IOWA CITY — The archrivals are polar opposites.
No. 22 Iowa is the early surprise of the Big Ten, stacking four consecutive victories and climbing into a four-way first-place tie.
Minnesota, on the other hand, is in limbo, if not disarray. The Gophers have lost four in a row and its best player is suspended indefinitely.
The Hawkeyes (13-3, 4-1) head north Thursday to face a team that is symbolically plummeting southward. Tipoff is 7 p.m. at Williams Arena, Minneapolis.
“We’re preparing for their best,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said of the Gophers (11-5, 1-4). “But maybe we’ll be surprised when we get there.”
Doesn’t sound that way. In her press conference with the Minnesota media Wednesday, Gophers Coach Lindsay Whalen confirmed that top player Destiny Pitts remains suspended for the second straight game.
“To be a student-athlete at the University of Minnesota takes high standards and expectations, and when those aren’t met, there are consequences,” Whalen said. “Destiny Pitts’ status has not changed. She remains suspended.”
Pitts was one of three Gophers — Taiye Bello and Kehinde Bello were the others — who missed Sunday’s loss at last-place Illinois. Whalen originally said Pitts’ absence was for “conduct unbecoming a member of the team.”
She said Wednesday that the Bello sisters “are back for (the Iowa) game, but their status is still to be determined.”
A junior all-Big Ten performer, Pitts averages a team-high 16.3 points per game. Taiye Bello adds 13.0 points and 9.9 rebounds per contest.
Pitts’ likely absence “changes them a lot,” Bluder said. “She’s a three-year starter, their leading scorer. She’s an outstanding 3-point shooter. Take that out of the mix, and it’s a harder go (for the Gophers).
“But like I said, we’re preparing for their best. When somebody comes out of the lineup, I think you can get lackadaisical, and we can’t do that.”
Iowa climbed into the national rankings after knocking off top-20 teams Maryland and Indiana last week. Kathleen Doyle is the Big Ten player of the week.
“It’s exciting to be recognized, but you still have to pay attention to detail,” Doyle said. “As seniors, it’s our responsibility to tell the girls, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating, but don’t get complacent, so we can keep climbing higher.”
Bluder said the recent spike in Doyle’s play is reflected in her stats.
“She is averaging 5.5 points more per game since we started Big Ten play,” Bluder said. “Her shooting has gone up. Her leadership has been outstanding. Her ability to go hard every possession is really, really amazing.”
Whalen said Doyle, along with senior backcourt mate Makenzie Meyer “have really stepped up. (The Hawkeyes) are feeling really good, and there’s no question we’ll have our hands full.”
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