Iowa women's basketball: Surging past 2021 expectations has Hawkeyes set up for big 2022

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

When gritting through the ever-present season-ending pain, it can be difficult to see beyond the present. But as Caitlin Clark and Iowa coach Lisa Bluder sat behind the mic Saturday following the Hawkeyes’ Sweet 16 loss to Connecticut, both oozed excitement for what’s ahead.

This Iowa women’s basketball season was about embracing the abnormal and sidestepping doubters. Now the table is set for something special in 2021-22.

“This season just gave so much confidence to the girls on this team — to the program — everything,” Clark said. “I think it just shows, like, we're legit. We can hang with the best. I mean, more than anything, I think it's just going to make every single person in that locker room want to work that much harder, get that much better.”   

If Iowa eventually reaches its lofty goals — most notably returning to the Final Four for the first time since 1993 — point back to the 2020-21 campaign as the pivotal catalyst. A season that began with the Hawkeyes absent from all polls and NCAA Tournament projections ended with Iowa standing tall against the women’s basketball beast that is UConn. All while having COVID-19 as a tumultuous season-long backdrop.

Although the Hawkeyes stressed internal expectations were never lowered, there was plenty of evidence this Iowa season would be a pedestrian one. Big Ten player of the year Kathleen Doyle had departed, as had starting guard Makenzie Meyer. Clark entered as the prized prospect, but would she immediately match recruiting buzz with on-court stardom? And what about the rest of the roster loaded with inexperience? A rugged Big Ten could’ve easily been unkind to this Bluder bunch.

Not the case. Not even close.

After several near-upsets throughout conference play, Iowa broke through in toppling then-No. 12 Michigan on Feb. 25. That ignited a narrative-shifting final month, which included appearing in the Big Ten Tournament title game and a move from the bubble’s doorstep to a cemented No. 5 seed. NCAA Tournament routs over Central Michigan and Kentucky propelled the Hawkeyes to the Sweet 16 for the third time in Bluder’s Iowa tenure.

More:March Madness: Too much UConn firepower ends Iowa women's basketball season in Sweet 16

“Honestly, this team always believes,” Clark said. “I think that's the greatest thing about us. We never hung our heads when we lost early in the season, things like that. We just kept wanting to get better.

“We knew those wins were about to come our way. I think that's what you're going to see next year, too.”

Ah, next year. Two seasons removed from having a preseason top-15 squad that shouldered lofty demands all the way to the Elite Eight, the Hawkeyes are about to encounter a similar scenario. Iowa returns every key piece, boasts a transcendent star in Clark and has the nation’s field-goal percentage leader in Monika Czinano.

The upcoming campaign will feature a level of pressure these Hawkeyes haven’t experienced. Defying skeptics is one thing. Satisfying outside chatter when it’s demanding more is an entirely different animal.

“Moving forward,” Bluder said, "we want to be in the Final Four.”

Iowa should get a boost when fans return to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Even if the season starts with a truncated capacity, that certainly beats the all-but-empty gyms Iowa played in all year. One of the few women’s basketball teams with a true home-court advantage missed that edge this season. It was unfortunate timing given the firepower Iowa showed.

Once viewed as a program spinning its wheels — there were 18 consecutive seasons without a Sweet 16 appearance (1997-2014) — Bluder has raised the standard in an emphatic way. Many expected a dropoff when all-time great Megan Gustafson departed for the WNBA, but all Iowa has done is reload with a new crop of stars.            

Earlier:With Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers next, Hawkeyes have earned national attention with overachieving season

Recruiting efforts are strong. Eyeballs are glued to the Tigerhawk more than ever. A pattern of success despite what the women’s basketball world thinks has been established. Credit this current group for keeping momentum pumping amid a turbulent campaign.

“I can’t begin to tell you how far we came,” Bluder said. “With the pandemic, and not being able to be together last summer, I’m so proud of the team, navigating all of 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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.