There's no place like home: Why Iowa, Iowa State and Drake could be hosts in the NCAA women's tournament

Tommy Birch
The Des Moines Register

The Iowa, Iowa State and Drake women’s basketball teams may not have to travel far this March.

All three schools are in contention to possibly host NCAA Tournament games this season.

The top 16 overall seeds in the bracket earn the right to host the first and second rounds of the tournament.

And three of Iowa’s Big Four schools are realistically vying for the chance.

“I’m not sure how you could get something more exciting than the idea of having three teams simultaneously having the kinds of seasons that they are,” ESPN women’s bracketologist Charlie Creme said.

The successful seasons of all three programs could pay dividends in March.

The reason: All three are putting together compelling cases to be one of the top 16 seeds. The Hawkeyes are in contention for a Big Ten Conference title. The Cyclones are having one of their best seasons in years. And then you have the Bulldogs, which are now a perennial powerhouse in the Missouri Valley Conference.

“Wouldn’t that be awesome?” Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said.

It sure would. But how realistic is it? The Register took a look at the possibilities for all three schools and broke down the likelihood of each possibly playing host.

Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk helped put together a tough non-conference schedule for her team.


The case for the Bulldogs hosting: Has there been a better program in the MVC lately? The Bulldogs (15-4) have turned into a powerhouse program, winning the last two regular season and postseason conference tournaments. Before Friday night's loss to Missouri State, the Bulldogs had racked up 47-straight regular season wins in the MVC. Outside of conference play, the Bulldogs played the third-toughest schedule according to the NCAA’s newest RPI. It was there that the Bulldogs produced three top-25 wins by beating Rutgers, South Carolina and South Dakota.

The case against the Bulldogs: The MVC is not highly regarded, at least in the eyes of the selection committee. Despite back-to-back undefeated seasons in Valley play, the Bulldogs garnered little respect, grabbing a No. 10 seed in 2017 and a No. 13 seed in 2018 (both led to expected first-round exits). Despite the success this season, they aren’t even ranked right now. To make sure such a postseason slight didn’t happen again, the Bulldogs beefed up their nonconference schedule. But not taking advantage of wins against Iowa and Iowa State may have hurt them.

“It’s going to depend on everything that we do from here on out,” Baranczyk said. “I don’t know if there was much else that we could do other than, yes, we needed to probably win one or two more of our games. But in terms of scheduling — I don’t know if there was anything else we could do.”

The bottom line: Even if Drake had been able to run the table, the Bulldogs were going to need help. Creme currently has the Bulldogs as a six seed in the Albany region but believes they’ll need some help to move up into the hosting category, especially after the Bulldogs suffered a 85-79 loss to Missouri State Friday night, ending Drake's 47-game regular season winning streak against MVC foes. He said some of the schools who are on the edge of hosting, such as Kentucky, Miami, Arizona State and Utah, could help Drake’s cause with some late-season struggles. That would be the Bulldogs’ best shot. But even after that, it may be a longshot with Friday's loss.

“They have no opportunity to win the type of games to elevate themselves — whereas the teams around that they’d essentially be competing with to elevate, are going to have a (bunch) of opportunities,” Creme said. “So, it would take, in my mind anyway, it would take a whole lot of losing by a whole bunch of teams here forward for Drake to be able to sneak in (to hosting).”


Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly has one of his best teams in recent years.

Iowa State

The case for the Cyclones: Iowa State is having one of its best seasons in recent history. The Cyclones (16-5) own a quality resume, with ranked wins over Miami, Arkansas and Drake (when the Bulldogs were in the top 25). And although it may seem like a mountain to climb, the Cyclones are still in the hunt for a Big 12 Conference title. They entered Saturday’s game tied for third place at 6-3 in the league. And while it technically shouldn’t matter, the fact that Iowa State’s loyal fan base would likely turn out in huge numbers to Hilton Coliseum, would also be a selling point. These games would look good on television.

The case against the Cyclones: The Big 12 isn’t as good as it used to be. Sure, Baylor is a dominant force. But second-place Texas isn’t unbeatable. And Oklahoma, once one of the league’s top teams, is struggling. That means Iowa State must take care of business. There’s probably little margin of error for the Cyclones, which missed out on big opportunities by losing at Baylor and at home against the Longhorns. Creme says Iowa State likely needs to win once against Texas and secure at least win its first game in the Big 12 tournament to secure a solid seed. “All the numbers are there, but obviously you’ve got to finish it,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said.

The bottom line: Iowa State has a solid chance. The combination of the Cyclones’ success to date, its strong fan base and chances still out there, put them in the running. But the point is that nothing is a guarantee for Iowa State. Creme currently has the Cyclones as a No. 4 seed hosting in Ames. But they’re a fringe host team.

“Certainly beating Texas and assuming there’s no major slip-up otherwise, I think they would be very likely to be that top 16 seed,” Creme said. “It depends on what other things go on. I think it’s a logical scenario if they win out except for Baylor, and even if they lost in the semis of the Big 12 tournament, I think that puts them in pretty good shape.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has her team competing for a Big Ten title.


The case for the Hawkeyes: Iowa’s resume is sterling. The Hawkeyes (16-5) own ranked wins over West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota and Rutgers. They also own an in-state sweep of the Cyclones, Bulldogs and Panthers. And to top that off, the Hawkeyes have one of the best players in the nation in Megan Gustafson. But what makes the Hawkeyes a real contender is the fact that they remain in the hunt for a Big Ten Conference title. A combination of those factors could be enough to secure the bid.

The case against the Hawkeyes: The Hawkeyes essentially control their own destiny. Only a massive tumble at the end of the regular season and an early exit from the Big Ten tournament would stand in their way. Friday's 90-81 loss at unranked Michigan certainly hurts this cause, but more unexpected losses are likely needed.

“We don’t spend a lot of time looking ahead, saying we need to accomplish that in order for us to get a top 16 seed,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We’ve been talking more about for that, we would like to be in (competing for) a Big Ten championship, which probably ensures you of a top 16 seed if you win the Big Ten.”

Top bottom line: Barring a collapse, Iowa may have already done enough work to secure a spot. Creme has the Hawkeyes as a No. 3 seed in Iowa City. And that seeding could still improve. “Iowa will have a legitimate shot still remaining to be a conference champion,” Creme said. “Certainly, if they don’t win a regular season title, they would be considered one of the top three favorites to win the Big Ten tournament. So, they’re in a better position, simply because what lies ahead is more opportunity.”