ISU revels in unbeaten basketball
AMES – Iowa State women’s coach Bill Fennelly looked at his phone and there was a congratulatory text from Cyclones counterpart and close friend Fred Hoiberg.
When Fennelly arrived at the school’s basketball facility in Ames, the first faces he saw were Hoiberg’s players. They braved shivering conditions to congratulate Fennelly for staying undefeated with a win over Oklahoma on Sunday.
The Cyclone men certainly appreciate how tough it is to take a perfect record into January.
It’s 13 up, and 13 down for the men and women at Iowa State. The Cyclones are the only Division I school with two unbeaten basketball teams.
“I’m standing outside and I’m freezing and I’m like … ‘Thank you. Get in the car. I’ve got to go.’ It’s been fun for our school, and it’s been fun to talk about,” Fennelly said. “Anytime our program is even mentioned with the success and the good things going on with the men’s side, then we’re very, very flattered by that.”
The men are ranked ninth heading into Tuesday’s home game with No. 7 Baylor. The women are ranked 11th, their highest position since 2002, after beating the Sooners 82-75 in overtime on the road.
Each program is off to the best start in school history and packing Hilton Coliseum on a nightly basis. The men have already had four sellouts and expect to reach capacity for every Big 12 game – while the women are again averaging close to 10,000 a game.
“It’s exciting for our players. It’s exciting for our coaches and it’s exciting for our fans,” athletic director Jamie Pollard said. “It’s a unique situation, and it is what is. I don’t think anyone has any control over it.”
Both of Iowa State’s teams had roughly the same expectations: to make some noise in the Big 12 and compete for a decent NCAA tournament seed.
Few thought either of them could be this good this early into conference play.
Iowa State knew it would have to rely heavily on newcomers and unproven youngsters to bolster returning starters Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang. But transfers Dustin Hogue and DeAndre Kane have performed at an All-Big 12-type level, and young guards Naz Long, Matt Thomas and Monte Morris quickly settled into supporting roles.
The team’s early success has galvanized the community. A big part of that energy is the appeal of Hoiberg, a homegrown coach who has turned around the program at his alma mater.
“It’s a company town and we’re the company. And so, when it’s one of your own running the company, it can make it more special,” Pollard said.
The Cyclone women, much like the men, have leaned on a couple of unexpected starts to vault up the national rankings.
The anchor for Iowa State is Hallie Christofferson, a 6-foot-3 senior forward and one of the nation’s top inside-outside threats. She’s helped compensate for the loss of star post players Chelsea Poppens and Anna Prins with career highs of 21 points and 7.9 rebounds a game.
But freshmen Seanna Johnson and Jadda Buckley have quickly turned Iowa State’s backcourt into one of the most versatile and dangerous in the country.
Johnson leads the Cyclones with 8.3 rebounds a game even though she’s just 5-10. Buckley is averaging 11.5 points a game and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-to-1. She had a career-high 29 points in the victory at Oklahoma.
Fennelly “has two freshmen that are just playing absolutely phenomenal basketball right now and making huge plays. It’s just been fun to watch that team continue to grow,” Hoiberg said.
Iowa State’s recent success in basketball has been a blessing for a fan base that has long supported the Cyclones whether they won or lost.
Iowa State has typically drawn well at Hilton Coliseum in the past few decades, and last season the football team has its best year ever in terms of attendance despite a 3-9 record.
The Cyclones are finally rewarding that unfailing loyalty with unprecedented success in hoops.
“We’ve been an anomaly nationally. When I talk to my peers, we have fan support that transcends winning and losing,” Pollard said. “I’ve said for the last couple of years that we’ve got to give back eventually because our fans have more than given their fair share. I see what’s happening in basketball and I take comfort or pride or satisfaction in the fact that I know we’re giving back. We’re making people feel good.”