WNIT berth full of silver linings for young Hawkeyes

Matthew Bain
Iowa's Megan Gustafson celebrates after drawing a foul during the Hawkeyes' game against Rutgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This WNIT doesn’t feel the same as last year’s. At least not to Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder and her players.

Iowa was a popular pick for biggest NCAA Tournament snub last year. So, very little of the shock, disappointment or anger wore off by the Hawkeyes’ first WNIT game, when a Ball State squad that had no business beating them did just that at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“We just flopped,” Bluder said. “I think this year it’s not a surprise. I think we’ve embraced this, I think we’re ready for it.”

This go-round, the Hawkeyes have had more time to focus on the silver linings. And there are plenty.

MORE: Bluder to Big Ten after rough Selection Monday: 'Schedule better'

'It could be a lot of fun'

You hear it all the time when a team falls short of the Big Dance: “Well, a deep run in the WNIT/NIT might be better for this roster in the long run.”

Sometimes that’s a cheap excuse. But it’s legitimate for the 2016-17 Hawkeyes.

Along with the injured Tania Davis, Kathleen Doyle, Makenzie Mayer, Bre Cera and Megan Gustafson are Bluder’s biggest building blocks for the next few years. All are freshmen and sophomores who either started or logged serious minutes this year.

“I have to sit here and think that had we not lost Tania Davis, we would be in the other tournament,” Bluder said. “I honestly believe that with all my heart. You can’t control those things. All you can control is the pieces you have, and we have a very young team. Starting three freshmen and then we have the concussion situations going on. I’m proud of our team. We’re in postseason play with three freshmen and one senior in our starting lineup and one sophomore.”

Those underclassmen need all the postseason experience they can get. Iowa likely would’ve seen an early exit in the Big Dance. But it could advance deep into the Not-As-Big Dance. Maybe even win it.

“We just want to go as far as we can for these seniors and make a really special ending for them,” Doyle said. “So we’re excited about it.”

“It could be a lot of fun,” Bluder added, “especially for a team that is so young and has so much to learn.”

Could they actually win?

Home-court advantage is bigger in the WNIT than most tournaments. The NCAA doesn’t run the WNIT, so money, more or less, drives the decisions.

Translation: Whichever team can draw the largest crowd will likely host. Good news for the Hawkeyes, which averaged 4,582 fans per home game — one of the highest numbers of the 64-team field. Much more than either of its potential second-round opponents, North Dakota and South Dakota. And more than a probable third-round opponent, South Dakota State, which beat Iowa on a last-second shot in November.

“I think we have a really good shot of going far,” Gustafson said.

The three other Big Ten teams (Indiana, Penn State and Michigan) landed on the other side of the bracket. So there’s potential for a Big Ten rematch in the title game on April 1.

“If we’re in it, why not play to the best of our ability?” Bluder said. “We have the home-court advantage, let’s use that.

“I think this is a team that really is excited about being in this tournament. And sometimes that’s it, right? You’re glad to be playing still.”

So close ... 

Disterhoft has 2,040 career points. She needs 20 more to pass Cindy Haugejorde (1976-80) to become Iowa’s all-time leading scorer.

One of the bigger silver linings of the WNIT? Disterhoft has a chance to break the record at home.

“We want to make sure she gets it,” Bluder said.

Poster girl: How Ally Disterhoft realized her Hawkeye dreams

First opponent: Missouri State

Missouri State (16-14, 12-6) finished third in the Missouri Valley Conference, three games behind second-place Northern Iowa.

First team All-MVC guard Liza Fruendt leads the Bears with 16.9 points per game. She netted a ridiculous 46 points in MSU’s 98-91 loss to Drake a couple weeks ago.

Other than preventing a crooked number like that, Iowa will have a tough battle on the boards. The Bears rank 33rd in the country with a plus-6.4 rebounding margin. Iowa’s 114th with a plus-2.3 margin.

“Nothing that we haven’t seen, though, so far,” Bluder said of the Bears. “So it’s nothing like we really have to change what we’re doing. I think we just really need to focus on us and focus on the scouting report, personnel-wise. But I think it’s nothing unusual that we haven’t seen yet.”

Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at mbain@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.

Thursday's game

Iowa (17-14, 8-8 Big Ten) vs. Missouri State (16-14, 12-6 MVC)

When/where: 7 p.m., Carver-Hawkeye Arena

TV: Big Ten Network Plus

About Missouri State: First team All-MVC guard Liza Fruendt leads the Bears with 16.9 points per game. She netted a ridiculous 46 points in MSU’s 98-91 loss to Drake a couple weeks ago. The Bears rank 33rd in the country with a plus-6.4 rebounding margin. Iowa’s 114th with a plus-2.3 margin.