KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill Fennelly took Iowa State to the top of the Big 12 within his first five seasons in Ames, leading the Cyclones to the second weekend of the women's NCAA Tournament three straight years and even reaching a regional final.
There has been plenty of success over two-plus decades since then, too, including another Elite Eight trip. But for all those wins — Fennelly has 568 and counting with the Cyclones — they have yet to win at least a share of another Big 12 title.
That could change this season.
They return almost their entire lineup from a team that won 28 games, finished a game behind Baylor in the league race and advanced to the Sweet 16. That includes Ashley Joens, the school's career scoring leader, who would have been one of the top picks in the WNBA draft but chose to use her COVID-19 waiver for a fifth season in Ames.
“For me personally, it takes me back to one of the great times that I had as Iowa State coach, back around 2000. This group is very similar to that,” Fennelly said this week. "They show up every day. They wear the jersey with a great amount of pride. They are obviously extremely talented. They love to compete. They love to play. And I think our fanbase has really connected with them in a way we haven't seen in a long time."
Part of the reason is they've stuck together, even in an age when the transfer portal makes it easier than ever for players to move among programs. Lexi Donarski, the Big 12's defensive player of the year, 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 national player-of-the-year candidate.
No wonder the Cyclones were picked by the league's coaches to win the Big 12 this season. They edged Texas, which won last year's conference tournament, by a single point with Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas behind them.
“It's always a hard decision whether to come back or go play professionally,” Joens said, “but looking at the team we had last season, and what we accomplished, and knowing we were returning almost everybody, it was an opportunity I didn't want to miss out on. We have a great team coming back.”
SPEAKING OF BAYLOR
Don't expect the Bears to go away, even if their women don't have quite the same target on their backs this season.
Yes, they lost first-round draft picks NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo, but Baylor coach Nicki Collen shored up 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 junior college transfer Catarina Ferreira from Eastern Arizona.
In other words, the Bears should still be in the mix for at least a share of a 13th consecutive regular-season title.
“I don’t think you put on a Baylor uniform and not feel pressure,” Collen said. “I know I didn’t take this job and expect to not feel pressure. Nobody wants to be a part of the team that breaks the streak of conference championships.”
KANSAS CITY, HERE WE STAY
The Big 12 signed a deal to keep its men's and women's tournaments in Kansas City through 2027 before Brett Yormark replaced retiring commissioner Bob Bowlsby in June. But despite Yormark's desire to extend the Big 12 footprint, he said the league is committed to holding its tournament in a city that has drawn record crowds.
Yormark said other changes to the tournament will be coming, though, including an increase in ticket prices.
The women's tournament will be played one last time at historic Memorial Auditorium in March before moving down the street to T-Mobile Center, the site of the men's tournament, beginning with the 2023-24 season.
NO FLIP-FLOPPING ON FLOPS
One of the emphases among college basketball officials this season will be flops, and not just those by defenders heading off a drive to the basket. It also pertains to an offensive player that may bob their head at the slightest bit of contact, or a shooter who is barely grazed but ends up on their backside in the hopes of drawing a foul.
In the past, players were usually given a warning. Now, it will be a technical foul and a free throw for the other team.
“This is going to be highly controversial," said Curtis Shaw, the Big 12's longtime coordinator of men's basketball officiating. “You're going to see a lot of it early.”