Iowa women facing tough road to ninth straight NCAA Tournament

Ryan Murken
Iowa's Ally Disterhoft gets help from Megan Gustafson after drawing a foul during the Hawkeyes' game against Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday, Jan. 4, 2016.

The past two Februarys, the only NCAA tournament questions for the Iowa women’s basketball team involved what seed the Hawkeyes would secure.

As this February winds on, more pressurized NCAA tournament questions are mounting.

At 15-9 on the season and in eighth place in the Big Ten Conference, the Hawkeyes are firmly on the tournament bubble entering the final third of the conference season.

“It’s just a little bit different situation than past years. The past two years, we haven’t really had to worry about that. We were just able to go out and play,” Iowa junior Ally Disterhoft said. “This year, it is a thought that is stuck in the back of your mind, but I still think to be successful, you have to go in with that game-to-game mentality and you can’t look too far ahead.”

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder hasn’t been shy about pegging a 9-9 conference record as the mark that she believes would earn the Hawkeyes a ninth straight NCAA tournament berth. The Hawkeyes are 5-7 in the league now, needing a winning mark down the stretch to reach that threshold.

Four of those final six games come against teams current ahead of Iowa in the Big Ten standings, beginning with league-leading and sixth-ranked Ohio State on Thursday.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a tough road to hoe, but it’s possible, it’s definitely possible,” Bluder said of the final six games. Iowa is one of just 10 teams in the country and the only Big Ten squad to make the past eight NCAA Tournaments. “Obviously, winning Thursday would be a huge boost. Getting one of those coveted top-25 wins would be also great for the selection committee.”

The good news for the Hawkeyes is that four of their final six games come at home.

Along with Thursday’s matchup with Ohio State, Iowa hosts Purdue (7-5), Indiana (7-5) and last place Illinois (1-11).

Iowa's road games are at Minnesota (8-3) and Penn State (3-9).

Despite back-to-back losses, the Hawkeyes maintain a fairly strong tournament resume that includes an RPI of 50 and a strong strength of schedule.

Charlie Creme of ESPN had Iowa as a 12 seed and one of the last four teams selected in his latest mock bracket released Monday.

Iowa knows it can alleviate some stress on selection day with a strong stretch showing.

“We definitely know how many games we have left, and we have to win a certain amount of those to be considered for the tournament,” Disterhoft said. “We know what we have to do.”

HAPPY RETURN: Sophomore Chelsea Buttenham didn’t waste any time making an impact in her return to the lineup after missing two games with a concussion.

The sophomore forward had nine points and four rebounds and two steals in a productive 20 minutes of action Sunday against Michigan State.

“She really had a week off with nothing, I mean nothing, with her concussion. No practice, no looking at film. So I thought she did a pretty good job coming in,” Bluder said. “She just gives us some energy off of the bench.”

WARRIOR WEEK: Michigan State left Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a win and not a lot of energy.

The Spartans capped a wild week that saw them play four games in eight days, with a whirlwind five-day period that featured three games in three different states.

It started with a home win over Michigan on Wednesday, followed by a makeup game on Friday at No. 5 Maryland.

The Spartans flew straight from Maryland to Iowa City and finished the five day stretch with a 74-69 win over the Hawkeyes.

“We just named it 'Warrior Week,'” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “That’s what we named it, and we tried to be the best warriors we could be.”

Reach Ryan Murken at 319-339-7369 or and follow him on Twitter at @rmmurken.