Iowa's focused on 'baby steps.' Beating Minnesota would be a big one.

Matthew Bain
Iowa's Tania Davis guards Illinois' Petra Holesinska during their game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — After Iowa dropped to 10-6 and 1-2 in the Big Ten with a loss at Penn State, we put forth a road map for the team's most reasonable and legitimate path to the NCAA Tournament.

It required the Hawkeyes go at least 9-4 the rest of the season and enter the conference tourney at 19-10. Then they’d need to get one win in Indianapolis. (Often, 20-plus win teams from the Big Ten earn automatic berths.)

The road map also laid out  the four regular season games Iowa could lose: both against Maryland, away against Ohio State, and one either at Michigan or at home against Michigan State — the two teams perched atop the conference’s eight-team "middle tier."

So far, Iowa’s done what it needs to. It followed the Penn State loss by beating Illinois Jan. 11. It picked up one of its four acceptable losses against Maryland. And it handled Rutgers on the road.

Hoops takeaways: Iowa shows NCAA Tournament merit, Maryland's suffocating press

It hosts Minnesota on Saturday. This one’s got to be a win. Iowa needs to string together a few wins to strengthen its RPI, which sits at 64, out of traditional range for a bubble team.

Despite their 11-8 overall and 2-4 conference record, the Gophers enter Saturday with an RPI of 41.

"This Minnesota win would be really big for us," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "First of all, it would give us two in a row, but they’re higher than us in the RPI right now. So this would be a really good RPI win for us. And so those are the things we have to look forward to."

Bluder’s one of the few college coaches who openly discuss RPI and how vital a role it plays in today's game.

But she hesitates to publicly state her own road map or to set a golden number of wins for Iowa to return to the NCAA Tournament.

"(We’re) really not looking at: 'We have to have this many wins to get in the tournament,' but kind of looking at each one individually," she said. "Because I think if you look at all 10 of them, it can get a little bit insurmountable at times — thinking about what you have to do. Take baby steps, right?"

What the Hawkeyes need to do to make the NCAA Tournament

Chase Coley has been a key bench player in Iowa’s latest baby steps (its solid performance against Maryland and win at Rutgers).

She logged seven points and two boards in 15 minutes against Maryland and eight points and four boards in 17 minutes against Rutgers. Before those games she’d averaged 3.1 points and 3.8 boards in just north of 13 minutes per game.

Bluder’s starting to give Coley more time, and Coley's starting to do more with that time — especially defensively. She’s big enough to guard the post and quick enough to stretch out to cover a power forward. That helps Ally Disterhoft avoid mismatches when there's just one big on the floor.

"I feel like as the season goes on, everyone kind of fits into their role more," said Coley, who started 31 games last year. "You see what the team needs. Me, personally, I like to see what my team needs and I like to go out and I really try to bring that little extra, fill in those gaps that we might be lacking at the time.

"I think (Bluder and I have) always been on the same page without saying anything, where if she knows we’re lacking somewhere and she puts me in, my job and my goal on the court is to fill those gaps."

Coley has some extra motivation for Saturday. She's from Minneapolis and grew up 10 minutes from Minnesota’s campus. She said she and her mom would go to every home volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball game growing up.

The Gophers recruited her, too, and she knows lots of the current players.

"I hate losing to my friends because then I’ve got to deal with it," she laughed. "I’ll get texts from Kenisha (Bell) after the game if we lose, so I want to beat them."

Bell and Carlie Wagner pace Minnesota’s offense with 16.8 points and 19.6 points per game, respectively. But Wagner, a 5-foot-10 guard, is definitely the top option. She’s taken the fifth-most shots in the country (352).

Minnesota’s strongest on the boards, hauling in the country’s fourth-most rebounds (876) and ninth-most offensive rebounds per game (16.5). Iowa is tied for 20th with 29.2 defensive rebounds per game.

"I feel good going into this game," Bluder said. "I feel like we’ve had three good games in a row and that’s nice progress going into the game against Minnesota."

Bain covers Hawkeyes' basketball for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.

Saturday's game

Iowa (12-7, 3-3) vs. Minnesota (11-8, 2-4)

When/where: 2 p.m., Carver-Hawkeye Arena

TV: Big Ten Network Plus

About the game: Kenisha Bell and Carlie Wagner pace Minnesota’s offense with 16.8 points and 19.6 points per game, respectively. But Wagner, a 5-foot-10 guard, is definitely the leader. She’s taken the fifth-most shots in the country (352).