Ahead of rigorous nonconference stretch, No. 14 Hawkeyes hoping to follow men's team success

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — With her team set to begin a pivotal nonconference stretch Friday afternoon, Lisa Bluder didn’t have to look far for a successful model. In fact, the Iowa women’s basketball coach didn’t even have to leave the building.

“I feel like we’re kind of in a situation like the men were last week,” Bluder said Monday. "They won on their home court, and then they were going on the road and playing against better opponents and really finding out what they were made of. I know everyone is happy the men came out and won the 2K Classic in New York City, and we’re kind of in the same boat.

“We’ve won three games, but now, the competition is obviously going to heat up. I think we’ll find out what we’re made of.”

Iowa Hawkeyes players huddle before an NCAA women's basketball game on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

Indeed. If Bluder’s No. 14 Hawkeyes (3-0) can duplicate what Fran McCaffery’s squad did last week, you’ll see even more basketball love circulating through Iowa City. Beginning with Friday’s Junkanoo Jam opener against No. 20 West Virginia (3-0), the Hawkeyes could potentially face four Power Five foes in a 13-day span.

A victory over the Mountaineers would set Iowa up to face the Eastern Kentucky-Florida State winner (the Hawkeyes are hoping they get the Seminoles, which are receiving votes in the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll). Then comes a Nov. 29 trip to top-ranked Notre Dame, followed by a Dec. 5 date versus Iowa State (also receiving votes in the coaches' poll). The only breather in between is a Dec. 2 matchup against Robert Morris.

Blowing out teams is nice — as Iowa has done while averaging 100 points through three games — but this is a veteran team loaded with expectations. Everyone wants to see how the Hawkeyes stack up against stiffer competition.

No better time to make a statement than early.

“I think it’s really important,” Bluder said of this nonconference stretch. “Our team is ready for this challenge We’re ready to play against somebody who’s going to test us and give us a good game.”      

The Mountaineers should provide a solid opening test. West Virginia moved up in the coaches' poll and climbed into The Associated Press rankings after three routs, albeit against lesser teams in Coppin State, NJIT and Bryant.

When analyzing Iowa’s opposing personnel, one must first start inside to see if there’s a counter to Megan Gustafson — and West Virginia does boast some size on paper. Surrounded by four guards, the Mountaineers start 6-foot-6 center Theresa Ekhelar, who has 24 total points, nine rebounds and five blocks through three games. Gustafson has handled plenty of matchups like this before, but she’ll need to be as crisp as can be from the jump.

Still, it’s hard to envision a better start for Iowa’s all-American. Gustafson’s racked up two Big Ten player-of-the-week honors and is averaging a double-double (24 points, 13 rebounds) so far. During one stretch spread over the Hawkeyes’ three games, Gustafson hit 17 consecutive shots.

That’s opened up things on the outside too, and Makenzie Meyer has been the top beneficiary so far. The junior is averaging 16.7 points while shooting 50 percent from deep. She, along with Iowa’s other experienced guards, have helped stable the ship with Kathleen Doyle sidelined.

Meyer also leads the team with 19 assists, one of four Hawkeyes with double-digit dimes. Entering Wednesday, Iowa tops the nation with 30.7 assists per game.

“We really celebrate assists,” Meyer said after Saturday’s win over North Carolina Central. “I’m just so blessed to have posts who are able to catch some of probably not the best passes from me.

“Having Megan and Hannah (Stewart) and Monika (Czinano) and Paula (Valino Ramos) in there is a blessing.”  

So would emerging from this stretch with similar success as their Hawkeye counterparts.

“Again, we really compared ourselves before we started practicing (Monday) with where the men were a week ago and how they handled that situation,” Bluder said. “Hopefully, we’ll handle our situation with as much success as they did.”     

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.