shooters from last season. Senior guard Kristen Nelson (8.1 ppg., 1.8 rpg., 67 assists, 47 turnovers) made 39 of 109 from the arc last season (35.8%). Patrick (6.1 ppg., 3.1 rpg., 150 assists, 71 turnovers) shot 37.6% from the field and 36.7% from the 3-point line (22 of 60). Sophomore guard Payton McCallister, who started seven of 28 games last season as a true freshman, was a 33.3% 3-point shooter last season (18 of 54).
SIU's biggest boost in 2019 may come in the paint, with two big additions to an already strong frontcourt of Martin, junior forward Abby Brockmeyer (10.3 ppg., 8.1 rpg.), junior forward Rachel Pudlowski (30 games, 10.2 mpg.) and 6-3 senior forward/center Lauren Hartman (6 starts, 29 games).
After redshirting last season as a transfer from Lindenwood University (Mo.), 6-foot junior forward Gabby Walker is now eligible and will give the Salukis a powerful inside threat. Walker helped Lindenwood to the MIAA tournament championship as a sophomore, and scored 10 or more points in 25 of 33 games. Awa Keita, a long 6-1 junior from Cochise College in Nevada, was her conference's player of the year after averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game for an NJCAA tournament qualifier. A native of Bamako, Mali, Keita is just the second international player in SIU women's basketball history and a tough person to shoot over.
"She's super long and knows how to use that length," Martin said. "She's a shotblocker. You can barely get anything on her in the post. She gets steals. She's after it. She plays hard every day."
And she's not the only one. SIU's depth plays out in practice every day, Stein said, which has made the competition for minutes tight and immediate. Through a scheduling quirk, the Salukis will not play an exhibition game before opening the season at sister school SIU-Edwardsville on Nov. 8, only an intersquad scrimmage Friday night. SIU will play an exhibition game right before opening conference play Dec. 29 against William Woods, its only game over a two-week period between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3, 2020.
"I think that they all want to play. I think that's the thing that we've seen the most is that our competition in practice is pretty intense," Stein said. "We could put five kids on one team and the other team would just know that they're going to get killed. That doesn't happen this year. It's like any team can win because you've got a great nucleus on each team."
On Twitter: @THefferman