Fresh off 17-win season a year ago, Bulldogs plan to contend in the MIAA.
When Michael Smith took the head coaching job at Truman State and said his goal was to make the women's basketball team a contender in the MIAA, a few chuckles may have been heard.
"People thought I was crazy," he said. "They said it's never been done here, that you don't find quality, academically-gifted basketball players.
"It's been just the opposite. It's one of the easiest sells I've had as a college basketball coach, and I've been doing this for 16 years."
The Bulldogs turned a corner last season, finishing 17-10 overall, with 11 MIAA victories. They were seeded sixth in the conference tournament and led third-seeded Emporia State 63-61 before Kelsey Balcom hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to end Truman's season.
In the past, the result might have been met with shrugs, smiles and a pat on the back. Not anymore.
"We've been anticipating [the season] since we got upset, I guess you could say, on that buzzer-beater," Smith said. "That left a bad taste in our mouth.
"We've wanted to redeem ourselves."
Truman notched a huge exhibition win over Division I University of Illinois-Chicago last week, 64-51, setting the tone for the season. The Bulldogs will be led by a strong core of returning players, headlined by senior guard Becka McHenry. The returning second-team MIAA player averaged 14.2 points per game last season and is closing in on the 1,000-point mark.
"It all starts with her," Smith said.
Senior Jennifer Conway (11.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) also enters the season with a chance at 1,000 points. Junior Nicole Gloor (9.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg) earned the distinction from Smith as "one of the toughest players I've been fortunate enough to coach."
Returning point guard Allie Norton was "thrown into the fire" last year as a freshman, playing every game. She still managed to set a Truman freshman record and was among the nation's leaders in three-point shooting.
"This year, she understands what's at stake and has taken the team by the reigns," Smith said.
Junior Bianca Szafarowicz (4.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and volleyball standout Megan Sharpe are also counted on among the leaders.
"We've got a good group," Smith said. "In the past we've really relied on one player and if that player was having an off night, we struggled. I feel fortunate this year we have a very balanced attack.
"I think our depth will carry us pretty far into this season."
Also a strength is basketball IQ, a benefit of needing student-athletes capable of both performing in the MIAA and meeting Truman's academic standards. Preparing for games is serious business and Smith's players give attention to detail, which he said played a large role in the team's win over UIC.
Despite recent success, Truman State hasn't earned the respect it could prove to deserve. The Bulldogs were picked eighth in the MIAA coaches' poll and ninth in the media poll, and were not among their seven conference opponents ranked or receiving votes in the preseason national Top 25.
"I feel like we should be in that talk. I feel like we have a good enough team," Smith said. "At some point this season I believe we can be a Top 25 team."
Truman opens its regular season Saturday at 2 p.m. against McKendree University at Pershing Arena.