Leistikow: What's behind an unexpected run of Iowa women's basketball success after Megan Gustafson
At 4 p.m. Sunday on the Big Ten Network, the Iowa women’s basketball team will try to win its 30th consecutive game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. If the Hawkeyes beat 13th-ranked Indiana, they’ll be tied for the lead in the Big Ten Conference.
You read that correctly.
Without national player of the year Megan Gustafson and two other critical seniors, the Hawkeyes are still rolling with a 12-3 record (3-1 in Big Ten play) and have remained nationally relevant. As of Friday, they owned the No. 11 RPI in the country.
If you figured this would be a rebuilding year for Lisa Bluder, you weren’t alone. Scan the Internet, and you won’t find the Hawkeye women — who won the Big Ten Tournament a year ago and made a rousing run into the NCAA Elite Eight behind one of the best players in conference history — in the top five of preseason predictions.
How have they done it yet again?
Naturally, it’s a layered answer. And we’ll get into some of that. But there’s one word that’ll mostly sum it all up.
There’s been a willingness to embrace and implement radical change. Play to your strengths, right?
“We had to go from focusing on what we lost, like everybody else was around the country,” Bluder says, “to focusing on what we had."
Let’s start there.
Bluder and her staff had changed their scheme a few years earlier to build around Gustafson, a generational post player, with what resembled the old 1990s Chicago Bulls “triangle” offense.
And as soon as Gustafson, Hannah Stewart and Tania Davis departed, they knew they had to change again. So, they did. The staff re-learned, updated and implemented a perimeter-oriented scheme geared around the strengths of senior guards Kathleen Doyle (17.3 points a game, Big Ten-leading 5.4 assists) and Makenzie Meyer (14.9 points, team-high 43 3-pointers), who are flourishing as leaders.
The basis is what is known as a “four-out” style — which puts four players behind the 3-point line and one post player inside. That can evolve to a “three-out” or even a “five-out,” too. But its focus is free-wheeling guard play and requires precision cuts through the lane and a read-and-react mentality.
It’s not rocket science, but adjusting is what good coaches do. And Bluder, as more and more people across the country are realizing, is a very, very good coach.
“Even way back when I played for Lisa, I always appreciated that about her,” says longtime top associate Iowa coach Jan Jensen, who as a player at Drake under Bluder led the NCAA in scoring during her senior season. “She morphs. She’s not stuck. She never gets to (a point) where, ‘This is my way. This is how I’ve always done it.’
“She’s always open to different nuances and changing things up. We study a lot of film to remain relevant. And it’s not my favorite thing to do. Change is hard.”
And so, too, were the growing pains of learning a new offense and life without Gustafson.
The season began, well, like probably everyone expected. The Hawkeyes barely escaped North Alabama at home. Then got pummeled, 88-66, at Northern Iowa. Then eked out a two-point home win against Princeton. After a decent 2-1 showing in a Puerto Rico, though, something changed.
The Hawkeyes found their post.
There’s more to coaching, of course, than play designs. You need to identify and develop the players to execute the plan.
And that’s where Jensen is off-the-charts gifted. She works with Iowa’s interior players. Gustafson — a small-town northern Wisconsin girl who became the best player in the college game last season — will always be known as Jensen’s pièce de résistance. But Jensen has always been good at this.
“Jan always gets the most out of our posts, whether it’s Jamie Cavey (early 2000s) or Morgan Johnson (early 2010s),” Bluder says. “Now we’re getting higher-level posts coming out of high school, because people realize what Jan is doing.
"And it’s not only the technical side of things; Jan is excellent at making people believe in themselves and giving them confidence.”
So, like Bluder says, maybe we were all too worried about what Iowa lost.
Enter Monika Czinano, a lightly recruited 6-foot-3 sophomore from a small Minnesota town called Watertown.
It was after she scored a career-high 24 points on 11-of-15 shooting against Clemson on Dec. 4 that Jensen told her, “You’ve arrived.”
The next game out, Czinano scored 21 points as Iowa won at Iowa State — a fourth straight Cy-Hawk win that few saw coming. Recently, her 21 points fueled a blowout road win of Northwestern.
For the season Czinano is averaging 14.9 points a game and shooting a national-best 71.3% from the floor. That’s known as Gustafson-level efficiency.
With a guard-oriented scheme, having a proficient center is critical. The Clemson game kicked off a stretch that has seen Iowa win seven out of eight — including against Drake (RPI 28), Northwestern (RPI 20) and, on Thursday night, 14th-ranked Maryland (then RPI 23).
Indiana (RPI 9) presents the toughest test yet.
But the young Hawkeyes might just steal another one, because they don't know any better.
“I think Monika is a microcosm of the whole team,” Jensen says. “She’s exceeding expectations. Having a blast doing it. But no one has these crazy new expectations. Everybody’s just having fun pushing the envelope.”
That’s the reality check.
The Hawkeyes realize there are probably bumps ahead.
“I don’t think anyone on our staff believes we’re going to never lose again and make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament,” Jensen says. “We’re young. They’re learning. And when they make a mistake, they’re like little puppies. They want to come back and learn how we’ve got to do it better.”
And that’s been the beauty of this Bluder team.
They want to improve, and they are. And they're starting to believe. Last year’s magical run has clearly rubbed off on Doyle and Meyer and less-experienced players like Czinano, Amanda Ollinger and Alexis Sevillian, who are now heavily-used starters.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Bluder says of the preceding 29-7 season, her best in a sterling 19-plus at Iowa. “It helps with recruiting. It helps with fan support, which gives us a better home-court advantage. But I think that we’ve been there now. Even (Thursday) night at the end, ‘Hey, we know we can beat Maryland. We’ve done it.’ That helps in the last four minutes when the game is tied.”
Given that, consider this: Even with 14 NCAA Tournament appearances at Iowa under her belt, is it possible that Bluder is in the midst of her finest coaching hour yet? Perhaps we’ll look back and say yes, with last year’s breakthrough — the school’s first Elite Eight since 1993 and first Big Ten Tournament title since 2001 — setting the stage for bigger things to come. Don’t forget, top-five national recruit Caitlin Clark of Dowling Catholic High School is on the way next season.
Jensen, who has been with Bluder every step of the way, is a believer. Unsurprisingly with her acumen, Jensen has had many opportunities to leave Iowa for what others would view as better jobs. She could be, at minimum, a head coach at a Missouri Valley Conference school or a top assistant at a more decorated women's program.
But one of the things that has kept her in Iowa City is that because of how Bluder operates, the rewarding experiences (not just basketball) are plentiful.
And the wins have kept coming, even when we least expect it.
“Me choosing to stay. … I know I may be biased, but I think few do it better than Lisa,” Jensen says. “How she empowers the young women on our team. What we talk about outside of basketball. I’d like to think we’re preparing great young female leaders. And it’s an amazing responsibility.
“It’s a privilege to get to do what we do, and you get to play a game alongside it. I’ve always been a big fan of Lisa Bluder.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.