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IOWA CITY — When Lisa Bluder left her house, she was greeted with a common question:
'I couldn't go to the grocery store or the gas station without someone asking how she was doing,' Bluder said in reference to point guard Tania Davis.
Here's the answer: Quite well. Well enough that she's on track to play when the University of Iowa women's basketball team opens the season with an exhibition game Nov. 5.
'She's way ahead of schedule,' Bluder said Monday during the Hawkeyes' media day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. 'I anticipated having her back by Christmas, but she will be suited up and ready to go for the first game.'
The return of Davis, a junior point guard who tore her ACL two-thirds of the way through last season, puts a gust of wind in the Hawkeyes' sails as the new season approaches.
'I see a lot of her old moves coming back,' said all-Big Ten center Megan Gustafson. 'She has those crazy finishes at the hoop. More than anything, it will be great to have her leadership back.'
Davis was injured in February, and it generally takes 9-12 months to return. At the time, Bluder was hopeful to have Davis back by the beginning of the Big Ten season. But Davis healed more quickly than most.
'It's been a lot of time with rehab with the trainer,' she said. 'There was a lot of strengthening through the quads and the hamstrings. A lot dealt with getting back my explosion and my change of direction.
'I knew things were going well at one of the first practices the first time I jump-stopped and everything was OK, because it was on a jump-stop that I got hurt.'
The Hawkeyes finished 20-14 overall (8-8 Big Ten) last year and missed the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. They reached the WNIT quarterfinals before falling at home to a sub-.500 Washington State outfit.
Ally Disterhoft graduated after becoming the Hawkeyes' all-time leading career scorer (2,102 points). The team was braced for that.
But they didn't expect to lose part-time starter Bre Cera (transfer), key reserve Christina Buttenham (medical reasons) and incoming freshman Jinaya Houston (who said in September she 'fell out of love for the game' and left the program).
That leaves Iowa with a roster of 11, including freshman Paula Valino Ramos, a 6-foot-3 post from Spain, and walk-on Zion Sanders.
Assuming Davis is ready to roll, the Hawkeyes are set at four starting positions.
Now a junior, Gustafson is among the top posts in the nation offensively, ranking in the top 30 nationally in seven different categories, including points (18.5 per game), rebounds (10.1) and field-goal percentage (.647).
'I want to get better at utilizing both hands,' she said. 'It was pretty evident I was left-handed, so when I've done drills, I've done double with my right hand.
'And I want to be more mobile, especially on defense. I want to be quicker on my feet.'
Davis and Doyle will handle the backcourt, with Makenzie Meyer the primary outside shooting threat.
'Our expectation is that (Meyer is) going to demand as much respect on the floor as Melissa Dixon did in her campaign when she was the best 3-point shooter in the nation,' Bluder said.
Top candidates for the other starting frontcourt position are Chase Coley, Hannah Stewart and Carly Mohns. Alexis Sevillian will back up the point guards, and the role of former Linn-Mar player Amanda Ollinger will increase.
'I'm stronger now and feel more comfortable out there,' Ollinger said. 'I feel more fit and conditioned.'
The Hawkeyes' first win this season will mark the 700th of Bluder's career, which enters its 34th season, its 18th at Iowa. The WNITs of 2016 and 2017 mark the only time Bluder's Iowa teams missed the NCAA in back-to-back seasons.
'It's not characteristic for Iowa women's basketball to miss the NCAA two years in a row,' Meyer said. 'Getting back there ... it's something we're working for every day.'
'It's our No. 1 priority,' Gustafson said.
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL, 2017-18
* Coach: Lisa Bluder (18th year at Iowa, 343-202; 34th year overall, 699-344)
* Last year: 20-14 (8-8 in Big Ten, T-8th), NIT quarterfinalist
* Top returners: C Megan Gustafson, G Tania Davis, G Kathleen Doyle, G Makenzie Meyer
* Key losses: G Ally Disterhoft, G Alexa Kastanek, G Bre Cera, F Christina Buttenham
* Newcomers to watch: G Alexis Sevillian
* Schedule highlights: Minnesota State-Moorhead (exh.), Nov. 5; Hawkeye Challenge, Nov. 10-11; at Iowa State, Dec. 6; at Northern Iowa, Dec. 17; Drake, Dec. 21; at Wisconsin, Dec. 28
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