Iowa women's basketball: Hawkeyes searching for breakthrough against Big Ten's upper echelon
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As for now, the basketball pendulum that is Iowa's daunting schedule full of challengers swings toward the negative end. Justifiably tough losses are the ceiling for these statement opportunities until the Hawkeyes show otherwise.
“We’re so close on so many of these top-25 games," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Thursday night, after the Hawkeyes fell short again in a ranked affair.
It's not as if Iowa (10-5, 6-5 Big Ten Conference) has completely flopped in these upper-echelon games — the Hawkeyes' average margin of defeat this season is just 5.6 points — but that can be as maddening as it is encouraging. Following Thursday's 92-87 at No. 13 Ohio State, Iowa is 1-5 in Quadrant 1 conference games.
And here comes another Sunday afternoon.
No. 17 Indiana (10-4, 8-2) comes charging into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a 1 p.m. tip on ESPN2. It's the first of two games against the Hoosiers in two weeks. Iowa surely doesn't want to watch another ranked squad complete a season sweep the way Northwestern and Ohio State just did.
"This is just kind of like the rest of the season," junior Monika Czinano said earlier this week. "We're going against a lot of good teams coming up. It's getting to the end, and we should be at our peak for basketball performance."
Sunday is Iowa's first of three remaining guaranteed Quad 1 opportunities — add a Feb. 25 game against No. 12 Michigan to the home-and-home against Indiana. It's possible two more chances arise. Wednesday's game at Nebraska could become one if the Cornhuskers' NET ranking slides from 77th to 75th to get inside the Quad 1 parameters. The Maryland postponement is nearly re-scheduled as well.
This is the first season women's basketball will use the NET rankings in determining the NCAA Tournament field, mirroring the men's decision from two years ago to eradicate the RPI. Quadrant 1 wins are treated like gold in the new system. And Iowa is 2-5 overall in such games, with wins coming at Drake and against Rutgers at home (the Iowa State victory was one too until recently slipping into Quadrant 2).
Entering this weekend, only seven programs have as many or fewer Quadrant 1 wins with as many or more Quadrant 1 opportunities than Iowa. Of those schools — Iowa State, Missouri, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Florida, Boston College and Utah — the Cyclones are the only team more than one game above .500.
"We just can’t get over the hump," Bluder said, "but hopefully we will soon.”
Toppling Indiana would temporarily alleviate some of that frustration. Although the Hoosiers don't boast the offensive firepower Ohio State has, Iowa will need a better defensive effort than Thursday to emerge victorious. Indiana will be well-rested too following Thursday's COVID-19 postponement against Rutgers.
"You can scout so much," Czinano said, "but it gets to a point where you have to get down and just play good, old-fashioned defense. Keep the person in front of you. That's the energy you have to bring."
Iowa will need it usual offensive intensity too given how the Hoosiers defend. Across the Big Ten, Indiana is second in points surrendered per game (58.4) and fourth in total 3-pointers allowed (65). The Hawkeyes' only weekend home game during their primary Big Ten stretch is bound to be another tense battle.
If Iowa can't grab this one, it's hard to envision it capitalizing on any of the additional big opportunities 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.