Hawkeyes without bubble sweat as regular season nears end

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — With three regular-season games to go in a grueling conference slate, the Hawkeyes can taste March Madness and all its excitement.

Iowa's Megan Gustafson celebrates as Chase Coley draws a foul during the Hawkeyes' game against Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

This time of year has been stressful the previous two seasons as Iowa spent life on the bubble, forced to look around for help while trying to muster a final push. An NCAA Tournament berth didn’t materialize either year.

But the current campaign is different. Riding a four-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes (20-6, 8-5 Big Ten Conference) are squarely on the right side of things heading down the stretch. The focus is solely on themselves as the program looks for its first Big Dance appearance since the 2015 Sweet 16 run.

“It’s really exciting,” junior Megan Gustafson said. “Both my freshman and sophomore years, we didn’t know at all if we were going to be able to be in (the NCAA Tournament). I think right now where we are, we’re like a shoe-in (for the NCAA Tournament) in terms of standings and what people have predicted.

“They obviously can’t predict it 100 percent — things could go off or on depending on the rest of the season — but right now, it feels really good to have that sigh of relief and that breathing room and maybe a little bit of a cushion. That gives us more confidence and takes the pressure off our team moving forward.”

Iowa will look to continue surging on Sunday against Wisconsin (9-18, 2-12) in its annual Pink Game, which will honor six breast cancer survivors. The Hawkeyes are currently tied for fifth in the conference standings, but finishing out their late-season push could vault Iowa into the top four. That would mean a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

Reaching that benchmark will require more quality efforts against the conference’s bottom feeders. Although Wisconsin has had sporadic competitive performances, nine of its 12 Big Ten losses have come by double figures. The Badgers are 1-5 on the road in Big Ten play, with an average margin of defeat at nearly 15 points.   

Wisconsin did make things somewhat interesting in the season’s first matchup against Iowa, slicing a 16-point halftime deficit down to seven in the third quarter before falling, 56-46, on Dec. 28. But that was the Hawkeyes’ first game without Makenzie Meyer, whose fractured hand occurred the day before and left Iowa little time to adjust.

But Meyer has been back for nearly a month, and Iowa is riding high. A complete Hawkeye letdown is Wisconsin’s only ticket to an upset.     

“We’ve had four straight (wins) now in February, so we’re really clicking as a team and starting to peak at the right time,” Meyer said. “So it’s really exciting, and hopefully, we can finish this last week out with three more wins.

“We’re climbing our way up the Big Ten standings, so that’s great. So we can hopefully get a good seed at that tournament and make our bid for the NCAA Tournament.”     

ESPN.com women’s basketball bracketologist Charlie Creme bumped the Hawkeyes up to a No. 8 seed this week, and told HawkCentral that Iowa’s seeding ceiling is a No. 6 seed if it continues to close strong.

Such is life without the bubble sweat.

“It just feels a lot better going into your last week, sitting in a good position,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We know we have work to do. We know we have these three games ahead of us. We know we have the Big Ten Tournament. But where we sit right now looks pretty good compared to the last two years.

“It feels good to be in the driver’s seat right now and not have to worry about what everybody else does. We control our own (NCAA Tournament) destiny, and that feels a lot better.”          

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.