It’s not every season that a team loses 41 points per game from a pair of starters and is still picked to finish in the top two in a conference.
The Idaho women’s basketball team looks to reload this season as it begins life without two all-time greats in Splash Sisters Taylor Pierce and Mikayla Ferenz, who rewrote the UI and Big Sky record books during the last four years.
The new-look Vandals, still picked No. 2 in the conference’s preseason coaches and media polls, open the regular season today at the Big 12’s Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. The game at 5 p.m. PST will be televised on the streaming service ESPN+.
“Everybody is going to have to (step up), but I think that also should be the fun and exciting part for those guys, especially the guards who are out there,” Idaho coach Jon Newlee said. “There’s probably 76 minutes of playing time, since I hardly ever took (Pierce and Ferenz) out, that’s out there for the taking.”
Newlee said the Vandals will rely less on the 3-ball this season — Ferenz and Pierce shot a combined 724 3s last season at a 37.3-percent clip.
But the Vandals still have one proven sharpshooter on the court. Sophomore Gina Marxen returns at point guard after averaging 8.6 points per game. The reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year made 65 triples at a 41.1-percent rate.
The Sammamish, Wash., native was picked as a preseason All-Big Sky honoree.
“She’s going to have the ball in her hands a lot,” Newlee said of Marxen. “Last year was obviously a really good year for her … but I think her ceiling is so high that I’m expecting more and demanding more out of her, both offensively and defensively to try to fill that void.”
As Idaho works to find its new scorers early this season, the Vandals should be able to rely on their height and rebounding.
Idaho has seven players that are 6-foot or taller, and returns its top two rebounders from last season in Lizzy and Natalie Klinker.
The Klinker sisters combined for 15.1 rebounds per game. Natalie, a 6-1 junior, is the only returner to start all 34 games, and Lizzy, a 5-10 senior, is the top returning scorer (9.3 ppg).
The Vandals also add Arizona transfer Shalyse Smith — a 6-1 post whom Newlee compared to Vandal great Ali Forde. Forde finished her career in 2016 with 1,106 career points and 931 career rebounds.
“Shalyse gives us that inside presence that we haven’t really had since Ali Forde was here,” Newlee said. “She can finish around the rim, extremely athletic, good shot-blocker. So that’s exciting to have more diversity than we’ve had.”
Another newcomer expected to contribute right away is freshman Beyonce Bea — a 6-1 guard/post from Washougal, Wash.
Add in 6-4 mid-range specialist Izzy Hadden and Idaho could be one of the taller teams in the conference from top to bottom.
“We’re going to have more of an inside presence now,” Newlee said.
Idaho’s guards will gain more depth after a couple of players return from injuries. Allison Kirby of Spirit Lake — a captain along with Hadden and Lizzy Klinker — and newcomer Caitlyn Jones of Perth, Australia, are both recovering from foot injuries.
When healthy, Idaho should field a deeper team than last year. Idaho had only six players average more than 16 minutes a game by the end of the season, with the Splash Sisters gobbling up a combined 73 minutes per game.
Whoever Idaho’s next big stars are, there will be plenty of opportunities to step up.
“I said in the beginning of September when we started playing: ‘There’s a lot of minutes out there … you guys are going to have to fight for them and compete for them, and be able to get out there and produce,’ ” Newlee said.
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @StephanSports.