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Lisa Bluder and the Hawkeyes are ready to go vs. FAU. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — No more speculating. No more guessing how Iowa women’s basketball will advance after Megan Gustafson’s departure.

The Hawkeyes’ chance to establish their bounce-back narrative is here.

This campaign doesn’t have the preseason hype as last year’s eventual Elite Eight season did, but much intrigue remains for Lisa Bluder’s program. Can Iowa, which has missed just four NCAA Tournaments since 2004, avoid a significant drop-off following the departure of arguably its most decorated senior class?

The quest begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday against Florida Atlantic inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Those still wearing black and gold are ready to roll.

“You’re just so excited to play games,” senior Kathleen Doyle said. “You’re just so tired of practicing all the time. I know the coaches love practicing, but players want to play in front of fans and play against other people. So it’s definitely exciting.”

Last Sunday provided the first glimpse at Iowa’s re-tooled product. A 98-53 exhibition blowout over Winona State went as expected. There were some rotational clues and promising performances. But things haven’t gotten real yet.

One change will come in the starting lineup. Bluder said Amanda Ollinger will join the opening five in place of redshirt freshman Kate Martin, who started against Winona State. Martin should still see plenty of action as the first player off the bench.

While Iowa’s backcourt breakdown owned the preseason chatter, it was familiar post dominance that popped in the exhibition. Sophomore Monika Czinano’s 27-point effort on 13-for-13 shooting looked like her predecessor’s stat line.

Czinano had a massive height advantage against the Division II school from Minnesota, so this performance needs to be considered with that in mind. But positively beginning a season where Czinano will shoulder much more responsibility is never a bad thing.

“I think it was just nice to get onto Carver with fans,” Czinano said. “It brings such a different atmosphere than us scrimmaging against ourselves in Carver. That, for sure, was completely different. But I think the exhibition just worked for the whole team, getting out the jitters and feeling out the lights.

“Just getting everything ready for when we tip it off for real.”    

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Iowa's Monika Czinano: 'It's about time' to get rolling ahead of season-opener. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

Iowa’s opening challenge appears to be a manageable one. Florida Atlantic is coming off a 5-25 year where it won just two games after Dec. 1. The Owls were picked 10th in Conference USA’s preseason poll.

The Hawkeyes have never lost a season-opener in Bluder’s 19 years in Iowa City. Thursday wouldn’t be a good time to change that trend.

“Glad we’re at home, obviously, for these first couple of games,” Bluder said. “It’s always great to play in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“Had a good exhibition game. I think it served its purpose as far as the freshmen getting some playing time and getting those jitters out while showing us some things we need to work on. Which is great. You want to have that happen.”        

What happens next is up to these Hawkeyes. The slate is blank again in terms of expectations. There is plenty of room to mold this season into something productive.  

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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