The Iowa State women’s basketball team, coming off a year that included a return to the NCAA Tournament and a five-game winning streak to close Big 12 conference play, fought through some early adversity to start the 2017-18 season in an 81-76 win last Friday over South Dakota. Head coach Bill Fennelly, who’s beginning his 23rd season in Ames, said the South Dakota game was one of the best he’s been part of at Iowa State.
Against South Dakota, junior star Bridget Carleton scored 19 of her 24 points in the 4th quarter to lead the Cyclones back from a 39-47 deficit in the 2nd half. Carleton will guide a young roster that includes other veterans Emily Durr and Meredith Burkhall. Iowa State needs to get significant minutes from its newcomers this year, and Friday showed Fennelly isn’t afraid to play fresh faces. Freshman Madison Wise led the Cyclones with 35 minutes off the bench in the South Dakota game, and Rae Johnson, a freshman from Minnesota, added 33 minutes.
Recapping Last Year
Last year, sitting at 13-11 on February 11 after a loss to the Kansas State Wildcats, it looked like Iowa State might miss the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row following 10 straight trips to the Big Dance.
Suddenly, the Cyclones put together a furious rally at the end of the Big 12 season that included a 70-66 road victory over No. 6 Texas in Austin.
Led by All-Big 12 performers Carleton, Seanna Johnson, and Jadda Buckley, Iowa State snagged a No. 9 seed in March and took on the Syracuse Orange in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Iowa State’s return trip to the tournament was brief, however, as Syracuse built an early 25-point lead, and the Cyclones simply couldn’t overcome the massive deficit.
Between defeats to Syracuse and a heartbreaker against Purdue later that night for Steve Prohm’s squad, Iowa State fans had to deal with another loss when Iowa State announced that Buckley, who could have played one more season, was electing to forgo her final year of eligibility.
Now, Fennelly and his staff are faced with the challenge of replacing the rebounding prowess of Seanna Johnson and finding a guard who can effectively run the Cyclone offense and fill in for the 34 minutes per game that Buckley provided. Heather Bowe, Jordan Jensen, and Lexi Albrecht also concluded their Iowa State careers last season, but, if nothing else, younger players on the roster will have a chance to develop this season and gain experience before a top 15 recruiting class, which includes Iowa City star Ashley Joens, joins the Cyclones next year.
Key Returners Joined By Fresh Faces
“I wouldn’t trade Bridget Carleton for any player in the country,” Fennelly told reporters at this year’s media day. It makes sense why Fennelly heaps praise on the junior from Canada. Last year, Carleton earned unanimous All-Big 12 First Team honors and averaged 15 points per game.
Carleton, and her ability to operate as the go-to player for the Cyclones, will determine Iowa State’s success this year. While Seanna Johnson and Buckley offered additional scoring options last season, most of this responsibility now falls to Carleton. That’s not to say there aren’t players who could emerge - Durr and Burkhall have shown signs of promise in the past - and Iowa State would greatly benefit from another consistent scorer.
With Buckley’s departure, Fennelly is left with the difficult task of finding the appropriate Cyclone to bring the ball up the court. Sophomore Nia Washington, a high school standout from Virginia who averaged eight minutes in 23 games last year, could see more time at the point guard position, but she’ll likely share minutes in this role with Durr and Rae Johnson. Durr, now a senior, will have to step up for Iowa State. She had Tommy John surgery during the off season, and it took her about six months to get back on the court.
Burkhall, a junior from Urbandale, is poised to have a breakout year after two seasons of development. She’ll be joined by returning forwards Claire Ricketts and Adriana Camber and newcomers in the front court Wise, Bride Kennedy-Hopoate, and Kristin Scott. Keep an eye on Camber’s performance this year. Her season high in scoring last year was 10 points against New Orleans, but Camber, a native of Sweden, scored 15 points in 25 minutes in Iowa State’s exhibition game against Wisconsin-La Crosse, and she scored nine points in 14 minutes in the South Dakota win.
Fennelly said he expects all the newcomers to play and impact the program in a positive way. Alexa Middleton, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, will have to redshirt this season.
Looking at the 2017-18 Season
Moving forward from the South Dakota victory, a couple road games are likely to trip up this younger Cyclone team in the nonconference portion of the season, but November and December shouldn’t prove to be much trouble for Iowa State.
Iowa State handed Drake, last year’s Missouri Valley Conference champion, one of its five losses last year, but that was at Hilton, and the Cyclones must travel to the Knapp Center this year. The game against Drake is on November 30, and just two days later, on December 2, Iowa State heads to play Vanderbilt. The Commodores finished second to last in the SEC last year, but Iowa State could have a hard time emerging from Nashville with a victory, especially after the short turnaround from the Drake game. Remember, though, that Iowa State nearly knocked off another SEC opponent, No. 6 Mississippi State, last year.
Even if the Cyclones drop a couple games after their trip to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving, they’ll likely take advantage of a return to Hilton on December 6 against Iowa. The home team has won the Iowa State-Iowa game for over a decade, and there’s not much reason to expect that will change.
The Big 12 conference season will be rough sledding, of course, with perennial powers Baylor and Texas looking to maintain their place atop the pack. But Iowa State always seems to snag a couple big wins that warrant significant attention from the Selection Committee. With marquee victories available in the Big 12, a 9-9 record in conference play should be enough to get the Cyclones back to the NCAA Tournament.
Projected record: 18-11 (9-9)