A common theme throughout Iowa State's women's basketball season was how different things have been compared to the 2017-18 season.
One year ago at this time, the Cyclones were just about to finish their second losing season in three years, after having only one losing season in the previous 20 seasons combined. The team had little to play for, and things got so bad for Iowa State that head coach Bill Fennelly was seriously contemplating retirement.
This year, however, the Cyclones have re-discovered the success that had previously defined the Fennelly era.
The team finished 23-7 in the regular season and 13-5 in Big 12 play, good for a two seed in the Big 12 Tournament, and the Cyclones appear to have a team capable of doing damage in the NCAA Tournament. A far cry from last season, when the team was just looking for any sort of silver lining.
"I think last year at this time, we were just trying to finish on a good note," said senior guard Bridget Carleton. "But this year, we have something to play for."
The main reason that the team actually has something to play for has been the development of players around Carleton. Last year, the Cyclones' senior leader was just about the only bright spot on an otherwise struggling team, scoring over 19 points per game and earning unanimous All-Big 12 honors, while the team she played on lagged to a 14-17 overall record.
This year, the team's starting lineup has improved drastically, with several legitimate scoring available beside Carleton at any given time during the game.
Players like sophomore Kristin Scott and freshman Ashley Joens provide the shooting ability to space the floor, and players like senior Alexa Middleton and sophomore Madison Wise are both capable of scoring in double figures on any given night.
This allowed Carleton more freedom as teams couldn't key-in on just her, and it ultimately led to career-high numbers during the regular season.
To cap it all off, those career high numbers were acknowledged by the Big 12's coaches this week, as Carleton was named the conference's Player of the Year. It was the first time that a Cyclone player had ever won the league's highest individual honor.
"I'm really excited about it," Carleton said. "It's a huge honor, obviously, to be recognized league's coaches. It's been a great year, so it's kind of cool to be topped off by that."
Even though Carleton's individual statistics are spectacular — she's averaging 21.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game this season — she and Fennelly were consistent in going back to the team's improvement as the most prominent factor in her success.
"When I told her initially, it was all about her teammates," Fennelly said. "And she means it. That wasn't phony wither her.
"We're flattered that the coaches thought that much of her and it's something that she'll remember forever."
While Carleton will certainly take pride in her accomplishment, she and the Cyclones still have bigger goals that they want to attain, and those goals start this weekend in Oklahoma City.
Iowa State will begin play Saturday evening with a rematch of Monday's game against Kansas. This comes as a bit of a surprise, as the Jayhawks finished the season with the worst record in the Big 12, but Kansas found a way to upset the seventh-seeded Oklahoma State Cowgirls.
With the win on Monday, the Cyclones swept their reguar-season series against the Jayhawks with relative ease. On paper, Iowa State appears very likely to advance to the next round of the tournament, where they'd play the winner of Texas and TCU.
The Cyclones are still weary of the damage that can be done by a low-seeded team like Kansas, a team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
"We're the second seed, but like coach said, our records are all 0-0, Carleton said. "We have to earn our wins now."
Assuming Iowa State passes that test and moves on, however, the Big 12 Tournament could be a stepping stone for a longer run in the NCAA Tournament in two weeks.
It'll be extremely tough, realistically speaking, to defeat No. 1 Baylor and win the Big 12, but a solid showing in Oklahoma City would likely be a nice momentum boost for Iowa State heading into the Big Dance. A run to the semi-finals and beyond would also likely guarantee that the Cyclones host a regional in Ames, giving the team an inside track to the Sweet 16.
The Cyclones clearly have the talent, star power and senior leadership to make some noise, and that potential has the team excited about the possibilities in front of them.
"The Big 12 tournament is always fun. March and the post season, there's nothing better," Fennelly said. "This group has done such a good job all year. This group believes in itself, they believe in what's possible, and I think they're really excited to continue to play and we're excited to start that on Saturday night."