Six games into the season, Iowa State has yet to face a team with more than two players that are 6-foot-3 or taller. Alabama has four, and the Cyclones will travel to Tuscaloosa to face the Crimson Tide tonight (6:00 p.m. SEC Network).
“The biggest challenge with Alabama is their size and their length,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. “We haven’t seen that, except with our scout team guys. They’re going to run 11 people at us with four kids that are bigger. It’s just going to be a whole different world than what we’ve been used to. Everything that they do is going to be at a higher pace with bigger bodies.”
It’s a completely different type of game than Iowa State has played so far this season.
Freshman Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw stressed that taking care of the ball is going to be big.
“They’ll definitely be a lot bigger and more scrappy, so us point guards need to take care of the ball,” Espenmiller-McGraw said. “I think once we’re able to break their press and handle the ball a bit better, we’ll be able to score a lot easier.”
The height comes from Ariyah Copeland, Shelby Gibson, Ashley Knight and Jasmine Walker – who is one of three players for the Tide that own a double-digit scoring average.
Although, it won’t all go against Iowa State. There will be some advantages for the smaller Cyclones. Rebounds are expected to come easier, due to the lack of speed that the Crimson Tide will bring to the court.
“They’re not as fast of a team, so we’ll be able to crash the boards a lot harder,” Espenmiller-McGraw said. “We’ve played a lot of teams who are a lot better in transition so we’ll hopefully have more rebounds in this game.”
Alabama provides a challenge for the Cyclones that Fennelly wanted to see. He was disappointed with his team after their 20-point win against New Orleans on Sunday and even said that the Cyclones won because they had Ashley Joens and the other team didn’t.
“It will be a challenge, so we’ve just got to come ready to go,” Joens said. We’ll work on it in practice [this week] and just to be able to transition that into a game will be huge.”
After the first day of practice following the New Orleans game, Fennelly was pleased with his team’s performance. It was a night-and-day difference between his opinion of the team the day before.
“We did a lot of our stuff and tried to get a lot of people involved [on Monday],” Fennelly said. “I was very impressed. The energy was good. The effort was good. It’s a credit to them that they came back and did some things that we needed to do to get ready for [Alabama].”
Thursday’s game is part of the Big 12/SEC Women’s Challenge which pits 10 schools from each conference against each other for a non-league game. The Cyclones are 1-2 in their three years involved in the challenge and the two conferences have actually tied in each season of the six-year history, except for 2016 where the SEC won 6-4.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Fennelly said. “I think these are fun. You’re not only representing your own program, but you’re representing the Big 12. These challenge series have become really popular in college basketball. They’re a great thing and you know when you go on the road and play this kind of game, it’s [similar to] what you’re going to see in the Big 12.”
Iowa State will have to battle some adversity with injuries, though, as they have all season.
Junior Madison Wise will sit out for the third straight game as she battles issues with migraine headaches. Even though she won’t be playing, she will be traveling with the team since it’s part of the process of getting ready for a game.
“She’s one of our scorers and she’s just another play that step up and play that role,” Joens said. “It limits [us].”
Against New Orleans, junior Kristin Scott left the game after taking a hard fall in the middle of the third quarter and did not return. She’d been battling a back injury through the first part of the season, however, the Cyclones don’t think Scott re-aggravated it.
“She’s good,” Fennelly said. “Yeah. She practiced yesterday. I think she was more scared than anything. That was a big kid that fell on her and I think we all would have been a little scared.”
The team expects her to be good to go in Tuscaloosa. Fennelly said she even practiced a bit extra since she only played 14 minutes on Sunday.
“The instant reaction was, ‘Oh no, not again,’ but it wasn’t the same thing,” Fennelly said. “It was just that she fell in an awkward spot. She practiced probably more [on Monday] then she had in a long time.”
No matter if the Cyclones are ready for the height disadvantage or not, they’ll look to advance to 6-1 on the season with a win on Thursday.
Either way, it will be a game that teaches others what Iowa State can put together this year.
“You’re going to see high major athletes in a tough environment, and you learn a lot about your team when you go on the road [to play] these type of games,” Fennelly said.