When the Iowa State women’s basketball team takes the floor on Thursday night for an exhibition matchup against Southwest Baptist, fans can expect to see a glimpse of what this year’s team is going to look like. There should be a noticeable difference from a year ago.
Perhaps the most glaring example will be in the team’s chemistry.
“The chemistry of this team is as good as it’s been in 10 years,” Bill Fennelly said. “[The beginning of the season] feels a lot different. We’re a lot better team on paper, which no one cares about, but we are better. We have more options.”
That’s high praise considering that team 10 years ago made it to the Elite Eight – the best postseason mark in Fennelly’s career.
Fennelly drew similar comparisons earlier this offseason.
“Last year was pretty good, but this year we’ve taken it to a whole other level,” sophomore Madison Wise said. “We’re all getting along super well and I think that translates well on to the court.”
Wise will be one of Iowa State’s starters on Thursday night, Fennelly said on Tuesday. She will be lining up with point guard Alexa Middleton, reigning Miss Iowa Basketball Ashley Joens, Bridget Carleton, and senior Meredith Burkhall.
Fennelly stressed that Adriana Camber and Inès Nezerwa would be getting in the game early on as well, and also that that starting lineup is just for Thursday.
“Those are probably right now the top seven,” Fennelly said. “You could easily say [Nezerwa] and [Camber] deserve to start by their performance [in practice], but [Burkhall] is going to start Thursday.”
Burkhall is coming off a surgery in the offseason to remove a blood-clot that stretched the length from her knee to her stomach.
When she originally had the surgery, their were concerns she might not ever play again.
“It’s been amazing what she’s gone through to get to this point,” Fennelly said. “She hasn’t missed one day of practice. She hasn’t missed one rep.”
Part of what separates this Iowa State team from some in the recent past in the options that Fennelly has to use as he pleases. This season’s roster, as Fennelly said, is a lot better on paper.
“We have a ton of options,” Fennelly said. “I wish I could tell you exactly everyone’s role, but competition’s a good thing. They decide who plays. We’re going to keep working all of them every day in practice. Hopefully seven or eight of them will kind of separate a little bit.”
Over the next four days, the coaching staff will have time – both against Southwest Baptist on Thursday and Winona State on Sunday in exhibitions – to figure out who can really play in game situations.
He wants to find that rotation that gives the team chances to utilize the options that they have.
“We can find a rotation and at the same time give us some options in going a little bigger, going a little smaller, move people around, and hopefully that versatility will help,” Fennelly said.
One of those options – Alexa Middleton – hasn’t played a game in 590 days.
Yes. She counted.
Middleton, being a transfer from Tennessee, sat out during games last season due to the NCAA transfer rule. She will play in front of fans – something that means a lot to her – for the first time in almost two years on Thursday.
“I’m very eager [to play in front of fans],” Middleton said. “That’s one of my favorite parts of playing basketball is the crowd getting into it. Being on the sidelines last year and just seeing how awesome the crowd is here – I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.”
That’s something that the program – and coach Fennelly – care much about: the fans.
Iowa State has ranked in the top 10 nationally in attendance averages in each year since the 1999-2000 season, and most recently third in each of the past three years.
“Do our fans see improvement of what they saw last year?” Fennelly said. “To me, I want out kids to have a good time and I want the people who come out here [Thursday] night to walk out of here thinking, ‘That’s an Iowa State team that we’re used to seeing.’”
Fennelly and the team seem ready to take things to the court, and they will get their first chance at it on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
“They’re just tired of practicing,” Fennelly said. “I think the idea of just getting to play and put the uniform on [is awesome]. We talk so much about playing at Hilton. Now they get a chance to do it.”