With national TV on deck, Iowa women look to continue hot start at No. 23 Northwestern

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — With the Big Ten Conference realizing just in time that it’s probably smart to put one of its most dynamic women’s basketball programs on national television, Iowa has a prime opportunity Saturday to back up the league’s viewing decision.

The Hawkeyes’ weekend trip to No. 23 Northwestern is the first of five straight Iowa games the Big Ten Network announced this week it will carry. The decision makes sense, considering that both the Hawkeyes’ offensive prowess and freshman catalyst Caitlin Clark have gained plenty of national attention in the season’s first six weeks.

Now, with more eyeballs watching, it’s on the Hawkeyes to capitalize Saturday and beyond. It’s hard to argue with where Iowa is entering this important stretch.

“Something we really stress and is important to our team is to have good team chemistry,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said this week. “We work at it all the time.”     

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder high-fives Iowa center Monika Czinano (25) and Iowa guard Megan Meyer, second from left, heading into a timeout during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Minnesota, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

There’s no secret how the Hawkeyes (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten Conference) have climbed into this position, again knocking on the door of becoming a ranked program and re-emerging among the conference’s upper echelon. Reliability from all levels has the Hawkeyes among the nation’s best in scoring (92.1 ppg) and several other offensive categories. Clark’s influence has been immediate and swift. Only one player is putting up more than her 27.6 points per game. The next closest Power Five freshman averages almost 10 points fewer than that.

“We love just being able to get out and push the ball. Our point guards do an amazing job of that. Obviously having a freshman who scores as much as Caitlin scores every single game, it’s awesome,” sophomore McKenna Warnock said. “She can just get the ball up the court, make some really good passes, get other people open. Everything is working really well right now, and our cohesion is doing what it should.”         

Saturday’s Welsh-Ryan Arena affair gives Clark and the Hawkeyes a chance to establish potency against a signature foe. For all of Iowa’s success, six of its eight victories have come against teams currently 70th or worse in the NCAA's NET rankings, which are being used for the first time this season in women’s basketball. The Hawkeyes’ league wins have come against four of the bottom five squads in the up-to-date Big Ten standings.

Northwestern (5-2, 3-2) will certainly be a heftier challenge. Picked as high as second in the Big Ten preseason coaches' and media polls, the Wildcats have gotten solid production around Wooden Award Midseason List honoree Lindsey Pulliam. Even with all her accolades, Pulliam is currently Northwestern’s third leading scorer behind juniors Veronica Burton (17.4 ppg) and Sydney Wood (14.6 ppg).

Although the Wildcats rank ninth in the Big Ten at 75.4 points per game, Northwestern’s offense is efficient in several pivotal categories. The Wildcats are the conference’s best in turnover margin (+13.86), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.74) and offensive rebounds per game (16.57). All those figures came to fruition Wednesday, as Northwestern ended a two-game losing streak with an 80-55 thumping of Wisconsin.

A win in Saturday’s 6 p.m. game would almost guarantee the Hawkeyes a top-25 ranking in both polls come next week. Iowa picked up 18 votes in the latest Associated Press rankings and 37 in the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll. Those totals slot the Hawkeyes 29th and 28th, respectively. Almost half the Big Ten is already ranked as-is. Squeezing in Iowa only magnifies their national television appearances.

Get ready to see what the Hawkeyes are truly made of in the games ahead.

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.