There’s really no point in debating – Bridget Carleton is a dynamic, disruptive basketball player.
The Iowa State senior averaged more than 19 points and six rebounds per game last year, has multiple accolades in her pocket (including two first-team all-Big 12 honors), and she’s been an essential weapon for the Cyclones since she walked on campus by scoring 28 points in her first game.
In fact, there’s so much agreement on Carleton’s skills and abilities that her own teammates have often given her the ball and just … waited to see what happened.
It’s understandable, but not much of a strategy. For 2018-19, Iowa State is determined to explore the depth that surrounds Carleton so it’s not as hard to rise to the occasion. The plan gets its first regular season application on Friday, Nov. 9 at home against Niagara in the first round of the 2018 Preseason WNIT.
Head coach Bill Fennelly enters his 24th year running the program, and his resume shows 10 NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 12 years. However, those two misses have come in the last three seasons, when the Cyclones simply haven’t evolved all the pieces necessary to find harmony with Carleton, a Canada native who aspires with reason to play for the Canadian National team in the next Olympics.
Iowa State will tweak its playing style a bit and put a lot of effort into helping Carleton not expend so much effort. That means possessions that rely on sophomore Madison Wise (28 starts last year, 41 percent from 3-point range), Alexa Middleton (transfer from Tennessee, another proven 3-point threat), JUCO transfer Jade Thurmon (23.3 ppg last year) and freshman Ashley Joens, an Iowa native who was a consensus top-20 recruit nationally after averaging more than 30 points per game as a senior.
“Turnovers drive me crazy, but we do want to play a little more pace. We have a deeper bench and will do things a bit differently going forward,” Fennelly said. “You can play with pace, but the decision making is critical, and we’ve worked really hard on that. And because we do have a good fan base, when we do throw that ball in the fourth row, hopefully someone’s ready to catch it and throw it back.
“Last year, we did a lot of standing around watching Bridget play, and now we have to do a good job as players and coaches … to be ready for her to create opportunities for others. Our spacing could be better – Wise can shoot the three, Middleton played at a high level at Tennessee, Ashley Joens is a dynamic scorer. For sure, we can put more people on the court who can score on a more consistent basis. These players can get 10-12 points on a given night and give the other team something else to think about.”
Carleton’s motivations are clear and concise – last year’s 14-17 finish needs to be pushed aside, she wants her supporting cast to develop, and there’s another jump in performance and production right there for the taking. Oddly enough, Carleton’s career shooting percentage is below 40 percent, one of those stats that doesn’t make much sense given the breadth of her abilities.
“It’s been fun learning about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and our cohesiveness has been better than I would have thought, because we have so many new players coming from different backgrounds,” said Carleton, who still shoots 33 percent from long range and 85 percent from the free-throw line. “I know when I need to take a leadership role, when to slow things down, when to try and make something happen, and also when I need to get others involved.
“I wasn’t happy last year with my shooting percentage; I was put in a lot of tough shot clock (situations) where I had to try and make things happen. That’s obviously one of my goals this year, to get my shooting percentage up, because I want to show a complete game and be reliable.”
“A lot of that was my fault and her teammates’ fault, because with the shot clock, she had to take some really, really hard shots,” Fennelly said. “We had kids who deferred to her when they should have taken the shot. Bridget needs to rebound the ball offensively better, and she knows that. She’s better off the bounce, and we’d like to get her to the free-throw line more.”
While Fennelly and Carleton are feeling optimistic at the start, thanks to a top-15 freshman recruiting class, they are clear-eyed about what’s been missing at times (the Cyclones were just 13-17 in her freshman year). As many as 10 or 11 other players will get the chance to fortify Carleton for the year, and Fennelly for the long run.
“Those two (losing) years, we were in a lot of games and lost the close ones. It comes down to winning every possession,” Carleton said. “It’s not like we are getting blown out, and we’re right there with some great teams. We do have that experience this year you need to pull those wins out.”
“The biggest thing is, we couldn’t identify and develop the depth we needed. This is not a program like others where you can stockpile players, and we had some not develop at the rate we hoped,” Fennelly added. “We struggled to shoot the ball at times; the comment around here is we don’t need shooters, but we need makers. You can trace our previous success in large part to our field goal percentage over the years; we take care of the ball and are good from the free-throw line. We lost a bunch of games last year that were close because we didn’t shoot well.
“We’re not a team that will turn you over a ton, we’re not going to overpower you with size, so we have to do it with a skill set and valuing each possession more than we have in the past. Hopefully, this year we will be better than that."