No. 21 Iowa women's basketball hunting productive reset as Big Ten play finally returns

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — At season's start, Iowa's Thursday date with Northwestern didn't appear to be anything other than a tough home contest in the early stages of Big Ten play. The fact it now represents so much more is a testament to what the Hawkeyes have endured. 

After having its return to conference action significantly disrupted by COVID-19, No. 21 Iowa (7-3 1-0) will finally jump back into the Big Ten when the Wildcats (9-3, 1-0) visit Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a 7 p.m. showdown on Big Ten Network. The Hawkeyes had games against Penn State (Dec. 30) and Illinois (Jan. 2) axed, swapped the latter out for a non-conference victory over Evansville but still haven't had league action since Dec. 5 versus Michigan State

Iowa has already had more games altered by COVID-19 issues this season than it did all of last season. Throw in some unexpected adversity on the court, and it's clear the Hawkeyes are ready to leave the non-conference action aside. 

"That Michigan State game seems so long ago, but our team is excited to get back into Big Ten play and to have the opportunity to play at home again," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday. "Northwestern has been shut down. We've had one game since Christmas. So it's just an unusual situation to be quite honest."

Iowa guards Kylie Feuerbach (4) and Caitlin Clark, right, huddle up with teammates on Dec. 21 against IUPUI.

More:Caitlin Clark becomes Big Ten's fastest to 1,000-point mark in Iowa's 93-56 win over Evansville

While Thursday will be Iowa's first regularly scheduled game to happen since a stunning loss to IUPUI on Dec. 21, the Hawkeyes did find something productive from Sunday's last-second add of Evansville. The Purple Aces didn't put up much resistance in a 93-56 Iowa drubbing, but the Hawkeyes were able to get 40 minutes on the floor without two pivotal pieces who don't have a concrete return date. 

Starters Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock missed the Evansville win while in COVID-19 protocol, with their statuses for Thursday gaining no clarity early this week. 

"I'm really not going to talk about our starting lineup right now," Bluder said. "I don't want to. So I'm not going to disclose that yet."   

Iowa had no trouble covering those absences Sunday, as it inserted Logan Cook and Tomi Taiwo into the starting lineup with productive bench minutes from Addison O'Grady too. But Northwestern is a different purple animal. The Wildcats' matchup zone isn't easy to replicate in practice or succeed against, even if everyone knows it's coming. 

More:Iowa women's basketball: IUPUI stuns No. 15 Hawkeyes with furious fourth-quarter rally

Northwestern has dealt with its own COVID issues, having not played since a Dec. 17 win over Temple. The Wildcats will still bring a five-game winning streak into Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a place Northwestern won last year for the first time since 2013.

"Northwestern's zone is unlike anything anybody else runs," Iowa's Kate Martin said. "It's not a typical 2-3 (zone), so just playing against that once or twice a year, you have to put in a lot of things in practice to get your grey squad to emulate that zone. It's a little harder and they move hard out of it."  

"But there are a lot of way we can break (their defense) too. So we're excited to go against them."  

Both teams need Thursday to be a productive reset. For all that's unfolded off-script for Iowa, the Hawkeyes still have everything in front of them inside a rugged Big Ten. Conquering a tough Northwestern squad would raise those positive vibes back to a familiar level.          

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.