CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Hawkeyes are fortunate to play in the Big Ten. Life’s different for teams in a weak Group of Five conference.
Take Colorado State and Boise State of the Mountain West, for example. Because the Rams and Broncos form the weight of a top-heavy league, they’ve got to litter their nonconference slate with potential "resume wins." They surely won’t get any — except against each other — in the MW.
And worse: A loss against those other conference teams will be an eyesore come Selection Monday. For the Rams and Broncos, nonconference seasons are battle zones; MW seasons are minefields.
But in the Big Ten, those resume win opportunities come just about every week.
That’s why it didn’t matter the Hawkeyes finished a so-so 9-4 before Wednesday. Their real season was just beginning.
Over the next couple months, they needed to perform well against Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and the rest of the conference’s middle tier, and maybe steal a single win out of two games against Maryland and one at Ohio State. There are still "bad loss" pitfalls in the Big Ten, just far fewer than in other leagues. So the Hawkeyes also needed to avoid lackadaisical performances against Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Rutgers.
Well … they opened Big Ten play with a 70-65 loss at Illinois on Wednesday. They tied a season-high with 23 turnovers, which led to 24 Illini points, and they trailed for just under 32 of the 40 minutes. They tripped and smacked their face on their first hurdle.
A shock to the system?
"Yeah, it is to me, definitely," head coach Lisa Bluder said in the bowels of the State Farm Center. "It’s not the way we wanted to start the Big Ten season. But we just didn’t bring it today. We didn’t bring the defensive intensity. They shot probably their season high. They don’t shoot the ball that well, and at the end of the first quarter, they’re shooting over 50 percent from the field in both categories."
That’s why this loss will hurt Iowa, might even drop its RPI from 49 into the 60s: Illinois made 43 percent against the Hawkeyes, but normally it doesn’t shoot that well, Bluder’s right. It really hasn't done a whole lot of anything well this season.
It entered this week with a 222 RPI. It’s 12th in the Big Ten in scoring offense, 10th in scoring defense, 11th in field goal percentage, 10th in field goal percentage defense, 13th in rebounding margin and 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Five of its eight losses have come against Marshall (196 RPI), Memphis (219), Mercer (104), George Washington (116) and Central Michigan (178).
Despite all that, Illinois is probably the best of the conference’s four-team bottom tier. And Megan Gustafson was right when she said this: "It’s the beginning of the season. It’s all up from here. We’ve just got to work hard each game."
Yes, Iowa can erase this ugly "L" with solid-to-great basketball from here on out.
But this start was sure jarring. Bluder, Ally Disterhoft and Megan Gustafson appeared almost stupefied while answering questions postgame.
Here are a couple more takeaways from the loss.
Not this time around
The last time Iowa played against a zone-first defense, it cold-cocked UMass, 71-30, in the first round of the Hawkeye Challenge. It took 29 3s and made nine, and it committed 16 turnovers — just six in the first half. It beat the zone at home.
Wednesday, on the road, Iowa faced another primary zone look. First Illinois ran a traditional zone — switching between 3-2 and 2-3, depending on who was on the floor. Then head coach Matt Bollant would scream, “Two-two-one!” and his team would align in a sort of compressed full-court press, much like the 1-3-1 defense.
This time, the zone beat Iowa. Illinois snared 15 steals out of Iowa’s 23 turnovers (it'd been averaging just over six steals per game). Most of those 15 came when the Hawkeyes tried to force a pass through the zone into the paint, or on one of their four, five, six perimeter passes during half-court sets.
"I think you just have to take your time in there, when you catch it in the zone and have four people, five people collapsing on you, I just think you have to be strong," said Disterhoft, who logged a 12-board, 11-point double-double. "Which is something obviously we didn’t do well today."
Here’s Bluder’s take: "It was horrible. You’re not going to win games turning the ball over 23 times."
Let’s dole out equal credit/blame to Illinois and Iowa for the Hawkeyes’ turnover issues.
Their 3-point shooting issues? That was all Iowa, which had plenty of open looks. It converted just seven of 28 attempts, though. Christina Buttenham made four of those — a career high. Everyone else: 3-for-23.
Iowa’s best long-range shooters, Disterhoft, Makenzie Meyer and Tania Davis, combined to shoot 0-for-15 on 3s. It’s not that they were bad shots. At least three of Disterhoft’s 3-balls sunk halfway — no, three-fourths of the way — before spinning out.
But a miss is a miss. Fifteen misses are 15 misses.
"I mean, there’s no sugarcoating it," Disterhoft said. "It was a bad day to have a bad day from 3, especially when they’re in the zone. So I guess that happens sometimes in basketball. But it’s definitely something we’re going to be working on and trying to improve in the coming week, because that’s very uncharacteristic of our team, I would say."
Not too uncharacteristic, actually. We saw Iowa's long-range potential in a two-game stretch against Northern Iowa and Iowa State, when the Hawkeyes shot 24-for-37 from 3-point land.
But other than that, Iowa is shooting 28 percent (64-for-228) from beyond the arc. It averages about 19 3-point shots per game.
"It’s too many 3s. We shouldn’t be taking that many 3s," Bluder said of the 28 deep-ball attempts at Illinois. "Fifty percent of our shots coming from 3-point range, even against the zone, (is too much). You need to get touches inside, and I think when we watch the film, we’re going to see that Megan was open a little more than we hit her and she shot the ball extremely well."
Gustafson vs. Wittinger
Wednesday marked the first of 16 consecutive battles for Gustafson, who’s at or near the top of a daunting group of bigs in the Big Ten.
It’s hard to say if she won Round 1 against Illinois' 6-foot-2 sophomore forward Alex Wittinger. Gustafson notched her eighth double-double with 21 points and 13 boards, while Wittinger registered 18 points and four rebounds.
But Disterhoft actually guarded Wittinger for most of the second half, her worse offensive half. Most of Wittinger’s points against Gustafson came on gorgeous jumpers from the free-throw line or either elbow. Not in the paint.
"I think that every Big Ten game, especially inside, is going to be a huge challenge for me," Gustafson said. "And I’m up for it."
Up next: Nebraska’s 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Jessica Shepard, who leads the Huskers with 17.9 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Bain covers Hawkeyes' basketball for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.