KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill Fennelly took Iowa State to the top of the Big 12 in his first five seasons at Ames, leading the Cyclones to the second weekend of the NCAA Women’s Tournament three straight years and even reaching a regional final.
For over two decades there has been much success, including another Elite Eight trip. But for all those wins – Fennelly has 568 and counting the Cyclones – they have yet to win at least a share of another Big 12 title.
That could change this season.
They return nearly their entire roster from a team that won 28 games, finished one game behind Baylor in the league race and advanced to the Sweet 16. That includes school career leader Ashley Joens, who reportedly was a top pick in the WNBA draft but opted to use his COVID-19 waiver for a fifth season at Ames.
“For me personally, it takes me back to one of the great times I had coaching Iowa State around 2000. This group is very similar to that,” said Fennelly this week. “They show up every day. They wear the jersey with great pride. They are obviously extremely talented. They like to compete. They like to play. And I think our fan base really connected with them in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time.
Part of the reason is that they’ve stuck together, even in times when the transfer portal makes it easier than ever for players to move between programs. Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Lexi Donarski and Emily Ryan, who led the conference in assists, are both juniors. Nyamer Diew is also a junior and Morgan Kane is a senior.
Then there’s Joens, who averaged 20.3 points and 9.5 rebounds last season and is a contender for National Player of the Year.
No wonder the Cyclones were picked by league coaches to win the Big 12 this season. They edged Texas, which won last year’s conference tournament, by just one point with Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas trailing them.
“It’s always a tough decision whether to come back or play professionally,” Joens said, “but looking at the squad we had last season, and what we achieved, and knowing that we were coming back almost everyone , it was an opportunity that I did ‘I don’t want to miss. We have a great team coming back.’
SPEAKING ABOUT BAYLOR
Don’t expect the Bears to walk away, even if their women don’t have quite the same target on their backs this season.
Yes, they lost first-round picks NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo, but Baylor coach Nicki Collen bolstered her roster with a bunch of transfers: Erika Porter from Illinois, Dre’Una Edwards from Kentucky, Jana Van Gytenbeek from Stanford, Aijha Blackwell from Missouri and Catarina Ferreira from eastern Arizona.
In other words, the Bears should still be in the game for at least a share of a 13th straight regular season title.
“I don’t think you put on a Baylor uniform and didn’t feel pressured,” Collen said. “I know I didn’t accept this job and I expect not to feel any pressure. Nobody wants to be on the team that breaks the conference championship series.
KANSAS CITY, WE STAY HERE
The Big 12 has signed a deal to keep its men’s and women’s tournaments in Kansas City through 2027 before Brett Yormark replaces outgoing commissioner Bob Bowlsby in June. But despite Yormark’s desire to expand the Big 12’s footprint, he said the league is committed to hosting its tournament in a city that has drawn record crowds.
Yormark said more changes to the tournament are coming, including an increase in ticket prices.
The women’s tournament will be played one last time in the historic Memorial Auditorium in March before moving down the street to the T-Mobile Center, the site of the men’s tournament, beginning in the 2023-24 season.
NO FLIP-FLOPPING ON FLOPS
One of the priorities for college basketball officials this season will be flops, and not just defenders heading for the basket. This also applies to an offensive player who can shake his head at the slightest touch, or a shooter who is barely grazed but ends up on his back hoping to draw a foul.
In the past, players usually received a warning. From now on, it will be a technical foul and a free throw for the other team.
“It’s going to be very controversial,” said Curtis Shaw, longtime Big 12 men’s basketball umpire coordinator. “You’re going to see a lot of that sooner.”