Why a tough schedule won't hurt Iowa women's NCAA goals
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ally Disterhoft watched as Iowa got left out of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the program's first Big Dance denial since 2007. She winced when she saw that Iowa was one of the “First Four Out,” that the Hawkeyes came so close despite enduring their worst Big Ten Conference season in nine years.
So, she opened up her computer, found ESPN’s graphic and took a screenshot. Then she printed it out and hung it up in her room.
A reminder, Disterhoft said.
“Of that feeling of disappointment and frustration. … We’re not going to let that happen again next year,” she said.
That "First Four Out" screenshot is still fresh in head coach Lisa Bluder's mind, too.
"It's something that I don't like to talk about," she said. "It's something that we are really proud of the streak that we had going. We didn't like to see it come to an end, but it did, and now the best thing we can do is learn from that experience and use it as great motivation to return to the NCAA Tournament.”
Many thought Iowa might slip into the tourney. A No. 58 RPI ranking and 31st-ranked schedule strength nearly carried the Hawkeyes (19-14, 8-10) in. But it wasn’t enough for the Hawkeyes to play a lot of good teams. They needed to beat a lot of good teams. And just one top-50 RPI win against Indiana didn’t cut it.
Now, pair that same record with this year’s slate of games, and that might punch a ticket.
The Hawkeyes’ strength of schedule ranking could soar up to the top 20 this season. They play one of the toughest Big Ten schedules, with only one road game in a bordering state and two games against heavy favorite Maryland.
In nonconference action, they also host likely No. 1 Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC challenge on Nov. 30 and Pac-12 favorite UCLA at the Cancun Challenge the week before.
Add those games to a trip to Columbus on Feb. 12, and Iowa could play as many as five top-10 teams this season, in addition to Indiana and Michigan State, who will both be ranked come conference play.
Selection committee members will highlight those games come March.
“It'll definitely help, but honestly I don’t think we ever want to be in that (bubble) position again,” point guard Tania Davis said. “It was terrible.”
Here are a couple reasons why Iowa might maximize on that strong schedule.
'Deepest that we've been in a long time'
It's always good when a team returns nine players, including four starters and five of the six top scorers from a year ago. That's the case for Bluder, who also reeled in her most talented recruiting class.
Incoming freshmen Makenzie Meyer, Kathleen Doyle, Alexis Sevillian, Amanda Ollinger and Bre Cera form the nation's No. 7 freshman class, according to Blue Star. And they'll play in the footsteps of last year's top-20 recruiting class, headlined by conference all-freshman team members Tania Davis and Megan Gustafson.
Think about it: That's a whole lot of young talent competing for limited minutes alongside upperclassmen Disterhoft, Chase Coley and Alexa Kastanek.
"I really feel that we are the deepest that we've been in a long time," Bluder said. "I think we're the most balanced that we've been in a long, long time. And you look at places that we can look for contribution, I think there's a number of sources."
Davis and Disterhoft are essentially locks to start in the backcourt, and you'd have to slot Coley and Gustafson in the frontcourt. That leaves the fifth starting spot — likely a guard — for Meyer, Doyle or Sevillian.
Meyer, the 2016 Miss Iowa Basketball, and Doyle, the 2016 Miss Illinois basketball, both ran the point in high school, but they're seamlessly transitioning to shooting guard during practice, Bluder and Disterhoft said. So right now, Iowa's bench could be as follows: either Doyle or Meyer, Sevillian, Kastanek, Ollinger, Cera, Carly Mohns, Christina Buttenham, Hannah Stewart and Hailey Schneden.
Significant summer development
Davis and Gustafson followed their Big Ten All-Freshman seasons with noticeable summer improvements.
Gustafson focused on the weight room over the offseason and is visibly stronger. She'd really never weight-trained before her freshman year, Bluder said, and that showed — especially during games against Big Ten paint powerhouses. Yet, she still led the team in rebounds (6.8) and blocks (1.8) per game.
Davis vastly improved her 3-point shooting. She shot 40.3 percent from the field last year, but but an unsightly 26.3 percent from long range.
