Given the consistent trips to the NCAA Tournament they've been making in recent years, we probably owe the women's Iowa hoopyballers a bit more attention than we've given them. So in honor of their impending game with 11-seed Gonzaga (Saturday, 3:10pm CST, ESPN2), here's a preview. We didn't know much about the Zags, so we went to someone who did: Nate Parham, of Swish Appeal and SBN Seattle. (I did my best to answer a few of Nate's questions, too -- you can find those answers here.)
To answer your questions in reverse order, this might have been one of the bigger seeding surprises in the tournament and almost any fan who follows the game closely would agree with that. However, if we can step into committee logic - which can be influenced by things like "conference reputation" and "quality wins" instead "basketball ability" - Gonzaga had two strikes against them: 1) playing in the WCC and 2) not really having a "quality win". Nevermind the fact that all four of their losses were essentially within two possessions (they were in striking distance against Notre Dame in the State Farm Holiday Classic at KeyArena) - they came up empty four times against "quality opponents" and that's the only explanation I can come up with.
That list begins with point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who doesn't get near the mainstream credit she deserves as the best point guard in the nation, likely for the same reasons the team got a bit of a seeding slight. Statistically, she's one of seven players in NCAA (men's or women's) history to get 1000 assists, the fourth in women's history, and has a chance to become the first in women's history with 2000 points and 1000 assists.
She's deceptively quick, shifty, and has outstanding body control. To put her passing ability in perspective, even when she commits turnovers they're not normally terrible - she's the rare point guard that can take enormous risks with the ball with the confidence that it will pay off in the long-run more often than not. And often time her decisions are solid even if she makes a turnover. This year, she's also improved her shooting efficiency a bit, making her even more dangerous with the ball. She personifies "court vision" in the women's college and is the type of player I hope people get to see more than once, no offense. ;)
Other than Vandersloot, Kayla Standish is a skilled forward who is extremely versatile - with a point guard as efficient as Vandersloot, having a player in the high- or low-post who can pass, rebound, and step out to shoot threes makes the team extremely difficult to defend as the defense has to both stay with Vandersloot and keep track of players like Standish. Janelle Bekkering is another option for Vandersloot as the team's top three point shooter at 37.2%, although she is by no means a volume shooter.
Unsurprisingly, Gonzaga's major strength is that when they're clicking and moving the ball their offense is as fluid as any. They have actually improved their offensive rebounding numbers, which is impressive given that they lost WNBA training camp invitees Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson to graduation. Their weakness is a sort of nebulous intangible that was significant in their USC and Notre Dame losses and that is their sometimes wavering aggression - for some reason when teams got physical with them, they tended to back down and settle for jumpers instead of going to the basket. Part of that in the early season might have been the adjustment to losing their two posts, but they haven't gotten to the free throw line at a high rate all season so settling for jumpers will be a weakness to keep an eye on.
As above, for some reason when they had a had a hard time maintaining their aggression in those games, but more specifically there was a pattern of rebounding well in the first half and then having major letdowns in the second half in their losses against USC, Ole Miss, and Notre Dame. Really, that was a theme of last season's Sweet 16 loss to Xavier as well. So all-in-all they have to show that they can maintain that aggression for 40 minutes against top competition.
Sadly, the only tournament team they beat was Montana and then BYU is not a bad win, but they don't have one particular game that stands out as outstanding. But I don't think that's much of a concern - one thing you might expect from a team like them is a much better performance in conference play than non-conference play due to the strength of schedule. What's interesting is that Gonzaga has actually remained consistent throughout the year, which might be read as a bad thing because it seems that they haven't "improved" with experience and competition but also shows that their numbers aren't inflated due to weaker conference competition - as impressive as they are they've been able to maintain them and that bodes well going into the tournament.