Punctuated by Cy-Hawk potential, March path for Iowa women's basketball full of Midwestern flavor

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — One of the most consistent elements of the NCAA Tournament is successfully navigating unfamiliarity, as the brackets tend to spit out new and unusual foes for all involved.

For Lisa Bluder's Hawkeyes, however, their path to March glory carries a distinct Midwestern flavor that could add an interesting wrinkle to this tourney run.

Iowa may have had to go out east to land its No. 2 seed in the Greensboro, North Carolina regional, but the Hawkeyes' path there — and who might be waiting for them upon arrival — is full of foes that reside not too far from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Friday's 3 p.m. first-round date against Illinois State, a second-round matchup against Creighton and an Iowa State showdown in the Sweet 16 is a very reasonable path Iowa could face in the weeks ahead.   

"The committee did keep a lot of the first few games kind of regional," sophomore standout Caitlin Clark said. "We scrimmage Creighton usually before every single year. We didn't last year because of COVID, but we did this year. We've played them before, and they're obviously very talented — one of the best teams in the Big East. And then obviously Illinois State (is nearby) as well, and the potential of playing Iowa State. 

"But we'll just be focused on Illinois State first. They're a hot team right now, winning the Missouri Valley (Tournament). Something so great about the NCAA Tournament, you don't have to play the same conference teams you've been playing for the last two months. But still, a lot of familiarity (in our potential path). So that's exciting."         

The Hawkeyes haven't faced the Redbirds since 2012, but the Big Ten and Missouri Valley Conference have plenty of overlap when it comes to matchups, recruiting bases and more. Iowa's roster has three players from Illinois. Illinois State has three players from Iowa. The 190 miles between Redbird Arena and Carver-Hawkeye Arena is among the shortest first-round treks for any team.     

Then shift to No. 10 seed Creighton, which obviously will have its hands full with seventh-seeded Colorado but would give the Hawkeyes as familiar a second-round opponent as possible. Iowa and Creighton have a preseason closed scrimmage almost every year, met recently in the NCAA Tournament and rub elbows plenty on the recruiting scene. 

And that's all before a potential Cy-Hawk setup in Greensboro, which needs no further explanation. Iowa, though, certainly doesn't want to be the one that eliminates that possibility by dropping a home stunner beforehand. 

"Yes the (Cy-Hawk potential) is exciting," redshirt junior Kate Martin said, "but we still have good teams to play before then and so really just reiterating that to the team, and the coaches will reiterate it to us probably very often. And so we're just going to go 1-0 each day in practice first. Coach (Lisa) Bluder always talks about going 1-0, and that's not even each game, but each practice."     

Iowa women's basketball players and guard Caitlin Clark, left, celebrate at a NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday watch party on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

For obvious reasons, the Hawkeyes are keeping things focused on what's immediately in front of them. Only the Illinois State matchup of three mentioned above is guaranteed.

But it's an interesting element that certainly could materialize, potentially to Iowa's benefit.    

“There’s going to be a lot with the possible Iowa-Iowa State matchup, but I think our team has done a great job of (tunnel vision) all season," all-Big Ten forward Monika Czinano said, "especially toward the end knowing we had to take care of business. We knew we were going to be playing Michigan, but we had to beat Indiana for that to matter.

"We have to beat the teams in our little region for (Cy-Hawk talk) to matter. Coach (Jan Jensen) immediately told us about that. I think that’s going to be huge, but I think our team is really good at it.”

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.