- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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BOULDER, Colo. -- The football final from the RCA Dome in Indianapolis wasn't even the most surprising score waiting in the pressroom at halftime of Sunday's game between Iowa State and Colorado. Not when the old cattle towns of the Great Plains seem intent on channeling their spirit into the Wild West of basketball that is the Big 12 this season.
There it was on the screen, direct from Austin: Kansas State 77, Texas 74.
Consider Oklahoma State's Andrea Riley scoring a career-best 45 points to lead the Cowgirls past sixth-ranked Oklahoma on Saturday.
Consider that, after beating No. 12 Texas A&M and No. 15 Texas (in overtime) on the road in the span of five days, Kansas State shares the conference lead with Oklahoma State, Baylor and Nebraska. That's after the Wildcats entered conference play as one of just two teams, along with Missouri, that didn't win at least 10 games in nonconference play.
Or consider Iowa State's bouncing back from a three-point loss against Oklahoma to beat Colorado 84-77 in double overtime on the road. The Cyclones not only rallied from a 12-point deficit with about 13 minutes to play against the Buffaloes but came back from a five-point deficit in the second overtime period to finish the game on a 12-1 run.
Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly has been around for each of the league's 12 seasons, and experience told him that what he sweated out Sunday was emblematic of the league.
"They nicely say the dean of the coaches, which just means you're the old one," Fennelly said of his league seniority. "I've said it over and over again, I think, from top to bottom, I don't think we have a team that right now I think is going to challenge for a national championship. But I think we have 10, 11, 12 teams that you better be ready to play. I think K-State, right off the top of your head, they go to A&M and Texas and win.
"In the past, there's been games where if you played OK, you're going to win at home or away. That's not the case anymore. I think you're seeing the balance in our league come out really quickly in two games."
A year after losing to Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and losing the program's all-time assist leader, Lyndsey Medders, to graduation, Iowa State was itself an unknown commodity entering the season. Postseason participants in 10 of Fennelly's 11 seasons, the Cyclones were picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the conference.
But unlike with late-night television investment opportunities, past performance is something of a guarantee of future returns when it comes to Fennelly. The names on the jerseys change, but the Iowa native always seems to scout the high school gyms of the Midwest thoroughly enough to turn up a point guard who can run the show, perimeter players who can shoot and posts who make up for what they lack in girth with agility and versatility.
An all-state prep player from Huxley, Iowa, sophomore Alison Lacey fits that mold. At least until Lacey opens her mouth to speak and betrays her Australian roots (she spent just one year in Huxley as part of an exchange program). She started 21 games last season alongside Medders but moved over a spot, and onto the hot seat, this season.
"She's playing point guard for the first time and is truly becoming one of the best players in our league," Fennelly said after Lacey led the way with 27 points and eight assists against Colorado. "I always tell her: Playing point guard for us is the greatest job, and it's the worst job because I'm always critiquing, I'm always on her about things."
Lacey entered Sunday's game shooting 46 percent from behind the arc and lived up to those numbers by shooting 7-for-11 on 3-pointers against the Buffaloes. But it wasn't her marksmanship that most impressed her coach after Lacey settled down a team that initially struggled to find its rhythm against Colorado's frequent three-quarter-court traps.
"This is two games now, against Oklahoma and Colorado, and about 84 minutes of basketball, and she's [had] 14 assists and one turnover," Fennelly said. "And I think that is absolutely staggering at this level."
As good as Lacey was Sunday and has been all season, freshman Kelsey Bolte's play in each of Iowa State's first two conference games might be as important moving forward. Entering conference play, Lacey and junior post Nicky Wieben had accounted for roughly 40 percent of the team's scoring. Bolte, a WBCA All-American and Iowa's Gatorade Player of the Year as a prep senior, had scored just 67 points in 13 games.
With a rotation that goes only seven or eight bodies deep after senior Toccara Ross suffered a season-ending knee injury against Minnesota four days before Christmas, the Cyclones seemed to be short a scoring option or two.
That changed when, in her first taste of conference play, Bolte scored 23 points in the loss against Oklahoma and 21 points against Colorado.
Like Lacey, Bolte is a 6-foot guard with size and range. She can create for herself or make herself available to teammates. And she isn't shy about doing what she does well. Just 11 seconds after coming off the bench in the first two minutes of Sunday's game, she spotted up in the corner and drained a 3-pointer.
"I think it's a direct correlation to her practice habits," Fennelly said of the recent scoring binge. "She's a freshman, she's learning. But she came back from Christmas break and practiced harder, with a little more sense of urgency. I think with her, the good thing about it is she doesn't dwell on her mistakes like the coaches do. She's not afraid to shoot it.
"The other thing is we don't ask her to do a whole lot handling the ball and guarding, whatever. She's surrounded by four or five really good players that allow her to do some things and make it a little easier. She's got to make shots, and she's made some, but we don't make her run plays and we don't try and make her do things she can't do yet."
After the opening week of play, it's safe to say the Big 12 is anyone's for the taking. Whether Iowa State makes a grab or not, at least Fennelly enters the fray with a team that is beginning to look familiar to a man who has seen a lot of conference dogfights.
"What we're trying to get to is our team to understand how Iowa State plays," Fennelly said after 90 minutes of basketball against Colorado. "And I think we played like Iowa State is supposed to play: hard, grind it out and find a way."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
After the opening week of play, it's safe to say the Big 12 is anyone's for the taking.