AMES, Iowa — Bill Fennelly has been Iowa State's coach longer than the Big 12 has existed, and the last time he was this excited going into a season was more than two decades ago.
Fennelly has preseason AP All-American forward Ashley Joens back for a fifth season, along Big 12 defensive player of the year Lexi Donarski and conference assists leader Emily Ryan returning after a school-record 28 wins and NCAA Sweet 16 appearance last season. Iowa State is eighth in the preseason AP Top 25 women’s basketball poll and was tabbed by Big 12 coaches as a slight favorite over third-ranked Texas.
“Seriously reminds me of a team we had back around 2000, same kind of mentality, same kind of belief,” said Fennelly, going into his 28th season at Iowa State — one more than the Big 12's history. "I love this group, and I’m just excited to see where we go.”
Texas won the Big 12 Tournament last season and made it to the Elite Eight with standout freshman guard Rori Harmon (11.4 points, 4.4 assists and 5.0 assists per game). The Longhorns have a young and talented roster bolstered by two grad transfers: WCC player of the year Shaylee Gonzales from BYU and DePaul leading scorer Sonya Morris.
“Winning doesn’t have an age, success doesn’t have an age limit,” third-year Texas coach Vic Schaefer said.
Iowa State and Texas both got four first-place votes in the preseason poll by coaches who couldn’t pick their own teams. No. 15 Oklahoma and No. 18 Baylor, the 12-time defending Big 12 champion, split the remaining two top votes.
The Cyclones won 27 games and shared their lone Big 12 title in 2000, the only time they had a higher AP preseason ranking (7th). That came after an NCAA Elite Eight the previous season, before back-to-back Sweet 16s.
Joens has averaged 18.8 points and 8.6 rebounds over 126 career games, but bypassed the opportunity to go in the WNBA draft last spring.
“Just looking at the team we had last year and knowing that we were returning the same players and adding ... was just a huge factor,” Joens said.
Baylor overcame an 0-2 start in Big 12 play, around a COVID-19 pause in the program, but rebounded to win its 12th consecutive Big 12 title, the 13th overall and first without Kim Mulkey. The Bears finished coach Nicki Collen’s first season 28-7 even without a full roster. Their last game was an NCAA second-round loss at home to South Dakota, whose coach Dawn Plitzuweit is now in the Big 12 at West Virginia.
Bears All-America forward NaLyssa Smith and post Queen Egbo were both top-10 picks in the WNBA draft. Collen has added four Division I transfers, a junior college signee and three freshmen for a full 13-player roster, after having only eight scholarship players last season.
Oklahoma has the nation's highest-scoring trio in forward Madi Williams (18.0 points per game) and guard Taylor Robertson (17.2 ppg), both fifth-year players, and sixth-year guard Ana Llanusa (17.3 ppg).
“We have players that are in their fifth year and sixth year, and then we have players that have never played before. It's really fun to be able to mix all of that," second-year Sooner coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "Anything can happen when you're really deep, and we are a very deep basketball team.”
FROM THE SUMMIT
The Big 12's two new coaches were together last year in The Summit League: Plitzuweit at South Dakota and new Oklahoma State coach Jacie Hoyt at Kansas City.
Plitzuweit took South Dakota to its first Sweet 16 last March after the second-round upset in Waco as a No. 10 seed.
Before the past five seasons at Kansas City, Hoyt was an assistant coach on Jeff Mittie's staff at Kansas State for three seasons. Hoyt brought eight transfers, including two from her previous team, to Stillwater.
MISSING IN THE MIDDLE
Kansas State will be without 6-foot-6 senior center Ayoka Lee, who had knee surgery during the offseason. Lee averaged a double-double for the second time in her career last season, her 22 points and 10.3 rebounds a game ranking second in the Big 12 behind Baylor's Smith.
Lee is expected to take a medical redshirt and return to play for the Wildcats next season.
Kansas has four starters among 11 players back after going 21-10 last season. The Jayhawks' 11 conference wins were their most since 1999-2000. ... The next most-tenured Big 12 coaches after Fennelly are Mittie and TCU's Raegan Pebley. Mittie is in his ninth season at K-State since leaving TCU, where he was replaced by Pebley.