Leistikow: Hawkeye women ready to 'make some noise' in NCAAs, a year ahead of schedule
If you’re a Hawkeye basketball fan pining for some investment in March Madness, a remedy awaits.
Set aside two hours late Saturday afternoon. At approximately 5 p.m. CT, find a comfy spot on your couch. And tune into ESPN2 to watch the Iowa women open their 2018 NCAA Tournament in Los Angeles, on the famed Pauley Pavilion court.
It's the sixth-seeded Hawkeyes (24-7) against eleventh-seeded Creighton (18-12).
If you haven't watched Lisa Bluder’s team this year, here's a quick overview:
They’re fun. They race up and down the floor, scoring 79 points per game while leading the Big Ten Conference with 49 percent shooting.
They play good team basketball. Their 21 assists per game far and away lead the Big Ten.
They’re clutch. They are 3-0 in overtime this year and shoot a Big Ten-best 76.8 percent from the foul line.
And, even if you’ve loosely been paying attention, you should know this about the Hawkeyes: They have one of the most prolific players in the country in junior center Megan Gustafson.
The Big Ten co-player of the year leads the nation in scoring (25.6 points per game) and field-goal percentage (66.8 percent) while getting double- and triple-teamed. She’s also No. 5 nationally in rebounds per game (12.7).
Oh, and there’s one more thing to remember: The Hawkeyes might be even better next year.
That’s the exciting secret about Bluder’s team. She thinks the Hawkeyes are poised to be a Sweet 16-caliber club next season, when Gustafson will be a senior and starting point guard Tania Davis presumably returns from the ACL tear she suffered in December.
“We’re still pretty young. That’s what’s exciting about this,” Bluder says. “We’re a six seed, and we start one senior.”
Yet that doesn’t mean these Hawkeyes should be discounted from making a run this March.
“Our goal has been met that we’ve made the NCAA Tournament,” Gustafson says. “Now our new goal is to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
“This … is a great time to get our name — Iowa — (on) the national stage.”
In the women’s game, avoiding the national heavyweights as long as possible is one of the best starting points for making a surprising run.
In that sense, the sixth-seeded Hawkeyes are well-positioned. If they can knock off Creighton, they’ll likely get a crack Monday at UCLA. Sure, the Bruins will be playing on their home floor. But it’s a winnable matchup of RPI 21 (Iowa) vs. RPI 10 (UCLA).
If the Hawkeyes win two games to reach the Sweet 16, they’ll be playing close to home in Kansas City. Texas (RPI 12) is the No. 2 seed that could waiting with a spot to the Elite Eight on the line. Perennial heavyweights Connecticut and Notre Dame are top seeds positioned safely away from Iowa in the bracket.
“Nobody probably expects us to do what we think we can do,” guard Kathleen Doyle says. “We’re going to go out there and try to prove people wrong, and make some noise.”
This team is fun to watch. They play hard.
And like I said, they might be a year away. So they’ve got nothing to lose.
They’re worth your two hours of time on Saturday.
“Only two of these players have played in the NCAA Tournament. We don’t have that (experience),” Bluder says. “But I love their youthful enthusiasm. But when you’re young, you’re naïve, right? It’s fun to be naïve, because then anything is possible. And I love that about this team.”
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.