Iowa State's Bill Fennelly faces challenge

Bill Fennelly conducts practice much as he has in 16 previous seasons as the Iowa State coach. But there is one significant difference, as Fennelly now uses a microphone to get his point across. And the reason makes it even easier to understand why he is revered in Ames, and respected by women's college basketball coaches throughout the country.

After a triumphant summer in which he coached USA Basketball to the gold medal at the 2011 World University Games in China, Fennelly, 54, learned he had a cancerous lesion on his vocal cords. He is undergoing treatment but says he will not make any sacrifices when it comes to his team.

"My health issues do not change my focus at all," he said. "I am just as committed as ever to my team and Iowa State University ... I will not change what I do and will not miss any practices or games."

In a concession to his health issues, however, Fennelly responded to email questions instead of conversing by telephone. He also skipped the media day in Kansas City. As the dean of Big 12 coaches, he was conspicuous by his absence.

But, his voice amplified by a microphone, he has given interviews locally and continues to prepare his team for the 2011-12 season.

"He still talks and he still yells," sophomore forward Hallie Christofferson said recently.

"There were a few days after surgery to remove the lesion when the silence was deafening. I could not talk for a few days so my wife, Deb, told them [about the cancer]," Fennelly said of his players. "They were a little numb at first, but young people are very resilient.

"And they do look forward to me talking again, as they have all made that comment."

Over 16 years at Iowa State, Fennelly has built the program into one of the most successful in the country, winning 20 or more games 11 times and taking the Cyclones to the NCAA tournament 12 times. His record at Iowa State is 354-160. Counting seven years at Toledo, he has a career record of 520-213.

The Iowa State administration rewarded Fennelly for his success and loyalty by giving him a lifetime contract after the 2006-07 season. Still, he says that the pressure on coaches takes a toll on their health.

"No doubt the stress is a factor in what happens to a coach's health," he said. "The pressure is on all the time as it is a 24/7 job, 365 days a year."

And basketball is a family venture in the Fennelly household. Deb greets recruits and makes them feel at home, while Billy Fennelly is on his father's staff as director of player development. Steven is a graduate assistant.

"My family is doing great," the coach said. "There are some nerves, but my family is very tough and supportive."

He knows his team is a work in progress and is surprised that his fellow coaches picked Iowa State to finish fifth in the conference -- mostly likely a result of his track record.

"We have no double-digit scorer returning and no preseason All-Big 12 players," Fennelly said. "We have to find leadership, consistent scoring and improved guard play to handle our league and a tough nonconference schedule. As always, the goal is to be playing important games in February and March."

By which time Fennelly will have no problem being heard.

Team to beat

Texas A&M's Gary Blair talks about his team having a target on its back as defending national champion, but also acknowledges that the Aggies aren't even the favorite in their own conference. That distinction goes to Baylor, which won the Big 12 regular-season and conference tournament titles in 2010 and 2011, but lost to the Aggies in the NCAA tournament last spring.

Baylor returns four starters, including center Brittney Griner, perhaps the most dominant player in the country, and guard Odyssey Sims. Both gained immeasurable experience on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the World University Games in China. Coach Kim Mulkey said Baylor has some unfinished business.

"I think when you have a goal to win a national championship and you don't reach that goal, that if you're any kind of a competitor, the hunger should be there," she said. "I don't imagine that I'm going to have to do a lot of motivating to remind them that isn't it sad when a 34-3 record is not good enough."

Top challengers

Blair doesn't want his Texas A&M team to be a one-hit wonder like "Eddie and the Cruisers," the 1980s movie about a '60s rock band.

"It's my moment and it's A&M's moment, and we are going to work harder," he said.

With the addition of transfer Kelsey Bone from South Carolina and three returning starters, including Tyra White, the Aggies appear to have another tournament-bound team in place.

The biggest question mark is who will succeed point guard Danielle Adams, who took her 22-point average to the WNBA.

"We're hurting at point guard," said Blair, who will alternate junior Adrienne Pratcher and freshman Alexia Standish at the start of the season. "You win and win big with junior and senior point guards."

