MOSCOW - It had been five years since the Idaho women's basketball team was last picked No. 1 in a preseason poll.

Back then, Idaho was still in the Western Athletic Conference and went on to tear through the conference with one loss and make its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance during the 2013-14 season.

Knock on wood, Vandal fans, but if this season is anything like that, it'll bode well for Idaho.

The Vandals enter the season again at No. 1 in the Big Sky coaches and media polls and with the best player in the conference in senior guard Mikayla Ferenz. Check that, the best duo in the conference in Ferenz and fellow guard Taylor Pierce, who make sinking 3-pointers look like a walk in the park.

The Splash Sisters drained 129 and 137 triples respectively last season, breaking numerous records in the process.

"I wish they could be here forever, like the NBA where you just keep signing them," Idaho coach Jon Newlee said with a laugh. "They're great leaders, they're the hardest workers we have and they deserve everything they're getting - their preseason recognition, the recognition they got last year. They've earned it."

Ferenz, the Big Sky preseason MVP, is the conference's leading returning scorer after averaging 22.5 points per game as a junior - eighth best in the NCAA. Pierce added 15.6 points per contest and both shot 40.4 percent from long range.

Ferenz is also on the Ann Meyers Drysdale watch list, which awards the best shooting guard in the nation.

"It's a fantastic honor for Mikayla to be on that award watch list - the top 20 guards in the country," Newlee said. "That's unbelievable. I've never had a kid on that list."

The Vandals finished runner-up in the Big Sky tournament last season, falling to Northern Colorado in the championship game and just missing out on Idaho's fourth appearance to the NCAA Tournament since 2012. The Vandals (19-14) were selected for the next-best tournament, the WNIT, where they fell to Cal-Davis.

"Taylor and I have been lucky enough to play in the postseason every year that we've been here and I think playing in the NCAA Tournament was definitely the best experience we could have had as freshmen (in 2016)," Ferenz said. "So it's been a while since we've been there and I think we're even more hungry now because we've had those experiences and we know how amazing it is."

After Ferenz and Pierce, it's still a battle for the other starting spots, but the Vandals should have more depth this season than in recent campaigns, Newlee said.

The Vandals also return sophomore guard Allison Kirby of Spirit Lake, who started every game last season and averaged 4.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists.

In the post, Isabelle Hadden of Boise started nine games and racked up 6.5 points per game and 36 blocks.

Guard Gina Marxen and guard/post Hailey Christopher of Spokane headline Idaho's batch of six newcomers.

"The newcomers are stepping up," Newlee said. "I think Gina Marxen and Hailey Christopher in particular of the freshman crew have really stepped up and they're grasping things quickly. That's what you look for in freshmen: how hard they work and how quick they learn the system."

With all the high-flying 3-point shooting, the Vandals are already known for their scoring and their speed, so Newlee said he wants to see an improvement on the defensive end. The Vandals scored 74.8 points per game last season, second-best in the Big Sky, but also allowed 74.8 points - 10th worst in the conference.

"We really emphasize our defense early," Newlee said. "I think we need to get better defensively. We just were outscoring people last year and you can't really live by that."

It won't take long for the Vandals to find out where they stand. Newlee likes to schedule tough nonconference opponents and this season is no different.

Stanford, Texas Tech, Boise State and Gonzaga are all on the docket. Idaho opens with an exhibition against Saint Martin's at 2 p.m. Sunday and begins the regular season Nov. 6 against Cal State-Northridge, also at home.

"Our preseason schedule is tough, but it's on purpose," Newlee said. "We want to get ready for the Big Sky and the different venues that are hard to play in and different styles. So I love our schedule and I hope our fans come out and really get behind this team."

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Stephan Wiebe can be reached at swiebe@dnews.com and (208) 883-4629.

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