Iowa women's basketball: 3 storylines for the defending champs at the Big Ten Tournament

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa women’s basketball team heads to Indianapolis on Thursday as defending champion of the Big Ten Conference tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The third-seeded Hawkeyes will be the last of the league’s 14 teams to take the floor this week, with Friday night’s Big Ten Network-televised quarterfinal scheduled to begin at approximately 8 p.m. CT.

With that backdrop, here are three storylines to watch this week for Lisa Bluder’s bunch:

Iowa's three seniors (from left) Amanda Ollinger, Makenzie Meyer and Kathleen Doyle lead the defending champions of the Big Ten Tournament back to Indianapolis.

What will it take to keep a top-four NCAA Tournament seed?

Iowa got some encouraging but also worrisome news this week when it was tabbed as the No. 13 overall seed in the NCAA Selection Committee’s “top-16 reveal.” Being in the top 16 means the opportunity to host first- and second-round games, a huge advantage for an Iowa team hoping to make a second straight Sweet 16 run.

Every spot is subject to change, of course, which means the Hawkeyes (23-6 overall, No. 12 RPI) may have more work to do in Indianapolis. As No. 13, they’re considered the best of four No. 4 seeds, for now.

Again, subject to change.

“A good showing (in Indy) could get us to the 2 seed,” Bluder said Wednesday. “But you hate to think of it the other way around, right? You’d hate to think a poor performance could take you out of hosting. I think that’s a reality. But at the same time, when you look at how many top-25 wins we have already … it’s pretty amazing.”

To Bluder’s point, one win would be helpful to maintain a hosting seed. A second win would be all but a guarantee and might move Iowa to the 3 line.

“Obviously, our goal is to win the tournament,” senior guard Makenzie Meyer said, “but I feel like, if we make it to the championship, we’d be in a pretty good spot.”

How realistic is the path to the title game?

Maryland, for now deemed a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, hasn’t lost since a Jan. 9 trip to Iowa City. The Terrapins have won 14 straight since falling to the Hawkeyes, 66-61, and are the prohibitive tournament favorites. In their last six games, their margins of victory have been 29, 34, 37, 39, 43 and 55 points (a 93-59 rout of Iowa included). But they’re on the opposite side of the bracket, meaning Iowa has a clearer path to the title game than No. 4 seed Indiana or No. 5 seed Michigan.

And it just has to repeat what it’s done in the regular season to get there.

Iowa defeated No. 6 seed Ohio State (18-11, RPI 22) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and routed No. 2 seed Northwestern (26-3, RPI 7) in their lone matchups against those teams. Ohio State is the most likely opponent Friday, but it first needs to beat either Minnesota or Penn State on Thursday first.

“If higher seed prevails, I think it looks great for us,” Bluder said. “We’ll have beaten everybody we’ll face at least once this year.”

The Hawkeyes bring the Big Ten player of the year to Indy.

Kathleen Doyle was lured into the women’s basketball office Monday, where cameras were awaiting her arrival. When Bluder told her she had been voted Big Ten player of the year from the media and coaches, screams of joy rang out. To say Doyle was caught off guard by the news was an understatement.

“I knew I was in the conversation for it, but I wasn’t even thinking about it,” Doyle said Wednesday. “And I didn’t even know it was being announced Monday. I was completely surprised by it.”

Ever the competitor, Doyle has found plenty of motivation heading to Indy. She wants to atone for her seven turnovers in Iowa’s season-ending loss at Rutgers. The Hawkeyes are 5-0 after losses this season with four double-digit wins. In other words, not a single two-game losing streak.

They’ll be fired up and ready on Friday.

“We’re just disappointed in the way that we played,” Doyle said. “It happens, but I’m really proud of the resilience that we’ve shown. I think we’re going to take a lot of confidence going into the Big Ten Tournament, knowing that we’re a tough team to face.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.