“Now or never.”
Nah, that seems a little harsh. So let’s go with this:
“If not now, when?”
Eleven years have passed since Iowa’s last Big Ten women’s basketball championship. The Hawkeyes have finished second on three occasions since then, most recently in 2015. Last year, they tied for third.
When the Hawkeyes met the media in October, a Big Ten title was mentioned as a main goal, along with a deep run (Sweet 16? Elite Eight?) in the NCAA tournament.
Other than a disheartening loss at Notre Dame, the Hawkeyes haven’t done anything to injure their standing as a Big Ten contender. They enter league play at 9-2 with an RPI (as of Wednesday) of 13, and their victories over Iowa State and Drake qualify as “quality wins.”
Additional reasons for optimism:
* The Hawkeyes are as healthy as could be hoped. Tania Davis has returned from her second ACL tear, and is showing no ill effects. Kathleen Doyle is back in the starting lineup after suffering a broken left hand in early November.
* They play preseason favorite Maryland only once, at home, on Feb. 17.
* They possess the best player in the league (by a wide margin) in Megan Gustafson, who has earned six of seven Big Ten player-of-the-week awards. Gustafson is a senior, as are Davis and Hannah Stewart, so this might be Iowa’s best shot at something big for a while.
When I submitted my preseason predictions to the Big Ten office before the season, my top three were Iowa, Maryland and Nebraska, in that order. But the Huskers have disappointed through the non-conference slate, and the most legitimate threats to the Hawkeyes and Terrapins appear to be Michigan State and Minnesota.
The Big Ten season opens with six games Friday, with the Hawkeyes and Michigan State meeting in East Lansing two days later. The Spartans have the Big Ten’s most noticeable win thus far, knocking off Oregon.
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In an 18-game league schedule, Iowa’s Big Ten “double-plays” are against Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Purdue. The Hawkeyes host Maryland, Northwestern, Rutgers and Wisconsin, and travel to Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State.
The prediction here is a 14-4 league record — 9-0 at home, 5-4 on the road — and a second-place standing to Maryland (16-2).
That, and a runner-up finish in the Big Ten tournament, would put the Hawkeyes at 25-7 when Selection Monday arrives, a mark that might bring a 4 seed for the NCAA tournament, and with it, home court for the first and second rounds.
Here are my complete Big Ten projections, 1 through 14, with tie-breakers figured in for Big Ten tournament seeding:
* Projected overall: 30-2. Big Ten: 16-2. Big Ten tournament: Champion. Postseason: NCAA, No. 2 seed.
* Projected overall: 25-7. Big Ten: 14-4. Big Ten tournament: Runner-up. Postseason: NCAA, No. 4 seed.
3. MICHIGAN STATE
* Projected overall: 23-8. Big Ten: 12-6. Big Ten tournament: Semifinalist. Postseason: NCAA, No. 7 seed.
* Projected overall: 24-7. Big Ten: 12-6. Big Ten tournament: Semifinalist. Postseason: NCAA, No. 6 seed.
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* Projected overall: 21-11. Big Ten: 11-7. Big Ten tournament: Quarterfinalist. Postseason: NCAA, No. 10 seed.
6. PENN STATE
* Projected overall: 17-14. Big Ten: 9-9. Big Ten tournament: Quarterfinalist. Postseason: WNIT.
* Projected overall: 15-16. Big Ten: 9-9. Big Ten tournament: Quarterfinalist. Postseason: WNIT.
* Projected overall: 17-13. Big Ten: 9-9. Big Ten tournament: Second round. Postseason: WNIT.
* Projected overall: 18-15. Big Ten: 8-10. Big Ten tournament: Quarterfinalist. Postseason: WNIT.
* Projected overall: 18-13. Big Ten: 7-11. Big Ten tournament: Second round. Postseason: WNIT.
* Projected overall: 15-15. Big Ten: 7-11. Big Ten tournament: Second round. Postseason: None.
12. OHIO STATE
* Projected overall: 11-18. Big Ten: 6-12. Big Ten tournament: Second round. Postseason: None.
* Projected overall: 11-19. Big Ten: 3-15. Big Ten tournament: First round. Postseason: None.
* Projected overall: 12-19. Big Ten: 3-15. Big Ten tournament: First round. Postseason: None.
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