10 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

This season is all about returning to the NCAA Tournament for the Hawkeyes. And they’re in good shape.

They missed cut-and-dry opportunities for big wins against UCLA and Notre Dame. (We’ll see how those James Madison and Iowa State victories look come Selection Monday.)

But none of their four nonconference losses were bad. South Dakota State is a postseason mainstay, Drake’s offense is one of basketball’s best, and UCLA and Notre Dame are, well, UCLA and Notre Dame.

With no bad losses and a 9-4 record against a tough schedule, Iowa carries an RPI of 49 into Big Ten Conference play.

The Hawkeyes will vie for an at-large bid to the NCA A Tournament as long as Maryland and Ohio State don’t endure epic meltdowns. And an RPI under 40 should nearly guarantee a team entry to the Big Dance, especially a Big Ten team.

If Iowa continues to avoid bad conference losses against teams like Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Rutgers, its RPI will drop to the 30s and pretty much stay there.

Iowa practiced on Dec. 22, took four days off for the holidays and will return to practice Dec. 26. It opens the Big Ten season at Illinois Dec. 28.

Here’s what we learned about the Hawkeyes, and the Big Ten as a whole, through the first 13 games.

Lesson 1: Megan Gustafson is a monster

Gustafson lived in the weight room this offseason and lifted away her only significant flaw from a successful freshman year — her strength, or lack thereof.

That work shows.

The 6-foot-3 sophomore has scored double figures in all 13 games and accrued seven double-doubles this season — tied for seventh-most in the country. She’s averaging a double-double — 16.6 points and 10.2 rebounds —  on 68 percent shooting.

"Megan, I'm really disappointed in her, one rebound shy of another double-double," head coach Lisa Bluder joked after Gustafson scored 15 and hauled in nine rebounds in Iowa’s Dec. 9 win over Robert Morris. "So why couldn't you find one more?"

Gustafson could already hold her own against Big Ten bigs last season, racking up nine double-doubles in Iowa’s final 13 games.

Now? Her battles with fellow double-double machines Nia Coffey, Brionna Jones and Stephanie Mavunga will be ridiculously fun to watch.

Lesson 2: This is a young team with definite growing pains

And those pains might get exacerbated in conference play. The Hawkeyes' inexperience reared its ugly head the most against veteran teams — South Dakota State — or in true road games — at Drake.

They'll face both early and often in the Big Ten.

"I feel like we're still a work in progress," Bluder said. "As you can see, sometimes we look really good and sometimes we don't. So that's going to happen when you have a young team, and you've just got to be able to live through some of those mistakes with them."

Bluder added some more experience to the starting lineup in the final nonconference game against Kent State. She replaced freshman Bre Cera with junior Chrstina Buttenham.

Senior, junior, sophomore, sophomore, freshman as your starting five sounds a bit better than senior, sophomore, sophomore, freshman, freshman. Especially in Columbus, Ohio, College Park, Md., Ann Arbor, Mich., and West Lafayette, Ind.

Lesson 3: Platoon system isn’t perfect, but it’s great for the legs

It’s getting harder for Bluder to maintain that true, five-for-five wholesale substitution pattern against tougher competition. Sometimes foul trouble gets in the way. Sometimes she needs to ride the hot hand in a close game.

But for the most part, Bluder tries to keep the platoon system intact. And the result is obvious: Fresh legs.

The Hawkeyes have outscored opponents 258-183 in second quarters and 258-193 in fourth quarters — when weary legs usually crave halftime or the final buzzer. That's a 516-373 edge, combined, compared to their 503-437 advantage in quarters one and three.

"I think it does have to do a lot with the platoon system," Alexa Kastanek said after Iowa’s Nov. 19 win against UMass. "Because every team and every basketball player knows that defense is the most tiring thing you do in basketball. Offense is the fun stuff. You get to run around and do what you want. But defense, you have to read other people. And when you get tired and have to play 40 minutes a game, that’s when that can start to wear on you."

Ally Disterhoft’s 28.2 minutes per game are the highest on the team and 10 players log at least 10 minutes per game.

Lesson 4: It’s a battle for third in the Big Ten

Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell is a future WNBA All-Star and Maryland is very clearly an Elite Eight-caliber team. Those two squads constitute the Big Ten’s top tier.

Rutgers, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Illinois form the bottom tier. The other eight teams — Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State — make up the middle tier battling for third place.

All eight would be safe bets for a top-four finish. Four Big Ten teams easily made the NCAA Tournament last year. Sixth-place Purdue barely escaped the bubble; fifth-ranked Minnesota didn't.

Only two games separate the eight, all unranked, and at least right now there's no clear-cut “next-best” team behind Ohio State and Maryland. Iowa’s got just as good a claim to that title as any of the other seven.

Lesson 5: Kathleen Doyle makes the engine go

Teams need players like Doyle. Someone with boundless energy — occasionally too much — that can revive a team losing its pulse or spark a rally with one play.

That’s often a steal for Doyle, who ranks eighth in the Big Ten with 1.9 per game. And her vigor on the court doesn’t veer out of control as much as you’d think. Her approximate 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is tops on the team. She’s also fourth on the team with 7.5 points and 23.2 minutes per game.

It’s no coincidence the freshman is averaging 8.7 points, 2.1 steals and 3.7 assists in Iowa’s nine wins, compared to 4.8 points, 1.5 steals and three assists in its four losses.

Often, the team goes as she goes.

"She really does bring energy to us offensively and defensively," Gustafson said. "And if she ever does a good play, she gets us pumped up. I think it’s just exciting to see such a young player get excited."

Fellow freshman Makenzie Meyer took significant strides at the end of nonconference play to assume a similar role to Doyle, but coming off the bench. She averaged 8.4 points in 18.6 minutes over Iowa's past five games. She committed just two turnovers in those 93 total minutes.

Bain covers Hawkeyes' basketball for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at mbain@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.

10 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE