When the Iowa State women’s basketball team fell to Texas Tech in the first round of last year’s Big 12 Tournament, it finalized what had been apparent for months: The Cyclones would not play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. Congrats to the single genius who predicted the end of that streak at this time last year…
Now, coach Bill Fennelly, heading into his 22nd season, and Iowa State look to right the ship and return to the NCAA tournament following a 13-17 record in the 2015-16 campaign.
Recapping Last Year
Highlights in the otherwise disappointing year included a comeback win against Iowa at Hilton and a 2-0 start to Big 12 play, but trouble was brewing from the beginning. TeeTee Starks’ early-season injury and the mid-year departure of center Bryanna Fernstrom ultimately sealed the Cyclones’ fate.
With a depleted seven-player rotation by early January, Iowa State struggled to close out games against conference opponents, and the team won just two of its last 15 games.
As the Cyclones were undoubtedly preparing to close the books on the unusual losing season, an old storyline crept back into the headlines. In April, Nikki Moody, the Iowa State career assists leader, dished out a lawsuit to Fennelly that included dozens of allegations of racial discrimination by the veteran head coach and Iowa State officials. Fennelly fully denies the accusations. Little information has since been made available on the case, but Fennelly and his players suggest it will not be a distraction this season.
Kidd Blaskowsky, who averaged six points per game last year, and Madison Baier, who played in 15 games, have both graduated, but Iowa State returns plenty of weapons this year.
The talent is certainly in place for Iowa State to move back into the top half of the Big 12 and the NCAA Tournament.
Seanna Johnson, a preseason All-Big 12 First Team selection, will be tasked with on- and off-court leadership responsibilities for the Cyclones. Last year, Johnson led the Cyclones in scoring with 17 points per game.
Bridget Carleton, who nearly made Canada’s Olympic squad, will undoubtedly build off a strong freshman year in which she averaged 12 points and nearly 34 minutes per game.
TeeTee Starks, who was granted a medical redshirt, will begin the season as a starter for the Cyclones. "There’s not many kids who want to win more than her," Fennelly said about Starks, a versatile option and a strong defender, who started at three different spots in the eight games she played last season.
Jadda Buckley played extensive minutes - nearly 35 minutes per game - at point guard last year, and, with some bench support this year, she could be set up for an exceptional senior year. For Buckley to score the ball, Fennelly noted she needs the opportunity to receive more passes, rather than facilitate action. Still, Fennelly believes Buckley is the best option at the point for the Cyclones, and the key may simply be for her to become a more aggressive shooter.
When Fernstrom left, Meredith Burkhall, a Des Moines native, was forced to carry a lot of the burden in the post last season. "When you play in the post as a true freshman in this league, it’s really hard. [Burkhall] played a lot, she learned a lot, she’s stronger." Burkhall will start for the Cyclones, and, like Carleton, the experience she gained against Big 12 opponents a year ago means the learning curve certainly won't be as steep this year.
Emily Durr, who averaged over five points per game last year, returns for Iowa State. The junior had the best three-point shooting percentage for the Cyclones and was 25-27 from the free throw line last year.
Jordan Jensen, Claire Ricketts, and Lexi Albrecht round out the Cyclones’ returners.
"At Iowa State, you have to be very creative recruiting wise," Fennelly said when asked about his outreach to international players.
As a result, the Cyclones have brought on three new foreign players who join Canadian sophomore Carleton. Aliyah Konate, a 6-4 forward from Germany, Adriana Camber, a 5-9 forward from Sweden, and Sofija Zivaljevic, a 5-9 guard from Montenegro, are all new to Ames.
Konate is expected to be an immediate contributor with her strong defense and rebounding skills. Camber offers versatility that will give the Cyclones some much-needed depth. Zivaljevic averaged over eight points per game while competing for Montenegro’s U20 national team.
Nia Washington, who played at the high-caliber Riverdale Baptist High School in Stafford, Virginia, should give immediate backup support to Buckley at point guard. However, according to Fennelly, others could also see time at the point, including Johnson and Carleton. "It could be 10 minutes from four different people," said Fennelly.
Heather Bowe will step on the court for the first time as a Cyclone, although she’s no stranger to college basketball. A graduate transfer from Vanderbilt, where she started in 55 games, Bowe sat on the Iowa State bench last year. She’ll bring valuable experience in the post.
Looking at the 2016-17 Season
"There’s nothing worse than letting people down," Fennelly said regarding last season at the Cyclones' 2016-17 media day. "There’s reasons you’re not successful. There’s excuses for why you’re not successful. There’s a lot of things that happened to this team that we didn’t handle the right way, and I didn’t help them handle it the right way. Hopefully we’ve gotten through that, and hopefully it’s something we’ve all learned from, and we’ll be better for it."
Can Iowa State regroup this year and return to the Big Dance? It’s very likely.
Seanna Johnson is due for an exceptional senior season that could place her in the same category as other Cyclone legends. A stronger, more developed supporting cast returns, and the infusion of new talent could prove to be the vital catalyst for a return to success. Helping matters, the 2016-17 schedule sets up well for the Cyclones.
Wins - in any form and against anyone - are paramount in November and December as Iowa State seeks to start fresh and forget about last season.
With UNI and Drake at Hilton this year, the first true test likely won’t come until December 3, when Iowa State plays Mississippi State in Ames. The Bulldogs had a fantastic 2015-16 season, finishing 28-8 and losing to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen.
Iowa State won’t leave Ames until it travels to Iowa City for a Cy-Hawk showdown with the Hawkeyes on December 7. Aside from the Bulldogs and the road test against Iowa, the Cyclones will likely cruise into Big 12 play, which opens on December 29 in Stillwater against Oklahoma State.
Once the Big 12 starts, Iowa State has a chance to start 2017 the right way on New Year’s Day against Texas at Hilton. Other key games include a January 11 date with Oklahoma at Hilton, a February 1 contest against Baylor in Ames, and the Big 12 regular season finale at home on February 27 against Oklahoma State. If Iowa State can ride out the expected turbulence the Big 12 slate will present with a .500 record, expect to see the Cyclone women back in the NCAA tournament in March.
Regular season predicted record: 19-10 (10-8 Big 12)