IU Coach Curt Miller makes sure you know at every IU women’s basketball postgame press conference that he has only seven scholarship players available to play.
The team started the season with nine scholarship players and three walk-ons.
Four players have since left the program, leaving Miller with a thin roster in his first season in Bloomington.
The senior leaders, guard Jasmine McGhee and forward Aulani Sinclair, have both had to play more than 36 minutes per game to compensate.
The program is rebuilding. This is what the Miller era looks like in its infancy.
It has been a pair of underclassmen that burst onto the scene late who have held the team together.
Nicole Bell knew for a long time she would be a Cardinal, having committed to Ball State in February of her junior year in high school.
Suddenly, then-head coach Kelly Packard resigned in late March 2012. Bell no longer knew where she was going just months before graduation and the start of the college basketball preseason.
Bell said the wait to have her National Letter of Intent released and to find a new school was frustrating, but ultimately she is happy she landed at IU.
For Miller, it was a blessing. Being able to sign Bell was a coup given how thin his team was at point guard.
Miller had recruited her while at Bowling Green but ultimately decided not to sign a point guard in that class.
Nonetheless he and his coaching staff remained “a fan of her” at Bowling Green.
“We thought in the summertime, considering when she got here, she was certainly a steal,” Miller said. “We also approached it as a stepping stone for the future because we knew that character she is off the court and the student she is off the court.”
Her biggest contribution in the early part of the season, however, is her work ethic, Miller said.
“We thought, ‘We need to change a lot of things about this program,’ and if we’re gonna bring someone in over the summer, we need her to be that hardest working kid on the team,” Miller said. “And I don’t think anyone would question that Nicole is the hardest working kid on the team.”
Under normal circumstances, walk-ons are complimentary pieces to a team’s puzzle.
In rebuilding programs, they are essential.
Regardless of the situation, it can be painful not to the make team.
As a freshman last year, Andrea Mize tried out for the Hoosiers and was initially told she made it.
She was cut weeks later.
After that, she didn’t even want to touch a basketball.
“It’s kind of that gut-wrenching feeling of ‘Could I have done this better?’” she said. “Emotionally, I’m not gonna lie- it drained me a lot. I was very disappointed. I’ve loved this game since I was two.”
Her mind began to change when former IU Coach Felisha Legette-Jack was fired in March 2012.
She did have the advantage of having gone through the process before. The girls on the team encouraged her to try again this season.
Still, she hadn’t touched a ball since she was let go.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to continue to put myself out there again,” Mize said. “That was probably the hardest part was, ‘Do I wanna take that risk again not knowing who our coach was going to be?’”
Mize eventually did decide she was able to feel vulnerable again. She would try out for the IU women’s basketball team once more now that Miller had been hired as head coach.
At the very least, she had the comfort of knowing that two other walk-on hopefuls were also pushing to make the team.
By the end of camp, she, Brionna Arnold and Carmela Roeschlein all made the team.
“It was more this time around asking coach Miller, ‘Is this it, or is there always that chance (I get cut)?’” Mize said. “He believed in me and I obviously bought into his system pretty hard.
“I knew that soon as he said ‘You’re on the team’ it wasn’t all celebration. It was time to gear up and get better even more.”
For Bell, there was no breaking-in period.
Former guard Candyce Ussery had missed the majority of the preseason with several injuries while junior starting point guard Andrea Newbauer was recovering from ankle surgery.
Neither were close to being in game-shape as IU’s exhibition game vs. Kentucky State on Oct. 30 loomed.
Given the start in freshman Nicole Bell’s first collegiate game, she scored nine points, grabbed five rebounds and had three assists in 27 minutes against the Thorobreds.
“I’m really proud of Nicole and excited that she’s here,” Miller said. “I’m proud of what she’s done for us this entire year. She’s a warrior and doesn’t shy away from the challenges ahead of her.”
Bell said after the game it was her dream come true to be the starting point guard at IU.
Now, it has become the norm.
Newbauer returned in time to start the season opener at Valparaiso. Bell would play a significant role off the bench, though.
Bell played no fewer than 14 minutes the next 13 games. She established herself as a reliable outside shooter, and has hit 32 percent of her 3-pointers on the season.
Bell made her presence known Nov. 26 against IPFW, scoring 13 points on 4-of-8 3-point shooting. She scored a career-high 16 a month later against Illinois-Chicago.
While Bell became more comfortable in her role, her supporting cast dwindled.
In November, Roeschlein and Arnold left.
In late December, forward Quaneisha McCurty transferred.
In the first week of January, Ussery did the same.
Almost by definition, walk-ons are like independent contractors — They may or may not be there for the long haul. As someone who made the team on her second try, Mize said she understands that.
“We do miss them and we wish them well,” Mize said. “We were just excited to be in the spot in the first place. So I feel like yes, we realize at any point that one of us could somehow leave.
“It just makes us respect each other a lot more and try to help each other get to the next level.”
Then, a team already decimated by departures received took another hit.
The day before IU was set to play Purdue Jan. 31, Newbauer landed on her left wrist in practice and is unlikely to return this season.
“Everyone was really silent, it was kind of just shock, like ‘Did that just really happen?’” Bell said. “And everyone was really saddened because she worked so hard and she’s an inspiration that way. We just all felt so sorry for her.”
Once again, Bell was thrust into the starting role.
Mize is now the only guard backing up Bell, and the only remaining walk-on.
Bell has started all six games since and has not played less then 38 minutes in each game. She averaged 6.8 points and 2.5 assists per game coming into Wednesday’s home win against Purdue.
The heavy minutes may take its to toll on the freshman, whose season was typically over by this point.
“I just went game by game, practice by practice just doing what the team needed me to do and unfortunately Andrea (Newbauer) got hurt,” Bell said. “You don’t really think about it. You just gotta go out there and play, and you’re gonna get tired, and your legs are gonna get heavy but you just gotta try to push through.”
Mize had made the team, but it took a while before she would see live action.
Mize rode the bench for the first eight games of the season. She made her debut Dec. 4 against Belmont at Assembly Hall, playing seven minutes without a shot.
Mize said she was so nervous she barely remembers the game.
With her debut a blur, Mize has a better recollection of the following game at Butler, in which she played a career-high 17 minutes.
IU stumbled out of the gate badly, finding itself down 16-4 early in the first half.
In came Mize.
“At the time I knew why I was being put out there,” she said. “It wasn’t for scoring or anything like that. I wanted to play hard and I could see some of the girls were getting down on themselves.
“It was basically just to bring the spirits up and try to do the little things.”
Mize finished with one point, an assist and three rebounds.
Her stat line did not pop of the page, but her play left a positive impression on her coach.
“The thing you love about ‘Drea,’ as we call her, is she’s fearless,” Miller said. “She truly believes out there that she is as good as anyone else and belongs in a league like the Big Ten.
“So you like the attitude about the belief in her strengths.”
Mize’s minutes have since fluctuated. The next three games, she played five minutes combined. She cracked double digit minutes against Nebraska and Ohio State in mid-January, but has not done so since.
Miller said that because Mize’s role has picked up, she has to learn how to deal with a lack of playing time after getting a taste of extended minutes.
“Then you crave and want more once you start to feel that, and she’s still got to understand those nights when she doesn’t get as much playing time, that was her role,” he said. “We’re getting great efforts out of her.
“You continue to see great strides and she’s getting better and better.”
There was a time when Mize was a regular, though. It may even be a big reason why she has to fight for a spot on IU’s team.
Mize was a starter all four years at Whiteland High School in Greenwood, Ind.
Her senior year, the team lacked post players. Mize unselfishly stepped up and converted from a guard to a forward.
Mize said she gained weight and worked on finishing around the rim, meaning her 3-point game has suffered. She is still trying to get back her old body type and regain her shooting form.
"I feel like that's kind of affecting me this year and I'm really hoping to pick up my offensive side of the ball," Mize said. "It was a lot of working back to the player I want to be, and I'm still not there. But hopefully going into next season I will be."
Miller has a vision to make IU women's basketball nationally relevant. In the meantime, he needs players like Bell and Mize to set the foundation of what he wants the program to look like.
"We're always going to keep walk-ons," Miller said. "The good thing with her (Mize) is she's been a part of the program, so there is always going to be a place for her to help us out."
Both players embody the type of player Miller loves. They hustle, they battle and they scrap. They work hard in practice.
They lead by example.
"With the situation with our numbers the way we are, she's living her dream," Miller said about Mize. "She's an Indiana Hoosier from the state of Indiana. She's living her dream and actually getting to play in games."
As for Bell, Miller said he does not know where the team would be without her because of injuries and departures.
The future for Indiana women's basketball is already looking brighter. Miller has netted verbal commitments from two talented scorers for the class of 2014, Tyra Buss and Maura Muensterman.
As Miller starts to bring in more of his own recruits in the years to come, Bell's and Mize's roles may change yet again.
It would be difficult to find two players better-prepared for it.
"Andrea, and Nicole, and all the guards that currently in the program that will be here in a few years as more and more newcomers come, I don't think they're going to give up their spots easily," Miller said. "They're going to fight and compete for their own fight and compete for their own playing time even though our depth is going to get better over the next few years."
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