Leistikow: Time running out to enjoy Megan Gustafson, the best player in Iowa basketball history
IOWA CITY, Ia. — With a determined spirit and a smile that can light up a 15,000-seat arena, Megan Gustafson continues to bring joy to anyone associated with the Iowa women’s basketball program.
Yet as each day passes, perhaps the most incredible college career by any Hawkeye basketball player, man or woman, nears the finish line.
“Our (team) Twitter account will tweet out something like, ‘Only six more chances to see us.’ And I’m like, ‘Nooooo, don’t say that!’” Gustafson says, her infectious laugh and genuine heart emanating throughout an interview with the Des Moines Register. “So, it’s starting to sink in a little bit that my time’s winding down.”
The countdown has dwindled to five more guaranteed Iowa home games in Gustafson’s career, the next one being Sunday’s 2 p.m. showdown against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
If you’ve never seen her play, time is running out.
And … you’ve been missing out.
It’s a fascinating thing to watch a 6-foot-3 post player receive relentless attention by opposing defenses, yet still make it look so easy to score. Over and over.
Gustafson’s resulting numbers are almost unfathomable.
Through Thursday, she was leading women’s players from 351 Division I teams in points (503), points per game (26.5), field goals (211), field-goal accuracy (71.3 percent — are you kidding?) and double-doubles (18 times with double-figure totals in points and rebounds in 19 games).
And don’t forget, she’s playing in the rugged Big Ten Conference — not the Big West.
“People know about her. They identify her. They have a plan to stop her,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder says. “And they just can’t do it.”
Bluder pauses briefly — she gets admittedly choked up when thinking about Gustafson’s impact, not only on the floor but off it — and continues with five more words.
“She’s an amazing young woman.”
Only one jersey has been retired in the history of Iowa women’s basketball.
The No. 30 of Michelle Edwards.
“It was like Michael Jordan,” recalls C. Vivian Stringer, who coached Edwards’ dazzling mid-1980s run in Iowa City. “If you needed a shot to get knocked down at a certain time, she’s the one.”
Edwards was a smooth, slashing point guard from Boston who carried the nickname “Ice” for her cool play under pressure. A recruit that major programs like Pat Summitt’s Tennessee wanted, Edwards was sold on Iowa City’s slow-paced atmosphere — in which she could let her quiet, artsy personality flourish — and Stringer’s sincere approach.
And together, they helped transform a slumbering Iowa women’s basketball program into a juggernaut.
During Edwards’ four-year career, the Hawkeyes won 97 games and went an astonishing 63-9 in Big Ten play — including back-to-back 17-1 seasons in her final two years. In her final season of 1987-88, Edwards led Iowa to the No. 1 national ranking for eight straight weeks. She averaged 20 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.9 steals per game while, as Stringer puts it, carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Edwards remembers running down the Carver-Hawkeye Arena tunnel to see a record 22,157 fans in a game against Ohio State during her freshman season. She remembers slaying the vaunted Buckeyes on the way to an outright Big Ten title as a senior. She carried Iowa to two Elite Eights.
Back in town this past week with Stringer’s coaching staff at Rutgers, Edwards found herself flooded with those three-decades-old memories. She couldn’t stop smiling.
“When I look back, those are special moments," Edwards says. "We did some really, really cool things.”
Edwards was floored to learn her jersey remained the only one retired in Iowa women’s history.
“It’d be nice to have some company up there,” she jokes. “It’s a little lonely.”
She will soon.
As fantastic as Edwards was, Gustafson is right there — if not better.
Stringer, a master talent evaluator in her 48th season as a college coach, calls Gustafson the best center in the country, "bar none." She sees the same greatness in Gustafson that she enjoyed with Edwards.
Chuck Schoffner, the Iowa-based former national women’s basketball writer for the Associated Press who covered Stringer’s teams and 18 Women’s Final Fours, says it’s hard to compare Edwards and Gustafson. Different players in different eras.
But, he notes: “Megan has the best post moves of anybody I’ve ever seen.”
That points to the most amazing part of Gustafson’s game: Her efficiency.
Whenever she can get her hands on a basketball in the low post, it’s almost an automatic two points. That's not an exaggeration. Her drop-step move and ability to quickly and accurately shoot with her left hand leaves defenders dumbfounded.
Shot attempts are tough to come by when you’re double- and triple-teamed. Still, she’s averaging 15.6 of them per game this season — and nets 1.43 points per attempt. If Gustafson continues her pace, she’ll end up with the Big Ten’s all-time best career field-goal percentage. She’s at 65.2 percent, and the record is 65.0.
After averaging 25.7 points and 12.8 rebounds as a junior, she’s been even better as a senior at 26.5 and 12.9.
