In this season of new faces, it was obvious that things for Iowa State women’s basketball would look different. When the program’s leading scorer and four other seniors (including a WNBA lottery pick) graduated and a few transfers found a new home, there wasn’t really another choice. The highest-ranked recruiting class in school history and a pair of talented, if underrated, transfers kept the outlook from being too dire, but for a program used to a high level of success, the expectation was for 2023-24 to be something of a “down year.”
Given the start to the season — Emily Ryan out, a record hovering around and even dipping under .500, and a team searching for an identity against solid early competition — the prediction of a rebuilding year seemed apt in November. Even so, the group showed flashes of what they might eventually become individually — with six out of seven newcomers recording at least one double-digit scoring performance in the non-conference slate — and as a team — excelling in many areas that are generally bolstered by experience, including assist rate, rebounding percentage, and efficiency.
“Eventually” may have come sooner than expected. The team was energized by a close loss to #4 Iowa, choosing to focus on the fight they showed when few gave them a chance, as opposed to dwelling on the outcome. Clearly, the emphasis was valid as Iowa State has since rattled off eight-straight wins, including a 5-0 start to conference play, leaving them tied atop the Big 12 standings with Kansas State. This wasn’t a case of favorable scheduling, though; two of those victories came in tough road environments, and two came over consecutive ranked opponents — the first time Iowa State has beat two-straight ranked teams since 2009-10. Ryan’s return to play seven games ago has certainly been a significant factor, but she isn’t carrying them by any means — rather, she makes those on the court around her better. Ryan magnifies what I see as this team’s biggest strength, something that Iowa State hasn’t seen in a while: their consistency.
“But Jamie,” you may be thinking, “this team has faced deficits in nearly all of their Big 12 wins. You never know which player is going to step up. Is that consistent?” To this imagined, if realistic, question, I say yes! The best way I can put it is that ISU is playing consistently without a lot of constants. Audi Crooks is the lone player to score in double figures in every league game and has, in fact, done so in every game after the season-opener against Butler. After her, though, any number of Cyclones might step up. Arianna Jackson has recorded the two highest point totals of her young career in conference play, netting 14 and 17 points after increasing her off-guard minutes with Ryan’s return. Hannah Belanger netted six of 10 three-pointers against Kansas. Isnelle Natabou has taken full advantage of her minutes, scoring 10 in 12 minutes against Oklahoma State and eight in 10 versus West Virginia. As Coach Fennelly said after one game, this team is tough to prepare for. Who lives atop the scouting report with Crooks? It’s not always the same person, but what this team has done game after game is find SOMEONE to step up and make plays — and with the depth this team enjoys, there are a lot of options.
Another of the few constants for this team is the impact of Addy Brown. She’ll usually score a good deal, yes, but she’s also the team’s leading rebounder and distributor. In fact, she’s the only player in the country in the top 50 for both rebounds and assists per game. Brown is certainly capable of scoring at a high rate, but will opt to set teammates up if their opportunity is better. When playing with a dominant post like Crooks and the caliber of three-point shooting on the Cyclones’ roster, that unselfishness is a crucial trait.
While Crooks has earned more conference Freshman of the Week selections and may have gained more notoriety early for her dominance, many of those I personally regard as the best minds in women’s basketball tend to refer to them as the “Iowa State duo” for good reason. Both players possess the ability to take over a game and present significant matchup issues for most teams. They play exceedingly well off of each other; if Crooks is double-teamed, few guards can compete with Brown’s size and touch on a dump-off down low. If she’s one-on-one, though, look out — she’s top-15 nationally in field goal percentage and the Brown-to-Crooks connection is second only to the elite, experienced Georgia Amoore to Elizabeth Kitley at Virginia Tech in assist connections on the year.
I’ve named six players so far, and there are still more impactful players to mention. Senior Nyamer Diew stepped up in a big way in Ryan’s absence, acting as the team’s rock of sorts as the only other returner who’d really “been there, done that.” She’s played the past two seasons at ISU out of position, forced to the 4 or even 5 spot due to injuries in the post corps. Back on the perimeter, she’s had some terrific offensive showings, including 20 points on 6 of 7 from three against Troy. In conference play, Diew has gone cold from the field but makes her presence known in other ways, such as using her significant length to make opposing guards think twice about what may look like an open shot. Many seniors could resent the attention being showered on the young core of this team, but Diew is perhaps the group’s most vocal supporter.
Back in November, we talked after Iowa State’s commanding 85-44 win over St. Thomas. She had a solid 12 points, one of four players in double figures with the other three being freshmen. After sharing how special it was for her to have so many family members and friends in the stands, the game being the closest to home in her career, I asked what it’d been like so far for her to see the young ones develop over the summer until now. Her response was unsurprising to those who know her but counter to what many would expect from one in her situation. She shared the confidence and pride she has in the newcomers and said that if her role ended up being a defensive stopper and finding ways to set them up on offense, she’d be happy there. That’s kind of where things sit right now, but Diew remains much more of an offensive threat than she’s shown recently — really, I defy a team to experiment with leaving her to double Crooks. I’d hazard a guess the “slump” would end pretty quickly.
Kelsey Joens and Jalynn Bristow rounding out the bench may be the biggest keys to the team’s top-10 rebounding margin. Joens averages nearly nine rebounds per 40 minutes and Bristow more than 12 — with the two combining for almost 40 minutes per game, that’s about a quarter of your rebounds coming off of the bench. Neither has made a lot of noise offensively in conference play, but Joens hit key three-pointers in both ranked wins in week 10, and Bristow went a perfect 2-2 from the free-throw line in each of those same games, in addition to 2-2 from the floor against WVU. It’s not so much a matter of if, but when, they have a big showing of their own in conference play.
The chemistry on this team is unlike any I’ve ever seen. Though they may struggle at times, they’ll never take themselves out of a game, as evidenced by their completion of the biggest comeback in school history, rallying from down 19 with 16 minutes to go for a 10-point victory over West Virginia. There are players on the team with above-average physical traits and skills, yes, but so much of the success comes down to effort. Belanger made the jump from Division II to Power 5 basketball and isn’t just a knockdown shooter; she’s showing her ability to put the ball on the floor to pull up or get to the rim in addition to really excellent defense. Ryan finds a way to impact success no matter how many minutes she’s on the court, acting as an additional coach before her return and now doing what it takes to win — scoring, rebounding, dishing assists, or even blocking shots, she’s going to leave her mark. As a group, they’re one of the best in the country in so many of the things I believe make a team not just good, but fun, including rebounding percentage (a result of effort and hustle), assist percentage (requires good ball movement), fewest fouls committed (clean defense), and field goal percentage (made shots!).
All of this is good, but it’s important to remember that at some point youth, inexperience, and a tendency towards come-from-behind wins are likely to catch up to them. At some point, they’ll be beaten, but notice my phrasing: a team is going to have to BEAT them, because they simply do not beat themselves. When Iowa State takes the floor, no matter the opponent, they believe they’re going to win the game. Their play ensures they give themselves a chance, whatever the odds. The approach isn’t new, but the response is; slowly but surely, the outside world is starting to believe it, too.