IOWA CITY, Ia. — As preseason questions lingered about how the Iowa women’s basketball team would navigate this season, few could’ve envisioned a scenario like this so early in the year.
How the Hawkeyes would handle national attention seemed like a far-fetched concern. But, here we are.
After a riveting stretch that included two ranked wins in a span of four days, Iowa soaked in some love this week as one of the sport’s surging squads. The Hawkeyes (13-3, 4-1 Big Ten Conference) cracked both sets of rankings — No. 22 by The Associated Press, No. 24 in the USA TODAY coaches' poll — and saw senior Kathleen Doyle rack up Naismith and Big Ten player of the week honors.
All are nice benchmarks for a team featuring plenty of first-year contributors. But, as veterans such as Doyle, Makenzie Meyer and others have reminded their young teammates, there is still tons of basketball left.
That becomes Iowa’s next challenge as it heads out for two games this week. Up first is Minnesota (11-5, 1-4) on Thursday evening at “The Barn,” followed by a Sunday trek to Wisconsin (9-7, 1-4). Neither opponent boasts a gaudy record, but the Hawkeyes can’t waste their statement week by no-showing on the road.
“It’s obviously really exciting that we’re being recognized nationally and we’re having a lot of fun winning these games,” Doyle said, “But we also know how much we have to pay attention to detail and really focus in on our scout. We have to take every game just as seriously as the next in order to get what we want to get done in the Big Ten season.
“As seniors, it’s kind of our responsibility to remind those young girls that there’s nothing wrong with getting excited and celebrating big wins and having a lot of fun with it — but to also not be complacent with where we’re at. We’ve just got to get better every single day to keep climbing higher.”
As Iowa’s emotional leader, Doyle shoulders much of that regroup responsibility. She knows as well as any Hawkeye the grind ahead through the Big Ten slate, which — despite Iowa’s rousing start — still has six weeks remaining. The Hawkeyes certainly don’t want this January stretch to be a distant memory come March.
Turning the page begins against a Gopher enigma. After an 11-1 nonconference slate that included an 11-game winning streak, Minnesota has dropped four straight Big Ten games in painful fashion. It's why the Gophers are in a four-way tie for last with Illinois, Wisconsin and Penn State.
Minnesota’s leading scorer, Destiny Pitts, remains suspended for "conduct unbecoming a member of the team", while sisters Taiye Bello and Kehinde Bello practiced Wednesday after also being suspended. All three could miss Thursday's contest.
Iowa isn’t worried about that so much. The Hawkeyes have honed in, making sure this unforeseen surge lasts throughout the coming months. Good performances this week will have Iowa rolling into another two-game home stretch.
“With the seniors and the captains we have on our team, they’re going to keep reminding our young players that we have a long way to go,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “We still have 13 Big Ten games to play, and I don’t want to wish them away. I’m having too much fun to wish them away.
“I want to enjoy every one of them, but at the same time, we have to keep our focus and our intensity. We have to be able to balance the confidence with the attention to detail. I think that we’re doing that.”
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.