Leistikow: Iowa's Megan Gustafson deserves top Big Ten award, but it's no slam dunk

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell is having another fantastic women’s basketball season. One of the best players in Big Ten history has an even better statistical profile than she did as a junior, when for the second time she was voted the conference’s player of the year.

Yet, by nearly every measure, Iowa center Megan Gustafson has been even more dominant, more impactful — and is more deserving to be named Big Ten player of the year when all-conference awards are announced Monday.

This is Lisa Bluder’s 18th season as Iowa coach. She’s never had a Big Ten player of the year. The last Hawkeye to get it was Tangela Smith, in 1998.

More:How Megan Gustafson's small-town roots helped put her among the elite

Scoring through double teams and contact, as shown here against Penn State on Feb. 8, has been a regularity for Iowa junior Megan Gustafson on her way to a mind-boggling statistical season.

She is justifiably adamant that Gustafson should be her first, come Monday afternoon when the Big Ten Network airs a half-hour women’s awards special at 3:30 p.m.

“Her contribution to our team success, I would put that up against Kelsey Mitchell’s any day,” Bluder says. “It’s the whole thing. It’s double-doubles. It’s field-goal percentage. It’s rebounds. It’s points.

“Kelsey is a great player. And I’m afraid she’s going to get it because of reputation.”

Often in politics and in sports, voting tends to favor incumbents with high name recognition. In the minds of 14 coaches and 30 media members who will cast their votes, Gustafson is probably the challenger.

It’s something Iowa sports information is being proactive about, having launched the website VoteGustafson.com to tout the junior's remarkable accomplishments.

To win the award, Gustafson will need an air-tight case. Does she have one?

Let’s take a deeper look at her record-setting season.

The numbers

The first tenet of award voting: Who has the better stats?

Mitchell ranks second in Division I with an average of 24.5 points per game; Gustafson has her beat, at a nation’s-best 24.9.

The scoring is more tilted in Gustafson’s favor in conference-only stats, where the competition is tougher: Gustafson 27.3, Mitchell 23.5.

Since they play different positions, these statistics are not comparable but noteworthy: Gustafson’s 12.7 rebounds a game rank fifth nationally; Mitchell’s 4.1 assists per game rank 145th.

Both players shoot better than 80 percent from the foul line.

In total, Gustafson ranks in the top five nationally in eight categories and already has set Iowa season records for points and rebounds.

If you ask her — and I did — which stat is she most proud about?

"I would say field-goal percentage," she says of her staggering 66.5-percent clip.

Gustafson has attempted 406 shots to score her 698 points in 28 games, compared with Mitchell’s 519 shot attempts (266 of them 3-pointers) to accrue 711 in 29 games.

That’s efficient.

And that’s the main goal of basketball, right? when you shoot.

Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell won Big Ten player of the year as a freshman and junior and is the nation's second-leading scorer this season, at 24.5 points per game.

“Being able to not miss a lot is something I work on,” Gustafson says. “That’s really the only stat I look at, to be honest, after games. … Even if I score 30-plus points, I want to work on being as efficient as possible.”

How does she do it?

She rarely dribbles. She catches, moves her 6-foot-3 body into position to shoot, and usually knocks it down despite multiple arms and bodies in her path.

“And it’s not like these are open shots,” Bluder says. “She is contested, every shot. She’s double-teamed, triple-teamed. Everything’s been thrown at her.”

Gustafson has taken a physical beating. She says her feet hurt every day. She often leaves with deep bruises, multiple scratches. She was so sore after Iowa’s 61-55 win at Iowa State — the Hawkeyes’ first win in Hilton Coliseum since the 1989-90 season — she could barely walk for a few days.

Not that this is anything new for her.

“In high school, I had three or four people guarding me all the time,” Gustafson says. “So I was able to finish through contact. I learned how to do that early on.”

The team

The second tenet of award voting: Who is the best player on the best team?

This logic can be flawed at times, but Mitchell certainly has a case here. Entering Thursday’s games, the Buckeyes had a half-game conference lead at 12-3, with a 23-6 overall mark.

