The Iowa junior is leading a team that lost three key seniors. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
CHICAGO – In her first Big Ten basketball media day since taking the Iowa women to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, Lisa Bluder delivered a confident state-of-the-program message.
The graduation of three players (Samantha Logic, Melissa Dixon and Bethany Doolittle) who combined to score 4,379 career points don’t have Bluder’s Hawkeyes dialing down expectations in 2015-16.
“A lot of people are counting us out because of that,” Bluder said Thursday at the O’Hare Marriott. “I would have to disagree with that, because we return quite a bit, actually.”
Iowa is younger, but might even be faster than it was a year ago when it placed second in the Big Ten behind a school-record 79.5-point scoring average.
That’s because a top-20 national recruiting class converges with returning guards Ally Disterhoft and Whitney Jennings.
“We just need experience,” Bluder said. “We have talent.”
The influx of newcomers, led by speedy 5-foot-4 point guard Tania Davis and 6-3 post Megan Gustafson, got a jump-start in the experience category over the summer. Iowa took its NCAA-permitted-once-every-four-years foreign trip, this one to Italy. As Bluder pointed out, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Iowa has four freshmen and four sophomores, many of whom could play key roles.
“We had 10 practices leading up to the trip, and then we spent 12 days in Italy and only played three games,” said Disterhoft, a junior from Iowa City West. “So it was really just getting to know each other off the court and bonding.”
Don’t underestimate the chemistry factor. That’s been a staple under Bluder, now in her 16th year at Iowa.
“Chemistry’s a big part of our program,” Bluder said. “I try to explain to our kids, sometimes I think we beat teams that may have more talent than us because of our teamwork.”
The Italy trip reinforced that message.
“Last year’s team was so close,” said senior Kali Peschel, who sank 43.4 percent of her 3-pointers (23 of 53) a year ago while averaging 16.4 minutes a game as the first player off the bench. “And I think a lot of the girls coming back and even the freshmen saw that and want the same thing.”
The Hawkeyes’ program is at its highest point under Bluder, coming off a No. 11 national ranking.
There's no desire to let things slide, even if outsiders aren’t expecting the Hawkeyes to repeat last year’s 26-8 campaign (14-4 in the Big Ten). The coaches and media released a preseason top three, and Iowa didn't make the list. Instead, it was Maryland, Ohio State and then Michigan State/Northwestern.
“It’s not going to be the same team, it’s not going to be the same look,” Disterhoft said. “But we all are confident in saying at the end of the day we’ll be able to get it done and put those pieces together.
“I think we’re going to win games that people count us out of, honestly.”