After layoff, will Iowa women's basketball remain on hot streak in NCAA Tournament?

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — After two straight weeks of high-end basketball that included plenty of March Madness elements — but then an entire week off after that to reset, it begs a question of the Iowa women's basketball team:

Will the layoff impact Iowa in the NCAA Tournament?

The Hawkeyes believe it will only make them more dangerous. 

But the first inkling of whether Iowa (23-7) remains on a tear arrives at 3 p.m. Friday, whenNo. 2 seed Iowa hosts No. 15 Illinois State in the opening round.

"Our team is champing at the bit to get back on the court," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Thursday. "I think the break was well deserved and needed, but you're right, there's the highs and then you have to come down from that and then build back up again. I think our team is pretty mature, having been in this situation last year, although we didn't have the week off last year because our tournament was moved back a week.

"I think they are so excited to get back on the court. I don't think they've lost any step or any drive or anything like that having this time off. I think more than anything, they're so excited to get out here and play in front of this crowd again and to have the opportunity to play in Carver."

Iowa players celebrate a Big Ten game against Michigan Feb. 27 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

Although the regular season’s end and Big Ten Tournament didn’t have the official everything-on-the-line designation the NCAA Tournament sports, Iowa had to advance through a series of stages with zero hiccups to re-position itself for the proper March Madness spot. Without winning a share of the regular-season league title or the conference tournament, the Hawkeyes’ hosting chances take a serious hit — which would’ve drastically altered their NCAA Tournament path.       

Start first with the regular-season title, which Iowa finished tied for with Ohio State. The Hawkeyes had to close out the regular season 4-0 for that happen, which first included sweeping top-10 Indiana to even get a shot at creating the Carver-Hawkeye Arena spectacle that was the Michigan game on Feb. 27. Change one of those four final regular-season results — and Iowa doesn’t get that home celebration while likely being positioned differently at the Big Ten Tournament.

That’s pressure-packed basketball at its finest.

Then move on to the Big Ten Tournament, where that win-or-go-home feeling engulfs everyone even if more games are guaranteed. The Hawkeyes played with pressure in the quarterfinals against Northwestern — knowing a loss would put Iowa’s hosting chances in serious jeopardy — and the intensity didn’t lessen as Iowa advanced further.

Do the Hawkeyes land a No. 2 seed if they don’t cut down the Gainbridge Fieldhouse nets? Probably not.

"We thrive in that environment. That’s very apparent. I think we like the pressure," All-Big Ten forward Monika Czinano said this week. "We love knowing what we’re playing for, and that’s all of March. You know what you’re playing for, and you know the risks and rewards associated with it. Our team is just so excited."    

Then comes the other side, the rest and relaxation needed to be in prime form when the NCAA Tournament tips. After cramming seven games — five against teams still dancing — in 16 days, the Hawkeyes needed a breather before jumping right back in. The entire last week with limited basketball responsibilities and zero Selection Sunday stress made for a timely reprieve before firing the engines back up.

More:5 things to know about Illinois State women's basketball, Iowa's NCAA Tournament opponent

Couple that with Iowa knowing it won’t have to leave the state until the Sweet 16 made for a crisp week of NCAA Tournament buildup that didn’t blow things out of proportion. The friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena made for a welcoming Iowa environment that disguises the stress of March well.

“We had the option if we wanted to stay in a hotel (in the lead-up to the NCAA Tournament), and we decided not to just because you do get a better night’s sleep in your own bed,” sophomore standout Caitlin Clark said. “We’ve played plenty of home games this year, so we kind of have that routine already down.”     

Only time will tell, of course, if the Hawkeyes truly found a winning preparation formula. But all the evidence so far points to exactly 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.