When the preseason AP Top 25 rankings came out on Tuesday afternoon, the Iowa State women’s basketball program found itself in a spot it hasn’t been since the start of the century.
For the first time since the 2001-02 season, the Cyclones are starting the year ranked inside of the top 15, coming in right at the No. 15 mark as one of two Big 12 schools in the poll.
It’s also the first time since the 2013-14 season in which the team is starting the season out in the AP Poll.
“I think it’s great,” Fennelly said. “I don’t know if it’s realistic or not, but I think it’s great. Anytime Iowa State in any (sport) is top something… when you have the phrase top 15, top 17, you’re rated high. It’s a great thing, not just for our team, but for our university and our athletic department.”
Fennelly added that he just hopes he is talking about rankings near the end of the season.
After all, the last time he was talking about the poll in February, the Cyclones ended up hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed in their region.
“We have kids that can play and we’re going to embrace the expectations,” Fennelly said. “We understand that it doesn’t really mean anything now, but I think it says a lot about what our players have done in the past. Obviously, people think they are pretty good, now it’s up to us to do the work.”
That’s just what this Cyclones team embodies, too.
Fennelly noted that it took the entire first 17 conference games last season to fine-tune the team to the point that it could formidably beat Baylor.
However, the top 15 ranking comes with expectations.
At one point in the season, the Cyclones will face TCU, No. 1 South Carolina, and Iowa in a three-game stretch.
Different players are approaching it in different ways.
“We can’t let that be the best point of our season,” senior Madison Wise said. “We have to build on that and keep growing and getting better as a team on and off the court.”
Players like Wise and Kristin Scott used the pandemic break to battle back from issues that kept each of them off the court.
They’d ideally like to get back and mesh early with unanimous all-Big 12 selection Ashley Joens at the forefront of the squad.
“I look at (the rankings), but I don’t really process them,” Joens said. “I just kind of look at them and know that it doesn’t mean anything at this point – that you just have to keep on working and keep on getting better every time. It doesn’t really mean anything until we get out there and start playing.”
That’s quite literally the name of the game this season.
In order to reach the end of the year, teams have to be able to play games. They have to be disciplined and lucky enough to avoid cancelations caused by COVID-19.
“We have a goal as a team – to stay healthy,” senior Rae Johnson said. “All of us are really mentally put together. We all want the same goal and want to hold each other accountable. We all want to play together so we’re doing everything that we can to do that.”
It’s not going to be easy at first for the team, and early on they’re bound to face some struggles.
The start of the season is going to look different. Teams might be more sloppy than usual at first.
“Obviously the one thing that the break, the quarantine and all that stuff hurts is being young in certain spots,” Fennelly said. “In that regard, we lost a lot of the summer and the protocols limited what we can do normally to build a team in the fall, but Ashley Joens is as good of a player as there is in the country. I think Kristin Scott when she is healthy, I wouldn’t trade her for anyone.”
But the pressure ramps up for the Cyclones as the expectations start higher.
So with a talented roster waiting in the wings, a group of freshmen rated higher than any previous class and a potential player of the year out in front and center, the Cyclones will try to prove it.
We’ll get our first look in two weeks.