What we've learned about the Hawkeyes and the Big Ten heading into conference play

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — After an impressive 12-1 romp through its nonconference slate, the 23rd-ranked Iowa women’s basketball team will now dive into Big Ten play, beginning Thursday at Wisconsin.

Iowa's Kathleen Doyle jokes with teammates during the Hawkeyes' game against Drake at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.

It was a productive six weeks for the Hawkeyes, which racked up an in-state sweep, back-to-back triple-digit performances for the first time in program history and 10 victories by double figures. The formula has produced an RPI of 24, currently third best in the conference.

Here’s what we learned about Iowa and the Big Ten so far.

Megan Gustafson everything the Hawkeyes could’ve hoped for – and then some

Iowa expected another jump this season after Gustafson earned first-team all-Big Ten honors as a sophomore, but nobody in Hawkeye gold could’ve predicted this.

MORE: Port Wing proud: How Megan Gustafson's small-town roots helped put her among the elite

The 6-foot-3 junior has transformed into one of most consistently dominant players in the country, having churned out 12 double-doubles in 13 games. In addition, Gustafson has earned some sort of conference recognition every week, including being named Big Ten player of the week four times.

Iowa's Megan Gustafson takes a shot during the Hawkeyes' game against Drake at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.

Her efficiency and competitiveness down low hasn’t been slowed so far — and it’s reflected in the stats, as Gustafson leads the country in field goals made (120) and ranks second in field goal percentage (69.8), fifth in rebounds (160), sixth in total points (289), seventh in points per game (22.2), eighth in rebounds per game (12.3), 11th in defensive rebounds per game (8) and 14th in offensive rebounds per game (4).

“I go back to her effort every day in practice,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said earlier this month. “She’s working just as hard now as she was in October. She works just as hard at the end of practice as she does at the beginning of practice — she works hard every single time.

“Whether you’re up or down, it doesn’t matter. That is really hard mentally to do, and I think that’s why she keeps improving — her amazing work ethic and her level-headedness to go along with that.”

The Big Ten schedule will bring another set of post challenges for Gustafson, but all the current evidence suggests she’ll have no trouble continuing what’s been a remarkable junior season.

Tania Davis’ injury certainly stung, but Hawkeyes prepared to move forward

The only really significant obstacle Iowa faced in the nonconference, Davis’ second ACL injury in less than 10 months was certainly a mental shock. She plowed through her rehab this offseason, was ready to go for the opener and had been playing well when an unfortunate fall on a fastbreak layup at Northern Iowa ended her season on Dec. 17.

Iowa's Tania Davis watches teammates from the sideline during the Hawkeyes' game against Drake at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.

But Davis and the Hawkeyes are determined to push onward, and Iowa’s first performance without its 5-foot-3 gritty point guard — a 79-66 win over Drake — went without hiccup, particularly the guard play.

Redshirt freshman Alexis Sevillian was already Bluder’s second leading scorer coming off the bench, so a permanent jump into the starting lineup in place of Davis isn’t a drastic workload change. Kathleen Doyle will assume the primary point guard duties just as she did a year ago when Davis went down, and Amanda Ollinger should also see an uptick in minutes.

Iowa's Alexis Sevillian shoots a 3-pointer during the Hawkeyes' game against Drake at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.

There’s no minimizing Davis’ loss both from a production and human-element standpoint, but it seems Iowa is equipped to withstand the blow.

“It's just another source of motivation the rest of the season,” Meyer said after the Drake win.

Iowa knows how to spread the love

Every team says its unselfish. Every team says it likes to share the basketball. Every team says no player cares who gets the credit.

But the Hawkeyes have as much tangible proof of such as any team in the country. Iowa currently stands as the only team in women’s college basketball with 300-plus assists, which averages out to a nation-leading 23.8 per game.

And get this. When it comes to individual assist leaders, there are no Hawkeyes in the top 30 nationally. The first one you get to is Meyer, who is tied for 38th with 65. So it’s not just like one or two players are racking up all the assists and distorting the team numbers — everyone is chipping in. 

Iowa teammates react as Makenzie Meyer makes a basket and draws a foul during the Hawkeyes' game against Drake at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.

“If I’m getting double- or triple-teamed, sometimes, inside,” Gustafson said this month, “I’m able to kick it out to my guards and have complete confidence in them to hit the shot. I think we just get excited for each other. We’re cheering, and we’re just very unselfish like that. I think that’s how we’re able to get those high assist numbers.

“I’ve been on other teams where we’re with each other and happy for each other and celebrating, but not like this. It’s great to see how much we care about each other, how much we’re excited for each other to succeed.”

Depth emerging in Big Ten

Along with Iowa’s nonconference success, the Big Ten’s preseason top-3 has held strong so far. No. 11 Ohio State, No. 14 Maryland and No. 19 Michigan are a combined 33-6, with all six losses coming against teams presently ranked in the top 15.

Maryland Terrapins guard Kaila Charles (5) shoots against Connecticut Huskies guard Molly Bent (10) in the second half at XL Center on Nov. 19 in Hartford, Conn.

The three teams combined for five players on the preseason all-conference squad, and all five are averaging more than 15 points per game: Ohio State’s Stephanie Mavunga (15.5) and Kelsey Mitchell (26.2), Michigan’s Hallie Thome (16.3) and Hallie Katelynn Flaherty (21.9) and Maryland’s Kaila Charles (18.4).

Rutgers (12-2), Minnesota (11-2) and Michigan State (10-3) are off to solid starts as well, giving the Big Ten some decent depth heading into conference play. 

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.