INDIANAPOLIS — A few months ago, not many outside the Iowa women’s basketball program would have predicted the Hawkeyes’ current position.
Iowa (23-6) enters the Big Ten tournament this week in Indianapolis ranked 19th and as the No. 3 seed, led by Kathleen Doyle, the conference’s player of the year. Neither media members nor league coaches predicted Iowa to finish in the top five in preseason conference polls.
“At the beginning of this year we were not on the map,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said. “I’m thrilled with our team’s success.”
Bluder is even more thrilled with the double-bye that accompanies that high seed. The league is on the verge of potentially sending a record eight teams to the NCAA tournament.
Iowa will play in the final quarterfinal game on Friday, scheduled for around 8 p.m. (CT). The Hawkeyes will play No. 6-seed Ohio State (18-11) and will have less than 24 hours to prepare for their opening opponent, though they beat both teams in the regular season.
“These are going to all be competitive games,” Bluder said. “They are going to be hard games and they’re going to wear you out. The least amount of games the better. ... I think the hardest thing for us is leaving our campus not knowing who we will play.”
Iowa has had success this season against the other top teams in the league, not only beating co-champions Maryland and Northwestern earlier in the season, but doing so in consecutive games. That was part of a three-game stretch that saw the Hawkeyes also beat Indiana, the fourth seed in the tournament.
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The amount of success Iowa has achieved isn’t entirely a surprise to Bluder, despite losing three starters from last year’s team, including national player of the year Megan Gustafson.
“We loved our senior class and respected them — they were terrific,” Bluder said. “Everyone was focusing on what we lost but nobody was focusing on what we still had. We knew we had a dynamic point guard. We knew we had good 3-point shooters.”
Doyle has proved to be that prolific point guard, averaging 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game, which ranks seventh nationally. Makenzie Meyer has made 75 3-pointers and is shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc. But the biggest difference maker has been Monika Czinano, averaging 15.6 points and shooting a nation-best 69.9 percent from the field.
“Nobody knew how much she improved,” Bluder said of Czinano. “I think that has been our X factor. We did have that inside presence step up for us where nobody had a clue about that one.”
Iowa has a well-balanced offense, leading the Big Ten in seven categories, including field goal percentage, assists per game and 3-point percentage.
The Hawkeyes are a lock to make the NCAA tournament. But a solid performance in the conference tournament could solidify hosting the first two rounds. That would not only be an advantage for Iowa, a program with two consecutive undefeated home seasons, but fully prove the Hawkeyes were undervalued heading into this season.
“I think every athlete wants to prove everyone wrong,” Bluder said. “I think that’s the biggest motivating factor.”