"A lot of people think that it's is a great thing, but if your experience is getting beat then it isn't a good thing," he said. "We have a lot of people back – is that good or bad? On this team, because of the kind of kids we have, it's a great thing. It's a great advantage for us. Our kids are very bright, know how to play, and know what's at stake.
"Our seniors are well aware of what has not happened the last two years. In our system, it allows us to make some changes on the fly a little better. They know what we're doing."
The Cyclones enter this season with high expectations, given the number of veterans returning and the postseason experience gained from last March.
ISU's lone departure from a year ago was guard Erica Junod. Senior guards Anne O'Neil and Mary Fox, along with posts Katie Robinette, Lisa Kriener, and Tracy Paustian are all expected to play big roles in their final seasons in Ames. All of the pieces appear to be in place for Fennelly's team to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence.
"I'm not a coach that spends a lot of time with individual player goals," Fennelly said. "I have one goal for this team, and that's to play in the NCAA Tournament. My schedule card will say ‘March 13, 2005.' Everything I do every single day will be designed for Selection Sunday, and to get Iowa State's name on a national stage. That's got to be your focus.
"I think the success we had at the end of last year really helps. Without the NIT, that experience might not have been as positive a thing. We got to practice extra. We tried to win every single game and win that tournament, but we spent a lot of time in practice working on this year. We were experimenting with different things and different ideas. We used it as a bowl practice kind of thing. I hope that helped us coming into this year."
O'Neil and Robinette are the centerpieces of what Fennelly hopes is an improved offensive unit. The two originally came to ISU as transfers, O'Neil from Illinois three seasons ago, and Robinette who left after her initial year at Nebraska.
While both have battled more than their share of adversity since arriving at ISU, they can now put all of their focus into having a banner season and leading the program back to what used to be the norm in Ames…the NCAA Tournament.
"Off the bat, offensively, Anne and Katie are the two that will have to set the tone," Fennelly said. "Anne's a fifth-year senior and has changed her shot," Fennelly said. "It takes a lot of work and an odd commitment. She did it at the free throw line last year, and now her 3-point shot is a little different. She'll be a huge part of what we do. She's our leading scorer and can play both guard positions. Physically she's in really good shape.
"Without question, Katie Robinette is as talented a kid as we've ever had here. Because of circumstances of transfer and having a child, she's not going to have the greatest career in Iowa State history. But there's no doubt in my mind that she could be as good a single-season player as we've ever had."
If O'Neil and Robinette are firing on all cylinders, the Cyclones should be able to put an end to the offensive woes that have plagued them the past two seasons. The team has struggled to score points during 18 and 12-win seasons that saw ISU miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign.
While the team's defensive improvement has been welcome, Fennelly would like to see more strides made on the other end of the court.
"You've got to score, that's the nature of the game," he said. "You've got to guard some. You can't just give up points. But if you're not scoring you're not going to win. I don't care what level it is. At some point you've got to find ways to create offense.
"The challenge is to maintain that balance between still trying to be a solid defensive team, and improve our offense enough that our defense doesn't suffer. Our kids understand that and know the system. Defensively, we can move a little quicker in review and move on to other things offensively."
The fastest way to creating more on the offensive end is to improve in the post. Cyclone fans can point to the days when center Angie Welle patrolled the paint, as evidence of that. Megan Taylor, Tracy Gahan, and Stacy Frese put up big points outside, but Welle's presence and contribution inside keyed that aspect of the attack.
Fennelly would like to rely on more than just one post player at a time this season, as opposed to last. Robinette and Kriener are likely candidates to start side by side, giving ISU its best post lineup in years. Paustian and Brittany Wilkins are also in the mix. Either way, the Cyclones look to have more options inside.
"Every football coach will tell you that you've got to have a good offensive line and defensive line," Fennelly said. "That's the way in basketball. All basketball coaches want inside-outside balance. We need to find easy baskets. We love to shoot the three and run the ball, but it's a lot easier to make that shot standing underneath the basket. At some point, when you're really struggling, you've got to be able to throw the ball in the block and make a layup or get fouled. It stops the bleeding. We couldn't do that last year enough."
Given the amount of depth returning to the court, the Cyclones won't depend as much on their newcomers as in past seasons. However, at least one new addition is expected to contribute. Sophomore Tegan Stuart, a 5-foot-6 guard out of Peculiar, Mo., is expected to provide depth on the perimeter.
"Right off the bat, Tegan Stuart will play," Fennelly said. "She gives us a toughness and another guard. You're definitely going to see her. She can play the one and two. She gives us a defensive presence that a lot of teams have. She's a defensive stopper-kind of kid. Whether or not she can score at this level consistently remains to be seen."
ISU opens the 2004-05 season with exhibition games against William Penn on Nov. 7 and Northwest Missouri State on Nov. 14. Fennelly's squad will begin the regular season by hosting Cleveland State on Nov. 21.