There is a simple way that Iowa could reach the NCAA women's basketball tournament for a ninth straight season: Win the Big Ten Tournament title.
That path is uncomplicated, with the tournament champion claiming a tournament bid.
It certainly is not easy.
The five-day Big Ten Tournament opens with a pair of games on Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Eighth-seeded Iowa (18-12, 8-10) opens tournament play on Thursday at 11 a.m. CST against No. 9 seed Michigan (17-12, 9-9).
Standing in the way of the Hawkeyes and a Big Ten Tournament title is four games in four days that would include a quarterfinal against top-seeded and sixth-ranked Maryland.
“If we get by them (Michigan), we have only Maryland waiting for us,” Iowa coach Bluder said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “It’s going to be a difficult week but at the same time we are taking one game at a time, we want to get that Michigan game and then you never know what can happen. It is four days of basketball so let's play our best four games of the year.”
Iowa will likely need four magical days to extend its Big Ten-best NCAA Tournament streak to nine straight years.
The Hawkeyes won three of four to end the regular season, but their NCAA Tournament hopes took a major hit with an 81-68 loss at Penn State on Feb. 24.
Two tournament wins would get the Hawkeyes to 20 wins.
Bluder knows an NCAA berth would be a long shot even with 20 wins, but that hypothetical 20th win would come against a marquee opponent in Maryland.
“I think if we win two, that would be really big because if you win your first one, you are going up against a Maryland and that opens a lot of eyes if you get a win there,” Bluder explained.
In order to get a shot against the Terrapins, Iowa would need to get past Michigan, a team the Hawkeyes split with in the regular season.
Iowa lost a 17-point second-half lead in a 82-75 loss in Ann Arbor that they avenged with a 85-69 win over the Wolverines in Iowa City.
Starting Thursday, you can throw those games out the window.
“I think a blank slate is always nice especially in that Big Ten Tournament setting; obviously we are going to remember those wins and use that momentum going forward, but it's 0-0 now,” Iowa senior Ally Disterhoft said. “You can toss records out the window because come tournament time, anything can happen and we are excited about that.”
PAST FIVE CHAMPIONS
2015 – Maryland; 2014—Nebraska; 2013—Purdue; 2012—Purdue; 2011—Ohio State.
Maryland is the top seed after winning the Big Ten regular season for the second straight year as a member of the conference.
However, it’s Ohio State that enters as the favorite.
The Buckeyes let the regular season title slip away with back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Michigan State to end the season but owns a pair of wins over Maryland this season.
Ohio State handed the Terrapins their first Big Ten loss since they joined the league with an 80-71 victory in January and showed it was no fluke with a 94-86 win in Columbus last month.
Maryland has the better draw, avoiding red-hot Michigan State, but Ohio State has the regular-season wins.
Ranked No. 21 in the country, Michigan State is hardly a true sleeper but with a pair of top-six teams in Maryland and Ohio State as the top two seeds, the Spartans will fill that role this week.
The Spartans enter the Big Ten Tournament riding a four-game winning streak that was capped by a 107-105 triple-overtime win over Ohio State in its regular-season finale.
Michigan State has talent, momentum and a legitimate star in junior Aerial Powers, who averages 21.9 points and nine rebounds a game and would likely be Big Ten player of the year if it weren’t for two of the best scorers in the country in Rachel Banham and Kelsey Mitchell.
The Spartans showed on Sunday with their win over Ohio State they have the ability to win a Big Ten Tournament title.
It’s tough to imagine any of the top four seeds losing, especially with the format that gives the top four teams a double bye to the quarterfinals.
However, keep a close eye on Northwestern.
It was a disappointing season to say the least for the Wildcats, who were a preseason top-three pick in the league but finished 4-14.
The Wildcats have talent and at 74.8 points per game can score with anyone.
If No. 12-seeded Northwestern can get past Wisconsin in the opening round, it gets a third game with fifth-seeded Minnesota after losing a pair of games 95-92 and 112-106 to the Gophers in the regular season.
MOST TO GAIN
Indiana is comfortably in the NCAA Tournament with a 20-10 record and a fourth-place finish in the regular season.
A strong Big Ten Tournament showing would give the young Hoosiers a boost come Selection Monday.
Indiana is currently listed as a 10 seed in Charlie Creme’s bracketology on ESPN but could improve that with a marquee win over Maryland.
MOST TO LOSE
Back-to-back losses to end the regular season didn’t just cost Ohio State a regular-season title; they may have cost the Buckeyes a shot at a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Creme has Ohio State as a three seed in his latest bracketology, which seems like a safe bet.
Conventional wisdom says Ohio State or Maryland gets one of those top eight seeds but an early tournament exit could see Ohio State slide.
Reach Ryan Murken at 319-339-7369 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @rmmurken.