“I even talked to her at the end of last year, and said, ‘You’re probably not going to be able to duplicate this.’ It’s unheard of to do this two years in a row,” Bluder says. “And here she is doing it.”
She’s a shoo-in for Big Ten player of the year. She's got an excellent chance for the Lisa Leslie Award, given to the nation’s top center. And given Iowa’s team success (15-4 overall and a top-10 RPI as of Friday), she’ll be a candidate to win the Naismith Award as national player of the year.
“You’re looking at one of the best — if not the best — basketball players at Iowa wearing a uniform, male or female,” Bluder says. “I really believe that.”
It's certainly a compelling case.
Before Gustafson, the Iowa women’s all-time scoring record was Ally Disterhoft with 2,102. Roy Marble holds Iowa’s men’s record at 2,116 points.
If Gustafson maintains her current clip (she’s at 2,306 points, with 10 regular-season games plus the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments to go), it’s not unthinkable that she'll approach 2,700.
A strong case could be made for Ronnie Lester, who led the men's team to a Final Four in 1980 but had his career cut short by a knee injury, as the best player to wear an Iowa basketball jersey.
But given what she's doing in her sport, Gustafson just might be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) at Iowa.
That's why, after Iowa’s final regular-season game March 3 against Northwestern, Bluder and athletics director Gary Barta should bring Gustafson to mid-court at Carver-Hawkeye and retire her No. 10 jersey on the spot.
Bluder isn’t opposed, in principle.
“It rightfully should be (retired),” Bluder says. “But at the same time, I don’t want to worry about that until the season is over. … I just don’t want to have any other distractions upon her.”
Gustafson knows that talk is out there, too.
“That’s pretty amazing just to think about. Any time you get a jersey retired, that’s a pretty big thing, a pretty big deal,” she says. “I love being a Hawkeye. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
The native of tiny Port Wing, Wisconsin, is cherishing her final college moments.
You can see it with the way she interacts with young fans after games; she'll stay as long as it takes to sign every autograph, take every selfie.
You can see it in the way she inspires her teammates with a fist pump after one of her powerful post moves for two more points.
A double major in marketing and finance with a minor in psychology is an inspiration to everyone who crosses her path, whether she is holding a basketball or not.
"If you have young boys or girls," Bluder says, "here is the best role model you could possibly ask for."
But Gustafson knows her Iowa clock is ticking.
She has a professional basketball future, for sure. The WNBA Draft is in April, followed by a three-month season. Then, she’ll probably play overseas — where the money is better.
According to Forbes, the median WNBA salary is around $70,000, with the top players earning $110,000. While that’s not chump change, it’s far less than what even NBA referees make on the men’s side — a sign of the limited exposure and earning power in professional women’s basketball.
Which, again, brings us back to why it’s so important for Iowans to catch Gustafson while they can. After this, it’ll be hard to watch her play again. We only get so many chances to witness greatness before our eyes.
As it stands, five home dates in 36 days could be it. Best-case scenario, Iowa could host two additional NCAA Tournament games in mid-March. Gustafson has never been to a Sweet 16, and this could become just the second team in Bluder's 19 years to get there.
The Hawkeyes haven’t won or shared a Big Ten championship in 11 years. She’d like to change that, too.
“I think we’ve got a really good shot this year,” Gustafson says. “(And) I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen.”
Come out and see her, especially if you never have.
Because, at some point, the Gustafson show won't go on.
"I’m so blessed to even be able to put on the uniform," she says, "let alone do the things I’ve been able to do.
"As my time is winding down, it’s my time to pass the torch soon. I want to really embrace what I’ve got left."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Megan Gustafson, by the (incredible) numbers
With 10 regular-season games plus the postseason remaining in her Iowa career, here are some of the statistics Megan Gustafson has accumulated in 118 games (99 starts) at Iowa.
2,306 career points. Ally Disterhoft (2013-17) held the previous school record at 2,102.
1,225 career rebounds. Cindy Haugejorde (1976-80) held the previous school record at 1,067.
65.2 career field-goal percentage (935 of 1,435). The Big Ten record is 65 percent, held by Maryland’s Brionna Jones (803 of 1,236).
73 double-doubles. Samantha Logic held the previous school record with 35.
48 points in a game. A school record she set against Minnesota in last year’s Big Ten Tournament.
26.5 points per game (this season). She leads the nation by 1.5 points, after leading the country a year ago at 25.7.
71.3 field-goal percentage (211 of 296 this season). The NCAA record is 72.4 percent, by Southern Utah’s Myndee Kay Larsen in 1998; the Big Ten record is 69 percent.