Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes charging toward high expectations
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Some point to last year’s NCAA Tournament loss as when the Iowa women's basketball buzz began, a hope emerging from season-ending sadness. Others say it started with the July open scrimmage, when Hawkeyes fans poured in for an early glimpse at what could be a special group. The rest simply point to a consistent flow of hype and excitement as the offseason wore on.
No matter whom you ask inside the women’s basketball program, all assessments lead to one universal thought: This team, this season could be special.
“The team is excited about the possibilities,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said at Wednesday’s media day. “I think they have high expectations for themselves.
“I don't think that they feel any pressure or anything like that. I think they're enjoying the experience, and I want them to have the confidence that they can perform at the accolades that we're receiving right now.”
There have been plenty. After racking up multiple preseason awards from the Big Ten last week — second-place prediction, player of the year in Megan Gustafson and all-conference selection Kathleen Doyle — Iowa was ranked 13th in the Associated Press’ preseason poll. The USA TODAY Coaches poll should reflect similarly.
The AP designation is the Hawkeyes’ highest preseason ranking during Bluder’s tenure (2000-present). It’s just the fourth time in that span Iowa has cracked either preseason poll.
All this to say that numbers and recognition back up the notion that this is Bluder’s most hyped Hawkeye squad — and it could ultimately be her best. The 2014-15 unit, Iowa’s only Sweet Sixteen team in the past 20 years, didn’t have this much October love (ranked 19th in both preseason polls).
It’s a narrative shift from recent campaigns. Iowa was coming off back-to-back .500-or-worse showings in the Big Ten and two straight WNIT appearances until last year. Now, anything less than a deep March Madness run would feel like a disappointment.
Lofty expectations can derail a team lacking chemistry and focus. These Hawkeyes don’t appear to have that issue in the early going.
“We have a lot of big personalities, and it’s super fun to be around everyone,” Gustafson said. “Having those big expectations on us, it’s a little bit of a burden for anyone who has big expectations. But at the same time, it’s really, really exciting.
“Everyone’s able to carry the load, and so no matter what’s put on us or what kind of pressure, it’s easier to handle when it’s divided among everyone else.”
Even so, Gustafson’s efforts alone will dictate a large chunk of Iowa’s success. The 6-foot-3 senior forward was essentially unguardable last season, as she piled up national attention down the stretch. All-American status from seven outlets and a unanimous first-team all-Big Ten selection were hardware highlights.
Gustafson’s name will be bolded, highlighted and starred atop every opposing scouting report this season. How Iowa’s senior standout adjusts will prove vital.
“Everything and anything,” Bluder said when asked what teams will throw at Gustafson defensively. “We're going to see doubles, triples — everything against her, just like we did last year. So we tried to kind of give the team a different look every day in practice for that.”
The only starting lineup change comes next to Gustafson, where senior Hannah Stewart is set to replace Chase Coley. Stewart averaged 7.3 points and 17.2 minutes per game off the bench last year, setting her up for a larger role in her final run.
The backcourt is full of experience as well. Guards Kathleen Doyle, Makenzie Meyer and Alexis Sevillian patched things up better than expected after Tania Davis’ ACL tear last season, and those three are anxious for her return at some point.
Davis’ progression is perhaps the biggest early-season storyline to follow. She didn’t participate in Iowa’s secret scrimmage against Creighton and could also miss next Tuesday’s exhibition game against Dakota Wesleyan, Bluder said.
The Hawkeyes are wisely playing the long game here. A little more than 10 months removed from her second ACL tear in a calendar year, Davis could still be ready for the Nov. 9 season-opener against Oral Roberts. But there’s no need to rush with a deep, experienced backcourt.
“Just to be going through this again, getting over the physical and mental barriers and almost being at the finish line — seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — that’s what is keeping me going right now,” Davis said. “But other than that, I’m feeling good. Taking it one day at a time.”
The Hawkeyes will try to do the same as they push through a long season.
Some early challenges — an intriguing trip to Western Kentucky (Nov. 13), a strong Junkanoo Jam field (Nov. 22-24) and a date at defending champ Notre Dame (Nov. 29) — should provide solid litmus tests before Iowa enters the Big Ten. There, it’s a battle every night.
But the Hawkeyes have belief these expectations can be reached. Confidence and optimism are bubbling for a reason.
“When you're around our team and you feel how much they care about each other, how positive it is,” Bluder said, “you can't help but feel like this year has really good opportunities.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.