IOWA CITY, Ia. – There are times when coach Lisa Bluder draws pleasure from her Iowa women's basketball team beyond the win column.
If might be a Bethany Doolittle drop-step basket in the paint, a Melissa Dixon 3-pointer in transition or a no-look assist from all-Big Ten point guard Samantha Logic.
"I call them my 'Oh, wow' moments," Bluder said. "And after 30 years of coaching, you still get 'Oh, wow' moments … you've got to appreciate that, don't you?"
Bluder is in her 15th season at Iowa, and the program's all-time winningest coach is still bringing energy and passion to the job every day. Maybe it's because of seven straight NCAA appearances, the longest streak of any Big Ten school. Maybe it's the talent on the way in the next two recruiting classes. Maybe it's those "Oh, wow" moments.
And maybe it's this team, a tight circle bonded by camaraderie, one Bluder likes to be around at practice, at team meals and road trips. Like last Sunday's trip to Rutgers, when the Hawkeyes won a top-25 duel against a team coached by the woman who first gave the Hawkeye program national attention, C. Vivian Stringer.
Like Thursday's road trip to play a dangerous Illinois team, as No. 17 Iowa tries to improve on its 11-2 record and 2-0 Big Ten mark.
"I do believe this team is capable of making a Sweet 16," Bluder said.
The NCAA made changes to this year's tournament, which makes that a more realistic goal. The top four seeds in each of the four regionals will now host first- and second-round games. That means as a host, you'd only play teams seeded below you. Iowa hosted first- and second-round games the previous two seasons, but played national powers Notre Dame and Louisville as a decided underdog in the second round.
This team, and the senior trio of Logic, Dixon and Doolittle, could be the one to earn the Hawkeyes' first Sweet 16 appearance since 1996. Especially if it continues to shoot at a 42.1 percent clip from 3 and can shore up subpar 66.4 percent success from the free-throw line that is so puzzling that Bluder had a sports psychologist talk to her team about it this week.
Logic is the active career assists leader in the nation, and sixth on the Big Ten's all-time list. Many of those 702 dimes have been dropped to Dixon, who committed to Iowa before a scholarship was open.
Iowa was holding its last available ride for highly recruited center Kiah Stokes from Linn-Mar. Dixon, from Johnsburg, Ill., agreed to come as a grayshirt — she'd pay her first year, then go on scholarship the final four.
"And then when Kiah went to Connecticut, it opened up a scholarship," Bluder said. "The night that Kiah called me, I called the Dixon family and extended them a scholarship offer and they were thrilled."
Dixon became Iowa's career leader in 3-pointers with 263 when she swished six of them at Rutgers. She made a school-record 10 at Drake last month. She is Iowa's top scorer at 21 points a game, leads the nation with 4.08 triples a game and is 11th in 3-point percentage at .482.
All three seniors have played significant roles since their freshman seasons, and are 1,000-point career scorers. All three average double figures this year, as do freshman Whitney Jennings and sophomore Ally Disterhoft on a team averaging a fan-pleasing 81.5 points a game.
"Having that senior leadership is so invaluable," Bluder said.
They've created plenty of "Oh, wow" moments, too. And who knows? Maybe a Sweet 16.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown