We've kept up with the football team, the men's basketball team, and the wrestling team during their successful 2015-16 campaigns so far, but we've kind of lost pace with another Iowa team that's off to a great start: the very good women's basketball team, led by Lisa Bluder. Fresh off their best-ever season under Bluder (26-8 overall, 14-4 in Big Ten play, and an appearance in the Sweet 16), the Hawkeyes are putting together another very fine season, despite losing a tremendous amount of production from last year's team. All-everything point guard Samantha Logic is gone, as are All-Big Ten standouts Melissa Dixon and Bethany Doolittle. Those three accounted for over 42 ppg, over 15 rpg, and a ton of assists, blocks, and steals.
But the new-look Hawkeyes are off to a 10-2 start to the season and check in at #25 in the most recent Coaches Poll. (They're in the "Others Receiving Votes" category in the AP Poll.) Their only two losses have come against 8-3 George Washington (then ranked #21) at the Lone Star Showcase and 8-3 Iowa State in Ames a few weeks ago. Fun fact: despite losing to George Washington, Iowa still managed to win their bracket in the tournament, thanks to a superior point differential.
Ah, the joy of tiebreakers.
The Iowa State loss stung the most. Iowa led 33-28 and had an 11-point lead at various points in the second half against the Cyclones; unfortunately, just like the men, they couldn't hold the lead against a wave of Hilton Magic. Iowa State outscored the Hawkeyes 23-12 in the fourth quarter and edged them to the win, 69-66. More bitter was the fact that Iowa lost an excellent chance to record their first win in Ames since 1989 (!); the loss was Iowa's 10th straight in Ames. Then again, the home team has absolutely dominated that series for a while, winning 13 of the last 14 games.
Iowa enters Big Ten play at 10-2 and with a healthy RPI of 26 (fourth best in the league, behind Ohio State, Rutgers, and Michigan State), but they don't really have any standout wins among their ten non-league wins. So far they've defeated North Dakota (4-6, RPI 170), UT Martin (7-4, RPI 54), Western Illinois (6-6, RPI 240), UNI (5-6, RPI 119), Wright State (10-3, RPI 104), Houston (4-7, RPI 204), Virginia (8-4, RPI 90), Robert Morris (5-5, RPI 140), Bradley (4-6, RPI 214), Drake (7-4, RPI 64). Their signature win is probably either UT Martin or last night's win over Drake. But they also don't have any wins over truly bad teams, either, which can be anchors on a team's RPI ranking (as the Iowa men have discovered in recent years). The worst team Iowa's played was Western Illinois; their 240 RPI is bad, but at least it isn't 300+. They're also one of just three teams on Iowa's schedule so far against teams with RPIs of 200 or worse. Iowa hasn't played any heavyweights yet, but avoiding an abundance of lightweights and taking care of middleweights can be a solid strategy as well.
Last year's Iowa team featured a high-powered offense (79.5 ppg on 45.6% shooting) that liked to play at a fast tempo, but struggled at times on the defensive end. So far this year's Iowa squad isn't too far behind on offense (76.2 ppg on 44% shooting), although those numbers will likely come down as Iowa faces tougher defenses (and slower tempos) in Big Ten play. But so far Iowa has been defending better than they did a year ago -- they're holding opponents to 66.0 ppg and just 37.1% shooting from the floor (31.6% from long range). The level of competition plays a role there, but as noted above Iowa hasn't been playing a bunch of awful teams so far this year. If there are areas of concern, they're probably in rebounding and turnovers. Iowa has a narrow advantage over opponents in total rebounding (41.7 per game versus 39.4 per game), but they're losing the battle on the offensive glass (Iowa averages 12.2 offensive boards per game, while opponents are averaging 14.8 offensive rebounds a game) and they're basically a push with opponents in the turnover category (Iowa is giving the ball away 15.7 times a game, while opponents are coughing it up 16 times a game).
The other area of concern is three-point shooting, where Iowa is converting just 30.9% of chances so far this season, led by Alexa Kastanek (31/76, 40.8%) and Ally Disterhoft (12/35, 34.3%). Last year Iowa was lights out from deep, making 39.4% of their long range bombs. Of course, a lot of that success was down to Melissa Dixon and her historically good year shooting the ball: she was 124/275, or 45.1% from deep last year. Iowa simply hasn't been able to replace that shooting this year. Disterhoft was a 36.7% shooter from deep last year, so she's only shooting ab it worse than average, while Whitney Jennings just isn't a top-notch 3-point shooter (32.1% last year, 26.7% this year). Still, Iowa's long range prowess last year helped them win games despite some iffy defense (and similar offensive rebounding problems to what they're experiencing this year), so if they aren't able to start hitting 3s more effectively, some of those Ws from a year ago may turn into Ls this year.
In terms of individual performers, the expectation was that this would be Ally Disterhoft's team with the departures of Logic, Dixon, and Doolittle and that's been mainly true. Disterhoft is leading the team in scoring (17.3 ppg on 53.1% shooting; while she struggles on 3s, she is lights out inside the arc), third in rebounding (5.3 rpg), first in assists (3.3 apg), and third in steals (1.0 spg). In fact, given her proficiency on two-point field goals (60%) and her free throw shooting (81.4%), she should probably be driving to the hoop and trying to get fouled as much as possible on offense. Kastanek has emerged as Iowa's #2 scorer (12.6 ppg on 43.5% shooting) thanks to her 3-point prowess, but Iowa's also getting good production out of Chase Coley (10.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Kali Peschel (6.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Whitney Jennings was handed the daunting task of replacing Sam Logic, one of Iowa's best-ever players, and she's had some struggles. She's averaging 7.9 ppg on just 29.3% shooting and just 2.9 apg (with a so-so 35-27 assist-to-turnover ratio, as well). Hopefully she can shake off that start to the season and play better in league play.
Iowa also brought in a highly-touted freshmen class (17th in the nation, per ESPN) and so far Wisconsin post Megan Gustafson has been the standout from that group. She's averaging 8.7 ppg (on 58.6% shooting), 4.8 rpg, and has a team-high 17 blocks in just 16.4 minutes per game. She not only has a bright future for the next few years -- she's going to be relied on as a key contributor in Big Ten games this year. The most decorated member of that recruiting class was waterbug point guard Tania Davis, a 5* prospect listed at 5-4, and she's provided solid backup minutes for Jennings: 6.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.1 apg. She even got the start ahead of Jennings last night. Hopefully she continues to develop and improve quickly.
Iowa has over a week to prepare for the start of Big Ten play, a road game against Nebraska (9-2, RPI 88) on New Year's Eve (1 PM CT). They'll try to extend their 24-game home winning streak in their Big Ten home opener on January 4th, against Rutgers (9-3, RPI 19) in what's sure to be an emotional return to Iowa City for former Iowa coach C. Vivian Stringer. Things don't ease up much after that: at Michigan (8-2, RPI 77), home against Maryland (11-0, RPI 60), at Wisconsin (4-6, RPI 137), at Michigan State (9-2, RPI 22), home against Penn State (5-6, RPI 167), and at Purdue (9-2, RPI 30). We'll know a lot more about this team and their capabilities after the first few weeks of January. That said: so far, so good for the Hawkeyes. Lisa Bluder's built a very solid and consistent program at Iowa and despite losing one of the best senior classes in school history a year ago, this year looks like more of the same.
NEXT: Iowa at Nebraska on Thursday, December 31 (1 PM CT, BTN Plus).