Western Kentucky freshman guard Kierra Muhammad thought her high school’s playing style would prepare her for the faster-paced college game.

Then she completed her first practice with the Lady Toppers.

“It was harder than I thought it would be,” Muhammad said. “It’s similar to how we played in high school, but it’s at a whole other level. My body’s getting conditioned to it, but they expect a little more than I thought they would.”

Expectations are indeed high this season for WKU, which opens its season at 7 p.m. today with its first exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan at E.A. Diddle Arena.

The Lady Tops return all five starters from last year, along with nearly 93 percent of their scoring, 92 percent of their rebounding and 90 percent of their assists. They’ve also added six newcomers – four freshmen and two junior-college transfers.

“I think the overall improvement has been the growth of the newcomers coming in, and the returners teaching them the different things they need to, but also the returners being more familiar with the coaching staff and myself,” coach Michelle Clark-Heard said.

WKU hosted just one exhibition game last year but plays its first of two this season against Kentucky Wesleyan (20-9 in 2012-13). The Panthers won 20 games last year for the first time since 1991-92.

They graduated their top two scorers but return three players – Karly Rhoads, T’Essence Phelps and Kourtney Rhoads – who averaged 7.6 points or more per game last season.

Heard said the Lady Tops have focused more on themselves in preparation.

“We’re just working to get better, each and every day,” she said. “I think our biggest thing is trying to make sure that every player is getting as much attention as they need to get to be the best they can be. We have to keep jelling as a whole.”

WKU’s six newcomers could make their debuts at Diddle Arena today.

Among that new crop of talent are three players 6 feet or taller. The Lady Tops have eight players 5-10 or taller, compared to five a year ago.

They also brought in several speedy guards to complement Heard’s uptempo style, including Muhammad.

“Things have gone pretty well,” Muhammad said. “It was a rough start with the first practice. That was a little iffy, but it’s getting better every day. I think it’s looking pretty good, adjusting to the style of play.”

WKU will have fuller numbers on the bench after playing with eight or nine players for much of the 2012-13 season.

The Lady Tops should have 12 players suited up for tonight’s exhibition game. Redshirt freshman guard Kendall Noble (leg) and true freshman forward Aleeya Harris (foot) are expected to be out.

A more robust roster has motivated the players in practice, senior guard Chaney Means, and it should push them tonight when minutes are up for grabs.

“Competing every day in practice is making us all better,” Means said. “People know if you don’t show up for one practice, there’s going to be someone else in there to take your spot or take your minutes.”

— Zach Greenwell covers WKU women’s basketball. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zach_greenwell or visit bgdailynews.com.

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