By LUKE MEREDITH
AP Sports Writer
AMES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa State spent roughly two months digging itself out of a massive hole and somehow reaching last season's NCAA tournament. Its trip lasted just 40 ugly minutes.
The Cyclones should have an easier time getting back to the NCAAs in March. Whether they'll have enough to make a serious run remains to be seen.
Iowa State brings back its top three starters from last season's team, which recovered from an 0-5 start in Big 12 play to earn an NCAA tournament bid. But the Cyclones (18-13) were blown out at home by Green Bay 71-57 in the opening round.
Iowa State opens its 18th season under coach Bill Fennelly on Nov. 11 against Western Illinois.
"We have to be efficient in the little things," Fennelly said. "Defend wisely. Keep people off the free throw line. We play a lot of close games and we need to be efficient."
Iowa State has quite a bit of talent and depth returning, especially in the paint.
The Cyclones will be led by 6-foot-2 senior forward Chelsea Poppens, perhaps the best returning post player in the Big 12 outside of Baylor superstar Brittney Griner.
Poppens, not Griner, was the only Big 12 player to average a double-double last season with 14.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. She finished in the top 10 in the league in scoring, field-goal percentage at a shade under 50 percent and defensive rebounding.
Poppens was a three-time Big 12 player of the week, a unanimous first-team all-league pick and an honorable-mention All-American by voters for The Associated Press in 2011-12.
If she can stay healthy this season, Poppens will likely go down as one of the best players in school history.
"She has a chance to have a monster senior year. She's the face of the program this season," Fennelly said.
The Cyclones will pair Poppens with emerging 6-foot-3 junior Hallie Christofferson, who had a breakout season in 2011-12. Christofferson scored 10.2 points a game and shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range.
Senior center Anna Prins saw her numbers dip a year ago, but Fennelly said Wednesday during the team's annual media day that Prins is as healthy as she's ever been to start a season.
The Cyclones also bring in one of the nation's top frontcourt recruits in Madison Baier, a native of Tama, Iowa, who could push for playing time this season.
Iowa State's backcourt isn't in bad shape either, though it will rely largely on underclassmen.
The Cyclones lost starting guards Lauren Mansfield and Chassidy Cole, but that should open up more opportunities for sophomores Nikki Moody and Brynn Williamson.
Moody was third on the team with 10 points a game as a freshman and led the Cyclones in assists with 4.3 per night. Williamson will likely transition from bench sparkplug to starting shooting guard and be counted on from behind the 3-point line.
Freshmen Emiah Bingley and Nicole Blaskowsky also will be thrust into duty off the bench.
"We have some great post players, but our guards are very young," Fennelly said. "Hopefully they'll be able to contribute right away."
Iowa State has reached the NCAA tournament in each of the last six seasons and shouldn't have too much trouble making it seven in a row come March. But the Cyclones want desperately to get over the hump of two straight first-round exits and reach the regional semifinals, which it did in 2009 and 2010.
"We definitely have a lot of potential," Poppens said. "I truly believe we can make it to the NCAAs and go further than the first round."
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