Iowa women's basketball thoughts: Defense, interior depth, a tough non-conference stretch and more

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — It's the roster talent. It's the return of fans. It's the chemistry and cohesion that continue to strengthen with each passing day. All the pieces are in place for this Iowa women's basketball season to be among the most memorable in program history. 

The No. 11 Hawkeyes trek into Tuesday's season opener versus New Hampshire with several elite elements in place.

The obvious is superstar Caitlin Clark, one of the most recognizable faces in women's basketball. There is Iowa's robust home-court advantage, which officially returned in Thursday's exhibition win over Truman State with almost 5,000 strong in attendance. And then there is Iowa's place among the best in the nation's deepest conference this season. Thriving in the Big Ten is the perfect lead-in to what Iowa hopes is another deep postseason run.

It was only three years ago the Hawkeyes reached the Elite Eight and made national headlines with Megan Gustafson leading the charge. Now Iowa finds itself in the national spotlight again. Here are some thoughts on the season ahead.

How does Iowa handle being the hunted? 

Iowa's nucleus of Clark, Monika Czinano, McKenna Warnock, Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall slogged through a pandemic-plagued year together. The latter four are entering their third seasons as pivotal pieces. So there's certainly no lack of experience on the floor.       

Where these Hawkeyes must learn on the fly, though, is handling the basketball spotlight and everything that comes with it. Head coach Lisa Bluder addressed that topic on media day, saying Iowa often plays better when it bears a chip on its shoulder as a disrespected underdog. That won't be the case this year. Every Big Ten foe will be hunting for a signature win when Iowa appears on the schedule.

More:Leistikow: With an eye on the Final Four, Caitlin Clark's Iowa story is just beginning

That's a different kind of pressure these Hawkeyes haven't experienced yet. There's plenty of evidence Iowa will be able to adjust to that. But it's an adjustment nonetheless. 

Who emerges behind Czinano? 

Czinano will remain Iowa's frontcourt centerpiece until she leaves Iowa City. But with Sharon Goodman and Shateah Wetering's ACL injuries, the Hawkeyes suddenly need to develop some interior depth behind their all-Big Ten center. There will be games in which Czinano gets in foul trouble or needs some support. How Iowa handles those spots is now in question. 

A senior-year ascension for Logan Cook seems like the most reasonable route, given her experience inside the program. Can the former Iowa City West standout make the leap to consistent rotational player? Or does freshman Addison O'Grady ascend into that top backup spot?

There are options, but at least one must materialize. 

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) speaks to reporters during media day Oct. 28 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Clark, a sophomore, is a preseason All-America selection.

Defensive improvement will dictate success.

On some teams trying to make the leap from good to great, reducing what's holding them back to one thing can be difficult. Not with these Hawkeyes. Iowa's defensive improvement almost certainly will dictate how far this season stretches. 

This offense can keep up with anyone. But whether the Hawkeyes can turn their talk of added defensive importance into on-court success remains to be determined. Iowa doesn't need to morph into a lockdown squad that holds everyone under 60. It just needs a modest uptick in production that prevents elite offensive efforts from being wasted. 

Inside the rugged Big Ten, defensive success will always carry weight. It's inevitable Iowa will need to win at least a few games this year scoring fewer than 70 points. And once they reach the NCAA Tournament, the fiercest foes feature offenses capable of outshining the Hawkeyes. Iowa must have defensive reliability in its back pocket.  

Let's look at the schedule. 

After a 10-day stretch that includes home games against New Hampshire, Samford and Southern — as well as a trip to Northern Iowa — the Hawkeyes hit an important three-week span that'll provide the perfect entrance to the main stretch of league play. 

Iowa hosts Drake, picked second in the Missouri Valley Conference, on Nov. 21, then heads out for four of the next five away from home. The Hawkeyes head to Mexico for games against Seton Hall (Nov. 25) and USC (Nov. 26) — Seton Hall is picked second in the Big East preseason poll. Iowa then travels to Duke (Dec. 2), hosts Michigan State (Dec. 5) and finishes this stretch at Iowa State. 

That's a solid non-conference stretch that should have Iowa right for the Big Ten grind. Although the Hawkeyes don't want several stumbles in that six-game slate, increasing the competition for a few weeks can pay off tremendously down the road. 

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.