The Iowa State women's basketball team is coming off a 24-9 overall record last season and a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament. However after losing All-American Chelsea Poppens and 6-foot-7 center Anna Prins to graduation, the Cyclones are looking for a new identity for the 2013-14 season.
Head coach Bill Fennelly, entering his 19th year leading the Cyclones, spoke about those plans at Media Day on Wednesday.
"We will be different, and we have to be," Fennelly said. "We will run a four-guard team this year. We've always tried to run the ball, but sometimes our fast break appears to be in slow motion. Hopefully we will be able to beat people off the bounce a little better this year, maybe create a little more with our defense and be more aggressive. We will continue to shoot the three, but we have to make more. We were in the top 20 in the country last year in made threes but our percentage was like 64th so we have to shoot better."
Junior guard Brynn Williamson likes the new, fast-paced offense: "It will be fun to have a play where you don't have to just throw the ball into the post. It will be fun to have guards that can attack the basket and get the other guards open looks, or pass it back to Hallie [Christopherson] for an easy layup. I don't know if the plays will always be pretty, but it will be fun and exciting."
Added junior guard Nikki Moody, "I love playing fast, so I'm looking forward to it. With our aggressive defense, it will allow for more points coming in transition by pushing the ball and getting our players open looks at the rim."Helping Moody push the ball will be two highly-touted freshmen, Jadda Buckley and Seanna Johnson. Buckley, a 5-foot-8 guard from Mason City, Iowa, was a top 50 ranked player by most publications and was named the Des Moines Register Player of the year in Iowa. Johnson is a 5-foot-10 guard out of Brooklyn Park, Minn., and led her high school to three straight state championships. She was a four-time all-conference player who scored over 2,000 points and grabbed over 1,000 rebounds throughout her career. "Jadda and Seanna are both going to play a lot of minutes for this team," Fennelly said. "They've both done a great job in the preseason stuff, and are talented and skilled. Jadda loves to play and is fun to watch. She will add another ball handler which we desperately needed. She can also defend at the Big 12 level. Some kids don't know much about defense coming into college, but Jadda embraces that a little bit. I think her and Seanna both from day one will be people who are going to be a major part of our plans."
Departing players Poppens and Prins averaged a combined 25 points per game from last year's squad, and another 15 rebounds. Replacing that production night in and night out won't be easy, but the 2013-14 Cyclones are excited about building their own identity.
"The thing about college sports that makes it so interesting is that the teams change," Fennelly said. "We lost three great seniors and now it's someone else's turn. Last year's team we had some length and size and this year we don't so it will be an interesting challenge to prepare and practice for this year."
And it all starts with preseason first-team All-Big 12 forward Hallie Christopherson. Christopherson started all 33 games last year and led the team with 15.6 ppg, shooting a team high 51 percent from the field, including a team-high 41 percent from beyond the three-point line. The 6-foot-3 senior averaged 6.7 rebounds a game and made it to the foul line a whopping 130 times, making over 86 percent.
"I think she is one of the best players in the country that people don't know about," Fennelly said. "Our offense starts with No. 5. Every play we call is for No. 5 and her teammates go out of their way to get her the ball. Offense is not equal opportunity in my mind. Not everyone gets the same amount of shots. Every play we run, the first option is to Hallie. Now if we can do something off of that we will, but that I where you have to start. Our players understand that, and they believe in and have trust in her. She's earned that over the four years here."
Christopherson is happy with the pre-season accolades, but isn't satisfied either.
"I'm concentrating on practicing right now," she said. "It's a great honor but you still have to do all the work. You have to keep working hard every day, you can't back down and continue to be a team leader and lead through the season. How well we perform as a team during the season is all that matters."
The past few years the Big 12 Conference has been the Baylor Bears, with everyone else fighting for second place. But with Brittney Griner having graduated, it's opened the doors a little for the rest of the conference members to potentially win the conference championship."I think our league will be very similar to what you are seeing in football," Fennelly said. "There might not be a top 10 team or a team that could win a national championship, but there are a lot of really good teams. Right now I think West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have the most kids back, so people will talk about them a lot. Baylor lost Brittney Griner and everyone thinks they aren't going to be very good, but you still have Odyssey Sims and they are a very good team. It will be a much more wide open race than in the past, which will hopefully make it a lot more interesting to the fans.
"I think our team can be a good team. We aren't real deep so we have to stay healthy, but if we can do that I think we have a chance to be pretty good."