For Iowa women's basketball team, success hinges on adjustment to life in the spotlight

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — For all the firepower Iowa women's basketball possesses entering what could be another magical campaign, most of these Hawkeyes are short on experience in one pivotal area. 

"We're not used to being the hunted," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said at Thursday's media day press conference. "We're not used to that." 

It was only three years ago the Hawkeyes trekked into a special season with a transcendent player, shouldering hefty expectations the entire way — but that entire roster has nearly been turned over. Current seniors Tomi Taiwo, Logan Cook and Monika Czinano were little-used freshmen. Redshirt junior Kate Martin watched from the sidelines with a torn ACL.

So even with a veteran roster constructed to withstand the grueling grind of being a top-10 squad with championship goals, these Hawkeyes must adjust now — and throughout the year — to spotlight status.

"Sometimes I feel like we play a little bit better with a chip on our shoulder and people not expecting a lot out of us," Bluder said. "We've talked about that as a team, that we have to change our mentality a little bit. I hate the cliché, but it's true — be the hunter and not the hunted."      

Essentially this same Iowa group thrived on slights all throughout last season. Accentuating the Hawkeyes' Sweet 16 run were countless mentions of zero preseason top-25 votes and no bracketology inclusions. There was even underappreciation felt for superstar Caitlin Clark when she didn't crack several awards lists and first-team all-America squads. 

No such disrespect now. Clark's name is everywhere as an NIL queen and one of the game's budding stars. Big Ten coaches voted Clark preseason conference player of the year. 

To start 2021, the Hawkeyes will sneak up on no one.  

Aiding this transition is plenty of talent and personality. A group that slogged through COVID-19's worst last year gained crucial cohesion amid a trying time.

A starting five of McKenna Warnock, Martin, Gabbie Marshall, Czinano and Clark features few holes. Iowa State transfer Kylie Feuerbach weaved into the guard mix will only strengthen a powerful nucleus. The only roster question marks are with freshmen and interior depth, now that Iowa has a second season-ending injury to hurdle. 

The Hawkeyes announced shortly before media day began that reserve forward Shateah Wetering suffered a torn ACL and will miss the entire year, matching center Sharon Goodman's diagnosis from earlier this month. Neither was expected to play a ton of minutes behind Czinano and Warnock, but Iowa is suddenly short on frontcourt depth less than two weeks before its season opener.   

The door has swung open for Logan Cook to bust through. The senior forward and former Iowa City West standout has a chance for career-high contributions in her fourth year inside the Hawkeyes' program. A similar surge occurred two years ago from Amanda Ollinger, another local product who had modest production through three seasons before carving out a bigger role in her final run.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark speaks with reporters during Thursday's media day in Iowa City. Clark is a preseason first-team All-American by the Associated Press.

"When you've been around as a senior and you've seen so much and you know things," Bluder said, "Logan just doesn't make mistakes. Logan gets out on the floor, and you may not notice her all the time — but sometimes, that's a good thing.

"We have enough offense that we don't have to have her be an offensive threat. We just need her to go in there and play great defense, rebound and not make mistakes. That's what Logan does."   

Defense and rebounding are what Iowa will need if this season is to end later than the last one. The Hawkeyes' defensive struggles are well-documented, a clear roadblock between a good Iowa team and an elite version. The Hawkeyes' offense can overpower anyone inside a rugged Big Ten. Their defense can't waste those performances. 

Improved defensive consistency should unlock additional confidence for a group already amped to tackle the heightened task ahead. Media day is all about analyzing opportunity, and the Hawkeyes have plenty in front of them. 

Maximizing this shot at greatness will come only if Iowa properly adjusts to center stage.  

"It is a mental change," Bluder said, "you have to do."

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.