“Last season was a preview of who I am, just a little glimpse, and I’ve definitely added more to my game and I’m excited to showcase that (in the Nov. 11 season opener)," Davis said. "It’s crazy, I look at the stats in practice now and my 3-point shot is better than my field goal percentage. Last year, it was the other way around.”
Added Bluder: "You see Tania, she was kind of maybe our fourth option on the floor last year, and now, I think she's one of our top 3-point shooters this year."
Bain covers Iowa women's hoops for HawkCentral, the Iowa City Press-Citizen and Des Moines Register. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.
BREAKING DOWN THE HAWKEYES
Coach: Lisa Bluder, 17th season at Iowa, 33rd overall; 323-188 as Hawkeyes head coach, 679-330 overall.
Last season: 19-14 (8-10 in Big Ten Conference), lost against Ball State in the first round of the WNIT after snapping an eight-season streak of making the NCAA Tournament.
Key departures: G Whitney Jennings 9.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.0 apg; started 62 of 67 games as a Hawkeye; transferred to Butler; F Kali Peschel 4.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg; started 20 games, led Hawkeyes with 83.7 percent mark from free-throw line.
Key newcomers: Makenzie Meyer, 5-9, PG, incoming freshman from Mason City; 2016 Miss Iowa Basketball and ESPN's No. 79 recruit; led Mason City High to its first-ever state girls basketball title in 2016; scored 1,589 points in high school ... Amanda Ollinger, 6-1, F, incoming freshman from Cedar Rapids; 2016 McDonald's All-American nominee from Linn-Mar High in Marion; ESPN's No. 87 recruit ... Kathleen Doyle, 5-8, PG, incoming freshman from La Grange Park, Ill.; 2016 Miss Illinois Basketball and ESPN's No. 97 recruit; led Benet Academy to state titles in 2015 and 2016 seasons ... Bre Cera, 5-10, F, incoming freshman from Mukwonago, Wis.; 2016 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Player of the year and McDonald's All-American; led Mukwonago High to second-place state finishes in 2013 and 2016 ... Alexis Sevillian, 5-5, PG, incoming freshman from Goodrich, Mich,; finalist for 2016 Miss Michigan Basketball and McDonald's All-American nominee.
November — 6: vs. Lewis University (exhibition), 2 p.m.; 11: vs. Oral Roberts 6 p.m.; 13: vs. Hampton, 12 p.m.; 16: at North Dakota, Grand Forks, N.D., 7:30 p.m.; 19: vs. Massachusetts, 12:30 p.m.; 20: vs. Montana/South Dakota State, 2 p.m.; 24: vs. UCLA at 2016 Cancun Challenge, 8 p.m.; 25: vs. James Madison at 2016 Cancun Challenge, 8 p.m.; 30: vs. Notre Dame, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network.
December — 4: vs. Northern Iowa, 2 p.m.; 7: vs. Iowa State, 7 p.m.; 9: vs. Robert Morris, 7 p.m.; 18: at Drake, 2 p.m.; 20: vs. Kent State, 5 p.m.; 28: at Illinois, 3 p.m., Big Ten Network; 31: vs. Nebraska, 2 p.m., BTN Plus.
January — 3: at Penn State, 3 p.m., Big Ten Network; 11: vs. Illinois, 7 p.m., BTN Plus; 14: vs. Maryland, 3 p.m., Big Ten Network; 17: at Rutgers, 6 p.m., BTN Plus; 21: vs. Minnesota, 2 p.m., BTN Plus; 29: at Maryland, 1 p.m., ESPN2.
February — 2: vs. Rutgers, 7 p.m., BTN Plus; 5: at Michigan, 1 p.m., BTN Plus; 9: vs. Michigan State, 6 p.m., Big Ten Network; 12: at Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network; 16: vs. Northwestern, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network; 19: at Purdue, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network; 22: at Indiana, 6 p.m., BTN Plus; 26: vs. Wisconsin, TBA.
March — 1-5 Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.