Iowa women's basketball's NCAA Tournament run begins Friday. Here are the keys for Round 1:

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − The Iowa women's basketball team shared a general feeling during Thursday's NCAA Tournament media availability: excitement.

It's been more than 10 days since the Hawkeyes' last game, a convincing win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game. The time away was beneficial but all agreed that it's time to turn the page to the most important part of the season: the NCAA Tournament.

"I feel like we're just very glad to be at home and enjoying the experience," coach Lisa Bluder said. "I think what I see is more excitement to get back out on the court again. It has been a while and that makes you just get excited to play, like you just want to get out there again. I see more of an excitement than a tightness."

The No. 2 seed Hawkeyes (26-6) are heavy favorites over 15-seed Southeastern Louisiana (21-9) on Friday afternoon (3 p.m. on ESPN) but there's no shortage of motivation for a strong start. The painful memory of last season's second-round loss to Creighton is present. To drive home the point, the last time Iowa was a 2-seed, in 2019, the team battled closely with 15-seed Mercer in a 66-61 first-round win.

Senior Kate Martin was on that 2019 team and is aware of potential upsets. Martin was vocal during the viewing period of Iowa's Thursday practice and emphasized that their standard for play is the same regardless of opponent.

"Take no one for granted," Martin said. "Anybody who gets into the NCAA Tournament, especially a 15- or 16-seed, have nothing to lose. They're coming in here and they want to play their best game and anybody who steps into Carver wants to have their best game so take nothing for granted. Don't overlook anybody. You can't get to your next step; we have to take care of the first game."

Iowa is entering the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, winning seven of its last eight games, including a current four-game winning streak. Bluder credited the improved play to a complete team buy-in, noting that they're at their best when the entire team is involved. The challenge is to carry that prior momentum over to a new, one-game-at-a-time season.

Another element in Iowa's favor outside of team play is home-court advantage. Friday (and presumably Sunday) will produce sellout crowds for Iowa's first two games. Tickets for both games sold out in less than an hour Monday. Iowa holds a 15-1 home record this season.

"I think it's really special," guard Caitlin Clark said. "I think maybe we've gotten kind of used to our fans being as incredible as they are but at the same time you know you can't take it for granted ... it's one of the reasons I came here and (my teammates) would say the same, is the support for this team. This program that coach Bluder built here is unreal. So you never take for granted to run out onto a court with 15,000 people screaming for you."

What challenges can Southeastern Louisiana present for Iowa?

Iowa junior Caitlin Clark, senior Monika Czinano and senior Kate Martin speak during Thursday's NCAA Tournament press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Friday will be the first NCAA Tournament game in history for Southeastern Louisiana, champion of the Southland conference. Like Iowa, the Lady Lions are also riding a win streak into March, and they have Iowa's full attention.

SE Louisiana has made its mark on defense this season. While Iowa is the highest-scoring offense in the country, the Lady Lions have surrendered 80 points just one time this season, and it was in the third game of the season against Utah.

"They really hang their hat on defense," Bluder said. "I don't know if they've played against somebody as up-tempo as we are ... maybe you can go back to LSU, who they played very closely. It was an eight-point game at LSU or Alabama, which was a 10-point loss."

The Lady Lions are able to keep scores low and games close by playing a slow-tempo style offensively combined with good defense. Nationally, they're ranked near the bottom in possessions per game, a complete contrast to Iowa's quick pace. Iowa players emphasized that defense of their own will be the key to jumpstarting the offense and sparking runs.

"I think it just starts on defense for us generally," center Monika Czizano said. "A strong defensive presence to push the ball in transition like we want to, then just dictating the whole game from the jump. We've had teams do that to us where we feel like they've slowed us down or sped us up. That's what we need to do to them and just kind of show that this is how we like to play and we're going to kind of control it."

Lisa Bluder hopes Big Ten breaks Final Four drought

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder watches her team during a practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Thursday.

Iowa is a trendy pick by experts and fans to reach the 2023 Final Four, and if it happens it will end a drought for Big Ten teams. No Big Ten team has reached the Final Four since 2015; the national championship game hasn't seen a Big Ten team since 2005.

On Thursday Bluder expressed optimism that this year will break the drought, whether it's Iowa or another team that's highly seeded in another region.

"I sure hope it does," Bluder said. "(There's No. 1 seed Indiana) and we have another No. 2 seed in Maryland as well, so we have a lot of possibilities. I think now we have teams that are good enough to be there and maybe a path to get there. Sometimes, you know the path is not as easy, sometimes you get a good seed but it really comes down to matchups a lot of times.

"I feel like this year some of us have a good path to get there as well. So I'm excited about this opportunity. I think that the Big Ten has proved over and over this year how good this conference is, so you know I think this could definitely be the year."