INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa has plenty of reasons to feel good going into the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Hawkeyes have won seven games in a row and didn’t lose in February. That winning streak took Iowa from the muddled middle of the Big Ten to nearly getting a double-bye, finishing in a three-way tie for third place.
Iowa appears to be a lock for the NCAA tournament, sitting as a No. 6 seed in ESPN analyst Charlie Creme’s latest bracketology prediction this week.
Oh, the Hawkeyes also have newly crowned Big Ten Player of the Year, junior Megan Gustafson.
That’s a lot of momentum on the side of Iowa heading into Thursday’s second-round matchup against Northwestern at approximately 1:30 p.m.
“I think we take a lot of confidence going into this tournament,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said.
Northwestern held off Wisconsin, 68-63, in the opening round of the tournament on Wednesday. Iowa won its only matchup with Northwestern this season, 70-61, on Feb. 11 in Evanston, Ill.
There were good and bad moments for Iowa early in the Big Ten season, putting up 103 points in a win against eventual league champion Ohio State. That was followed up by a home loss to Nebraska when the Hawkeyes trailed by as many as 36 points.
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The Hawkeyes were learning to adjust during their 4-5 start to conference play. Starting point guard Tania Davis tore her ACL in mid-December and was lost for the season. Makenzie Meyer missed about a month with a broken hand.
But after some struggles, the Hawkeyes adjusted. Their current seven-game winning streak began after the lopsided loss to Nebraska.
“I think our team got used to playing without Tania and then we got Makenzie back,” Bluder said. “... I think it’s a combination of our team really just believes in themselves right now. We’re playing hard defensively and doing a much better job then we did earlier in the year.”
The winner between Iowa and Northwestern will advance to play Minnesota in the quarterfinals on Friday. Iowa and Minnesota split the season series, with each team winning on its home court.
Nothing will get easier from that point. Iowa is going to have to win four games in four days if a league championship will be the end result. One of the unique parts of this season’s tournament is the depth of the league, but there’s also no dominant team considered to be heads and shoulders above all others. Ohio State won the conference with three losses.
“This is the most wide open (tournament) I’ve seen in a long time,” Bluder said. “I think it’s exciting for everybody.”
The Big Ten is ranked third nationally in RPI, a drastic uptick from last season. Bluder points toward one aspect for that improvement: scheduling.
“The job we did in the non-conference and that we have so many people in the top-50 RPI and third best conference, shows the balance we have,” Bluder said. “I don’t think you can do that with a one- or two-team league, you can’t do that and be one of the top conferences.”
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Ohio State is ranked sixth in RPI. Iowa is 16th, the second-highest team in the Big Ten. Maryland is 20th and Michigan is 38th.
“Since I’ve been in the league it probably as deep as it’s been in terms of quality teams,” said Ohio State fifth-year coach Kevin McGuff.
Iowa will be a team that can threaten in the tournament if for no other reason of having Gustafson on its roster. Elite players can be the difference maker in tournament settings and Gustafson has played the role all season, averaging 29.5 points per game in February.
“In the Big Ten Conference, that’s quite amazing,” Bluder said.