IOWA CITY, Ia. — When a decorated senior class featuring the best player in program history moves on, a bevy of unknowns is bound to follow. That’s where Iowa women’s basketball sits entering this season.
How quickly the Hawkeyes can answer those questions will dictate how this campaign unfolds. Enough pieces are back from Iowa’s Elite Eight run for an NCAA Tournament return. But the narrative for success is much cloudier than the previous season.
It’s on Lisa Bluder and company to find a groove as quickly as possible.
Following Sunday’s exhibition game versus Winona State, the Hawkeyes begin this campaign Thursday against Florida Atlantic. Here are some thoughts on the season ahead.
1. There are modest expectations but room to mold a season narrative.
Tucked away at the bottom of the USA TODAY women’s basketball preseason poll, it was interesting to see Iowa ranked first in receiving votes and just one spot behind Iowa State, especially after the Hawkeyes landed 11th in receiving votes in the AP preseason poll.
The de-facto 26th ranking is still fourth in the Big Ten, behind Maryland (fifth), Michigan State (21st) and Michigan (24th). Also ranked in the AP poll are Minnesota (23rd) and Indiana (24th).
All that to say Iowa has some carryover respect but will need to show more inside a solid Big Ten. Do so, though, and the Hawkeyes have a shot to reach the ceiling in this retooling season.
“There’s definitely a culture we’ve built here,” senior Kathleen Doyle said, “and that’s going to stay the same. It’s a winning and cohesive culture. And we want to keep winning and having that success.”
2. The Hawkeyes' downtown presence can no longer be a sporadic thing.
Iowa’s backcourt won’t necessarily have a permanent green light, but the treys will fly with much more regularity than before. The Hawkeyes have 3-point weapons. Can they bring enough consistency on a nightly basis to offset the post departures?
The downtown weapons start with seniors Makenzie Meyer and Kathleen Doyle. Both are capable of leading the Iowa attack. They’ll need to more often than not.
The X-factor might just be Alexis Sevillian, who’ll enter the starting lineup full-time as a redshirt junior. She shot a modest 31 percent from deep last year, but Sevillian had big scoring moments in a starter cameo early in the season. More of that will be needed in 2020.
Beyond that, Kate Martin, Amanda Ollinger and whoever emerges from Iowa’s underclassmen group must provide solid depth. Iowa shot 35 percent from deep last season, good for 50th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten. The challenge now is to grow from there.
“For them, it's really fun,” Bluder said. “You have an opportunity to drive and dish and hit open threes, and it just gives you more room to operate than the offense that we ran the last couple years as far as guards. I think that the guards are going to enjoy that.”
3. What can Iowa get from Amanda Ollinger?
Following three quiet seasons after a local prep career full of accolades, Amanda Ollinger has a chance for a riveting Iowa finish.
The Linn-Mar alum will have her biggest role yet, going from nearly 13 minutes per game to a frontline starter. Ollinger’s reserve days are no more, for now, and Bluder would love to keep it that way. The veteran head coach is hoping for a breakout.
“What I am happy to see about Amanda is just a different confidence level — now, she maybe just sees more of an opportunity — and she's taking advantage of that,” Bluder said. “I see somebody that's going to the rim really hard for rebounds. Obviously with what we lost, a double-digit rebounder, we need to have rebounders on this team — and Amanda is doing a great job of going to the boards for us, so I really like that.”
Her stat lines won’t always be the prettiest — a lot of rebound work, sound defense and some scoring are the chief responsibilities. If Iowa can count on Olllinger for consistent productivity, the Hawkeyes will be better for it.
4. How will Monika Czinano's development progress?
A mere seconds into her player description, Bluder understandably lobbied against any Megan Gustafson-Monika Czinano comparisons. Still, how Iowa’s sophomore center throughout her first extended action remains one of Iowa’s most intriguing storylines.
Frankly, we haven’t seen Czinano work with a full opportunity. Gustafson and Hannah Stewart didn’t allow for much substitution. Five minutes per game, while watching arguably the best post in America up-close, isn’t a bad way to spend freshman year.
Associate head coach Jan Jensen isn’t short on down-low development. Czinano is the next to get her shot.
“I think that we're all going to fall in love with Monika,” Bluder said, “through her amazing attitude and work ethic through time.”
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.