Look for Texas, Iowa State and Kansas to be in the mix, although a notch below the Aggies. And if Oklahoma's four freshmen are as good as advertised, the inexperienced Sooners may be a factor in the second half of the season.

Could surprise?

It has been 25 years since iconic Texas coach Jody Conradt led the Longhorns to the NCAA championship. It was the only title Texas would win even though it dominated the women's game in the 1980s. Now, Gail Goestenkors, Conradt's successor, has a team that might wake the echoes in Austin and remind fans of the Longhorns' glory days.

Texas finished 19-14 last season and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament but still was a disappointing 7-9 in conference play. But Goestenkors says she has her best team since leaving Duke to become Texas' head coach in 2007. She has an experienced team that will rely on three seniors: Ashley Gayle, Yvonne Anderson and Ashleigh Fontenette. And Texas will be bolstered by the return of point guard Cokie Reed, who averaged 16.7 points as a freshman but missed all of last season after undergoing foot surgery.

Preseason player of the year

This is a slam dunk. Brittney Griner, Baylor's 6-foot-8 junior center, is a game changer who has made her mark on the Big 12.

"We all had to get taller," Blair, the Texas A&M coach, said about recruiting. "She is a phenom."

Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke called Griner "the most dominant player in the world. I think she is changing basketball."

That is an awful lot to live up to, but Griner appears suited to the task. She plays both ends of the court and has the quickness and agility of a guard. She can dunk effortlessly. Griner averaged 23 points last season and 7.8 rebounds. She led the nation in blocked shots with 170, an average of 4.5 a game.

And the scary part is that she is only going to get better. Griner didn't start playing basketball until ninth grade.

"I'm always learning, the game and the terminology," she said.

Game of the year

The most anticipated game of the regular season will be on Feb. 2 in Waco, Texas, when Baylor and Texas A&M renew a heated rivalry that has taken on an added dimension now that the Aggies are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC after this season.

Fueling the rivalry is the fact that Baylor defeated Texas A&M three times in conference play last season, only to lose when the schools met in the NCAA Elite Eight. Given that Baylor averages almost 8,000 fans a game, the Aggies can expect a boisterous and hostile reception when they come calling.

Fab Freshmen

Point guards Alexia Standish of Texas A&M and Cassie Peoples of Texas were selected by conference coaches as the preseason co-freshmen of the year, but Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale might have the best incoming class. She raves about her four freshmen.

Coale said DaShawn Harden is an excellent passer "with a unique way of seeing what's happening on the floor."

She also said the biggest surprise might be Sharane Campbell, a 5-foot-10 guard who hasn't played a lot of AAU and offseason basketball but is "going to be special. She's strong. She's explosive. She's athletic. And she's a smart kid who really wants to get better."

Comeback story

This is a "come back" as in coming home to Texas. That's what Kelsey Bone, the Texas A&M center who grew up in Houston, did last year when she transferred from South Carolina and sat out a year, learning the Aggies' system and keeping fans up to date with her "Kickin' it with Kelsey" blog.

"Kelsey Bone is not your average transfer," Blair said. "And she's had a chance to be with us for a year tutoring and learning." Bone was the No. 2-ranked recruit in the country in 2009 and averaged 14.9 points and 9.0 rebounds for South Carolina as a freshman.

Did you know?

The Big 12 is supposed to be football country, but the conference has been a pipeline of talent for the WNBA. It has sent 84 players to the pros since the WNBA's inception 15 years ago. Oklahoma leads with 13 players drafted. Danielle Robinson of the Sooners was the sixth overall pick in last season's draft. She was taken by San Antonio and averaged 8.2 points and 3.9 assists coming off the bench.

Going to the Dance

You can pencil in Baylor, a popular preseason No.1 pick as the top team in the country, Texas A&M, Texas, Iowa State and Kansas State for NCAA tournament berths. Oklahoma and Kansas may go dancing as well. That would equal the seven bids the conference received last season. If any of the second-tier teams stumbles, Texas Tech could go back to the tournament.

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