Iowa women's basketball: Big Ten intensity is here as Hawkeyes ready for early league opener

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In order to execute this one-of-a-kind college basketball season, several elements of normalcy had to be sacrificed. One of the biggest is how non-conference and league schedules were constructed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A typical slate features a few easy wins in November — followed by an uptick in competition somewhere near the middle of non-conference play — and then perhaps a few more cupcake affairs before league action begins. This allows teams, particularly ones swimming in youth, to find a routine early ahead of important conference games.

Not this year.

In the middle of such scheduling absurdity is Iowa women’s basketball, which hosts Wisconsin at 2 p.m. Saturday to begin Big Ten play in what is the Hawkeyes’ third game of the year.

It’s the start of a few seesawing weeks that will see Iowa (2-0) go from league action Saturday to Cy-Hawk next Wednesday, back to the Big Ten for road games at Michigan State and Ohio State, before finishing its non-conference slate Dec. 22 versus Western Illinois. The Hawkeyes then resume league play for good Dec. 31 against Rutgers.

This year marks just the second time in Lisa Bluder’s 21 seasons leading the Hawkeyes that Iowa will have played single-digit games before starting Big Ten play. The only other time came in the 2009-10 campaign when the Hawkeyes began their conference slate Dec. 6 against Michigan with a 5-3 record. The last time Iowa played a traditional Big Ten member earlier than game three — its 1981 season-opener against Minnesota — the league wasn’t even officially sponsoring women’s basketball.

“It’s kind of unusual,” Bluder said this week when discussing the upcoming schedule. “… But that’s the way it’s going to be for us this year.

“We’ll survive.”

Iowa has done more than survive so far.

Buoyed by two offensive gems from standout freshman Caitlin Clark, the Hawkeyes trek into Big Ten action with two riveting in-state wins under their belt. Victories over Northern Iowa and Drake — hardly the inferior matchups that usually start Iowa’s schedule — have accelerated the Hawkeyes’ youth movement ahead of Saturday.

“We didn’t get those little games beforehand that help you get all the wrinkles out originally. We’ve been thrown in against some really good teams right away,” sophomore McKenna Warnock said. “And now that we start (Big Ten play) with Wisconsin on Saturday — it’s right off the bat — so the preparation has been a little bit faster and a little bit quicker. We’ve just had to learn to get past that and figure it out in the first couple games we’ve played.

“We’ve also practiced longer, which has helped. Practices have been very intense, and we’ve been told from the coaches that we need to be ready. So we take every practice very seriously.”

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder huddles up with players during a NCAA non-conference women's basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Mitigating some of the early-season chaos is Iowa’s recent dominance over Wisconsin. Amid such a hectic itinerary, the Hawkeyes couldn’t have asked for a better situation in their Big Ten opener.

Not only has Iowa toppled the Badgers 22 straight times dating back to 2007, but 13 of those wins have come by double figures. Moreover, the Hawkeyes’ three biggest margin of victories during this stretch — all at Carver-Hawkeye Arena — have arrived in the last four matchups against Wisconsin.

This Badger unit has taken the floor just once, a 73-66 win over Western Illinois on Nov. 29 that was a two-possession game with just under five minutes remaining. Wisconsin did have scheduled contests against Miami (Ohio) and Prairie View A&M that COVID-19 either postponed or canceled.

All that equates to an untimely letdown should Iowa stumble Saturday — even if Big Ten intensity has arrived much earlier than normal.

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.