The Iowa State Cyclones are 8-2 after playing its pre-Big 12 schedule and are now preparing for its conference opener against Texas Tech on Dec. 31.
With that, we have five thoughts about the Cyclones at the break.
At the Moment
The Cyclones took in one big transfer — and we mean big — in 6-foot-6 center Stephanie Soares. The Cyclones made a statement at the Phil Knight Invitational in beating Michigan State, but they couldn’t follow that up with a win over North Carolina, ranked No. 8 at the time. Worse, the 13-point loss to Iowa in the Cy-Hawk exposed some deficiencies on defense that the Cyclones will need to shore up.
The win over then-No. 25 Villanova helped give the Cyclones a quality win to end non-conference. They enter Big 12 play with a 2-2 record against Power 5 schools and a 1-2 record against ranked teams. Otherwise, the Cyclones beat who they should have beaten.
Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly said not to judge Soares on where she is in November but where she is in March. But the NAIA transfer has fit in well in Ames, to the point where ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo called her a pro prospect. Fennelly wanted rebounding and defense from the 6-foot-6 center, and she’s delivered with 9.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocked shots per game. Her 15.1 points per game is, to me, better than expected at this stage, considering the significant rise in talent. Ashley Joens remains the team’s most dynamic offensive player (19.3 points and 9.2 rebounds) and guard Emily Ryan remains the team’s pulse (12.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists per game).
Fennelly hoped the emergence of Denae Fritz as a starter — and she was the Big 12 Freshman of the Week for Dec. 19 — would take a bit of the defensive load off of reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Lexi Donarski. It has to some degree, but Donarski averages 10.9 points per game and she’s second on the team with 14 steals. They have one of the most consistent and productive starting fives in the conference.
The Recruiting Class
Knowing that he was expecting to lose players like Joens, Fennelly and his staff put together one of the best recruiting classes in Cyclones history, one with five players and ranked No. 10 overall by ESPN.com. Three of the signees are Top 100 players — forward Addy Brown, forward Jalynn Bristow, and center Audi Crooks. It’s a class with significant height (all three Top 100 players are 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3). The Cyclones also signed guard Arianna Jackson and, naturally, a Joens — Kelsey Joens, the youngest sister of Ashley.
Depth. The Cyclones have it, but can they get more out of it? The five starters are logging at least 26 minutes per game. Two others are logging more than 10 — forward Nyamer Diew (who was a part-time starter last year) and guard Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw. The Cyclones need to get a bit more out of forward Morgan Kane (who is playing just under 10 minutes per game) and guard Izzi Zingaro. Forward Beatriz Jordao just announced her medical retirement.
Shooting from the 3-point line could be a concern, too. Ryan is at 40 percent, Joens is at nearly 40 percent but the dropoff to the normally-reliable Donarski (27.9 percent) is steep. Only Joens has attempted more 3-pointers than Donarski. ISU hopes to see a bit of a turnaround there.
The Big Stretch
A stretch that starts on Jan. 21 at home against Kansas may define where Iowa State finishes in the Big 12 in the regular season. After the Jayhawks, the Cyclones go to Fort Worth to take on TCU. Then, it’s a steady stream of dangerous teams — home against Oklahoma, at Kansas State, home against Baylor, at a resurgent West Virginia, home against Texas, and then at Baylor to wrap up the swing on Feb. 18. After that, the Cyclones will have four games left to lock in their placement for the Big 12 Tournament.
You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard