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It’s hardly a secret that a return trip to the Sweet 16 has long been a goal for the Iowa women’s basketball team.

Following a second straight second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament last season, the Sweet 16 talk for 2015 began to stir.

As Iowa racked up wins this season, a Sweet 16 berth became almost an expectation for the Hawkeyes.

By the time Monday’s NCAA Tournament selection show rolled around it felt like ‘Sweet 16 or bust.’

“I don’t know about bust,” senior Melissa Dixon said when asked if that was the feeling. “But I know what you mean, I know exactly what you mean. It’s kind of been the goal for the last couple of years but especially this year.”

Head coach Lisa Bluder has led the Hawkeyes to an impressive 12 NCAA tournaments in 15 years at Iowa, including eight straight trips. However, the Hawkeyes haven’t advanced past the second round in any of their previous 11 NCAA Tournament appearances under Bluder.

This NCAA Tournament has a different feel for the Hawkeyes.

For the first time under Bluder, Iowa enters as a favorite to reach the Sweet 16.

No. 18 Iowa (24-7) earned the third seed in the Oklahoma City Region, its highest seed since its last trip to the Sweet 16 as a two seed in 1996.

Iowa will face 14th seed American (24-8) in the opening round on Friday at 1:30 p.m. and would face sixth-seeded Washington or No. 11 seed Miami with a win.

“Being a three seed, the best seed we’ve had in a while, it’s definitely doable for us,” Dixon said of the Sweet 16. “We’re confident in that.”

That confidence is another change for the Hawkeyes.

“I think they have thought all year long that they belong there,” Bluder said of the Sweet 16. “It’s just really fun to see that.”

Iowa earned that confidence this season on its way to earning its best tournament seed under Bluder.

The Hawkeyes are 11-6 against teams in the NCAA Tournament this season, boast a top-10 RPI and are 10-6 against teams in the RPI top-50.

All that has built confidence for an Iowa group trying to win back-to-back NCAA Tournament games.

“I think we have definitely have confidence coming into this tournament,” Sophmore Ally Disterhoft said. “We’ve been here, we’ve had success and now it is getting to where we want to go which is the Sweet 16.”

In each of the past two seasons, Iowa won its NCAA Tournament opener but faced a tournament giant in the second round.

Two years ago it was top-seeded Notre Dame that ended Iowa’s season.

Last year it was third-seeded Louisville that stopped the Hawkeyes’ tournament run.

With a win over American on Friday Iowa would face another possible second-round 3/6 matchup.

Only this time Iowa is the third seed, a top-16 overall seed and the tournament giant.

This season, the Hawkeyes know it and they expect to win.

“We feel like we are a good enough team to be there,” Logic said. “With the talent we have and the experience we have from last year we feel like we are a team that definitely can be there.”

Reach Ryan Murken at 319-339-7369 or rmurken@press-citizen.com and follow him on Twitter at @rmmurken.

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