Iowa stands 22-7, 10-5 in the Big Ten — tied for fourth — entering its regular-season finale Saturday vs. Indiana.

But Bluder has a problem with this argument, too, in part because of imbalances in a 16-game Big Ten schedule.

Oh, and there’s this: In the teams' lone meeting (in Iowa City), the Hawkeyes defeated Ohio State, 103-89. Despite rare foul trouble in that one, Gustafson scored 29 points in 31 minutes. Mitchell scored 27 (on 10-of-26 shooting) in 40.

“We have five losses in the Big Ten; Ohio State has three,” Bluder says. “And we beat Ohio State. So, there’s not that much discrepancy.”

The consistency

The third tenet of award voting: Who has been more meaningful to her team?

The Buckeyes have three players averaging at least 15 points per game. Iowa’s second-highest scorer is Kathleen Doyle, at 11.5 a game. Gustafson would be the first to tell you she's not a one-person team, but she's the runaway catalyst.

"I can’t imagine this year without her," Bluder says.

Gustafson became an even greater focal point of Iowa’s approach after starting point guard Tania Davis was lost for the season in mid-December with a torn ACL.

In the 11 games before Davis' injury, Gustafson was averaging 21.5 points a game. Since, she's averaging 27.2.

“I thought I needed to step it up, because we were losing that vocal leader on the court,” Gustafson says now, “the person who really has that passion.”

Bluder uses only seven players regularly. So Gustafson has no choice but to be consistently clutch.

Her two free throws in the final seconds of regulation at Michigan State forced overtime of what became a rousing 71-68 win. (She had 36 points, one shy of her career high, and 17 rebounds at the Breslin Center.)

On Wednesday against Rutgers, the league’s best defensive team, Gustafson broke an overtime tie with five straight points to help the Hawkeyes pull away for a 77-67 road win. She finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds. (Put another way, her usual.)

Gustafson's 25 double-doubles in 28 games are a school season record. Her 52 career double-doubles are an Iowa record for men or women. (Kevin Kunnert held the previous mark, dating to the early 1970s, with 48.)

“I mean, she does not have an off day,” Bluder says. “She goes hard all the time. I don’t care if we’re playing the best team, the worst team. It’s in practice against our practice squad of guys. The day before a big game, and she’s diving for loose balls. She just doesn’t have that (off) switch.”

Finally …

Need one more finishing case for Gustafson over Mitchell?

Here you go: Gustafson has been named Big Ten player of the week a record eight times this season.

When you start talking about something that’s never been done in the Big Ten before, that’s worth noting.

Is Gustafson the Big Ten’s player of the year?

If I had a vote, she'd have mine.

If it were a career award, a check mark for Mitchell would be hard to dispute. She has averaged at least 22 points a game all four years in Columbus.

If it’s truly an award for the player of the year, Gustafson is the right choice.

“I think the coaches that have went against Megan in the league, I think they recognize how good she is,” Bluder says. “And I think the coaches will recognize that. I do.”

She adds with a laugh, “I don’t know about you media guys.”

There is indeed a coaches vote and media vote. It’s possible Mitchell and Gustafson would split the honor. Beyond the Big Ten, Gustafson should be in prominent conversation for first-team all-America, too.

“I’d be really honored," said Gustafson, who with a season-plus remaining is 428 points away from Ally Disterhoft's school-record 2,102. "I’ve worked really hard here. … I really do see it as more of a team honor than anything. That kind of accomplishment doesn’t happen on your own.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

By the numbers

Iowa junior center Megan Gustafson ranks in the top five nationally in these eight categories (*—single-season Iowa record):

Total points: 698* (2nd)

Points per game: 24.9 (1st)

Total field goals: 270 (1st)

Field-goal percentage: 66.5 (2nd)

Total rebounds: 355* (3rd)

Rebounds per game: 12.7 (5th)

Defensive rebounds per game: 8.7 (5th)

Double-doubles: 25* (2nd)