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Lisa Bluder: 'I really believe that they think the sky’s the limit for them.' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa women’s basketball fans took advantage of a unique opportunity, one that provided an early glimpse of what could be a special Hawkeye season.

Supporters piled into the Carver-Hawkeye Arena practice gym Friday evening as Lisa Bluder held a sneak-peek summer scrimmage. Score wasn’t kept, but nearly the entire Iowa roster was in action.

Some takeaways from Friday night:

Excitement bubbling

Once the tears subsided from last year’s season-ending loss to Creighton in the NCAA Tournament, everyone inside the Hawkeye program knew what was coming down the road.

You heard it in the postgame talk that day. You heard it in the months that followed. And you heard it again Friday.

Iowa’s expectations for 2018-19 are sky-high.

And they should be.

Chase Coley is the only significant contributor gone from last season. Injured point guard Tania Davis should be back healthy (more on that later). Even with Kate Martin’s torn ACL, a nice freshmen class is in the fold.

Oh, and Iowa still has No. 10 down low.

“I think this year, especially coming into my senior year, it really means a lot more than it ever has,” Megan Gustafson said. “I just can’t believe this is going to be my final year, so I think everyone is super excited. I want a Big Ten championship, and I’m going to work as hard as I can. This is my last shot.

“We have just about the entire team coming back, and that’s something that a lot of Big Ten teams can’t say about themselves. I think we’re one of the top contenders, so that’s really exciting.”

RELATED: How Gustafson's small-town roots helped put her among the elite

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It’s still too early for the full wealth of preseason polls and buzz, but here’s a small insight into where Iowa’s mindset is.

Shortly after Notre Dame’s national championship win, ESPN.com’s Charlie Crème released his “way-too-early” top 25. He had the Hawkeyes’ 17th.

“And they were kind of mad,” Bluder said. “To me, that shows this is awesome. I love that kind of attitude with them.

“I really believe that they think the sky’s the limit for them.”   

'She knows she belongs'

Among Iowa’s returning players set to make the biggest jump in responsibility is senior Hannah Stewart, who’ll likely replace Coley at the other starting forward spot.

Stewart averaged 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 17 minutes per game last season, but those figures should increase across the board.

“Now, she knows she belongs,” Bluder said. “I think her first couple years, she kind of doubted herself and had some confidence things at the beginning.

“She knows this is her role, and I think that mental stuff is such a big part of it.”

Newcomer report

Helping provide frontcourt depth behind Stewart and Gustafson will be two freshmen.

Bluder said the staff is still finding the exact role for 6-foot-1 newcomer Logan Cook, whose length and versatility can cause opponents issues. Freshman Monika Czinano has a more defined role as a 6-foot-3 forward, and will have a chance to learn under one of the best posts in the country.

“I think that Monika has got a motor — not quite like Megan — but boy, she works really hard inside,” Bluder said. “Anybody who works that hard, they’re going to be good. It’s going to pay off.

“Logan, we’re still trying to figure out what position to put her in. Again, she works so hard in drills, and her length is so good. She is versatile — we just have to figure out how we’re going to use that versatility the best. That’s still kind of a work in progress.”

Then there’s 5-foot-10 guard Tomi Taiwo, who enters a crowded backcourt but could carve out a role as the season progresses.

 “Obviously, you can see that Tomi can shoot threes, can get to the rim,” Bluder said. “She’s going to be a good player.

“I think (the freshmen) could potentially all play. Now, with Monika, we have a little more depth inside with Hannah and Megan. So it’s a little bit tougher for her. But with the guards, I think so.”   

Easing back in

The Hawkeyes biggest “new” asset, though, comes from within. The Hawkeyes had Davis for just 11 full games last season before she tore her ACL for the second time in as many seasons.

Iowa patched up its backcourt much better than expected, but Davis’ absence showed a handful of times down the stretch. The return of her veteran leadership could very well be the most important factor if Iowa makes a deep tournament run.

The Hawkeyes are still being cautious with Davis — she sat out the scrimmage and won’t participate in anything until practice begins Oct. 1 — but the expectation is she’ll be ready to roll come the season opener.

“Right now, I’m doing a lot of noncontact stuff in practice, just taking it step-by-step, day-by-day,” Davis said. “Very slowly, don’t want to rush back into anything. Just making sure that everything is going smoothly and I’m just as strong on the left side as I am on the right side.”  

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

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