Iowa coach Lisa Bluder discusses her team’s earning of a No. 6 NCAA Tournament seed.
LOS ANGELES — The crash course usually begins some mere hours after the bracket reveal, as coaching staffs hastily gather all the material they can on a foreign opponent. The NCAA Tournament is quirky like that. Two foes, often from completely different regions and backgrounds, come together with the season on the line.
That makes the Hawkeyes’ Big Dance draw even more peculiar. From coaching friendships and recruiting battles to secret scrimmages and proximity, the overlap between Iowa and Creighton is abundant. Separated by less than 250 miles, the two programs will meet Saturday in the NCAA Tournament’s first round at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
“It’s kind of unusual honestly,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday. “Typically, you’re preparing for somebody you’ve never seen or don’t really know. But we know a lot of these kids personally — we recruited them, built relationships with them.
“So it’s kind of an unusual thing that we’re traveling three hours by plane to play a team that we could be busing three hours basically to play against.”
The Iowa-Creighton intersect begins with the head coaches, who estimated they’ve known each other for close to 25 years. Bluder and Jim Flanery first collided in the Missouri Valley Conference, where she led Drake for a decade (1990-2000) and he was a Bluejay assistant during much of the same stretch (1992-2002).
When Flanery took the Creighton head job the following year, the Hawkeyes and Bluejays met annually for five straight years (2002-07), also matching up twice in the WNIT. The two schools haven’t had an in-season showdown since — but have remained preseason scrimmage partners for much of the last decade, including this season.
“We have a great relationship with the Iowa staff, and we’ve scrimmaged them for the last seven or eight years,” Flanery told reporters on Selection Monday. “So it’s a program with whom we’re really familiar.”
As Midwest neighbors, Iowa and Creighton naturally pull from similar recruiting pools. Evidence is splattered throughout current rosters, as well as future ones.
In its romp to a Class 5A title earlier this month, Iowa City West leaned on players heading to each school. Seniors Logan Cook (Iowa signee) and Rachael Saunders (Creighton signee) finished as the Trojans’ top two scorers this season. Two 2020 prospects in the Hawkeyes’ backyard — City High’s Aubrey Joens and Rose Nkumu — also have Creighton offers.
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Bluejays standout Audrey Faber, a Dowling Catholic product and one of three Iowans on Flanery’s roster, visited the Hawkeyes multiple times before landing in Omaha. Creighton senior Myah Mellman and Iowa sophomore Makenzie Meyer were teammates for two seasons at Mason City as well.
“That’s definitely pretty neat that we’ll be seeing each other on the floor,” Mellman said after the Bluejays snuck into the field. “I grew up watching Iowa all the time, so I think it’s going to be something special. I’m really excited about it.”
Yet when it comes to blue and gold paths crossing on the recruiting circuit, no venture tops the 2016 Nike Nationals in Chicago. Bluder and Flanery entered the high-profile event eyeing future prospects. They exited the Windy City with quite a story.
“(Iowa assistant) Jan Jensen and I get in a cab, and we’re driving to a restaurant at 10 o’clock at night through Chicago,” Bluder recalled. “And a car comes out of nowhere in the street. Our cab smashes into this car. We get out of the cab, and it’s Jim Flanery driving it. The cab driver — I’ll never forget his face — we go over and hug Jim, and the cab driver is thinking, ‘What is going on?’ So we’ve got some really good history together — and everybody was OK.
“Took him out in a cab, hoping to take him out in the NCAA Tournament.”
To do so, Iowa will need to emerge victorious in the game’s personnel contrast. Creighton doesn’t have a forceful presence inside, but it successfully leans on a guard-heavy lineup and Faber’s versatility. But with no true post to offset the Hawkeyes’ size, Iowa will undoubtedly look to feed Megan Gustafson as much as possible.
That’s how Tanya Warren sees Saturday’s matchup being decided. The current Northern Iowa coach, Creighton alum and former Bluejay assistant faced both squads this season, suffering an 89-78 double-overtime loss in Omaha on Nov. 21 before falling, 71-47, to Iowa on Dec. 17.
“What I know for sure is that coach Flanery and that staff is going to have a great gameplan,” Warren said. “They too can score in a variety of ways, in the fact that they shoot the three extremely well. They do a very good job of creating mismatches.
“Now, Iowa’s size is going to be able to utilize some of what Creighton likes to do. So it’s really, in my mind, going to come down to if Creighton can somewhat slow down Gustafson, and if Iowa can guard Creighton without fouling.”
Both programs know Saturday’s result will hinge on those tendencies as well.
Bluder said neither defense was sharp when the two schools scrimmaged in late October, understandable for what was basically a glorified preseason practice.The respective coaching staffs likely aren’t putting much stock in that result, but the familiarity between Iowa and Creighton surely made this week’s cram session a bit easier.
Flying all the way out to Los Angeles does seem a little much, though. The schools could’ve just split the difference and met at Wells Fargo Arena.
“Going into the NCAA Tournament,” Bluder said, “it’s just a very strange situation.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.