The Iowa Hawkeye women are in a place they’ve only been once before. It’s been thirty years since the Hawks were last in the Final Four (longer for the men) and now Iowa has the opportunity of a literal lifetime. While just getting to this point is a massive accomplishment and something that is rightfully being celebrated across Hawkeye Nation, the question now is whether Iowa can keep this run alive.
The ultimate goal, of course, is not just a Final Four but a National Championship. It’s something neither the men’s nor women’s programs have done at Iowa in the school’s history and now Lisa Bluder, Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes are two wins away from even more history.
But national championships don’t just grow on trees. They’re hard to win. They’re even harder when you’re not a blueblood program, especially in a sport that has seen perhaps as little parity as just about any other major sport in the world. The best teams in women’s college hoops have amassed a massive talent pool with a gaping gap between the haves and the have nots.
The Hawkeyes have worked diligently under Bluder to close that gap over the last half decade and now find themselves on the precipice of history. Can they overcome the odds (literally) and make history? Yes! And No.
Why Iowa Won’t Win the National Championship
This is Iowa we’re talking about and a lifetime, nay multiple lifetimes of history have taught us to be skeptical and pessimistic. This should be no different. The easiest answer to “why can’t Iowa win the national title” is because this is Iowa. We never have and we never will. We can’t have nice things!
But more precisely, the athletics gods have all but deemed it impossible for Iowa to win the title this year. It’s incredibly unlikely they even get a shot at it. As things stand today, the Hawkeyes are 12-point underdogs to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Friday. And that would represent a GOOD showing by the Hawkeyes!
In South Carolina’s 36 games this season, the Gamecocks have yet to lose. They’re average margin of victory is 29.4 points per game. Just seven times all year has a team lost by fewer than the 12 points they’re favored by on Friday night. Only three times all season has a team kept it to single digits. All three of those were road games for SC, two were at top-5 opponents Stanford and UConn.
Not only are the Gamecocks the clear top team in the country, they’re a brutal matchup for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are built on pace, an efficient offense and scoring in droves. South Carolina is built on slowing things down, smothering defense and grinding out wins with second-chance points and big stops.
As noted by our own Bartt Pierce, the Gamecocks are long and athletic with four starters who would likely start in Iowa City alongside superstar Caitlin Clark. They can come at you in waves and often do with eight players averaging more than 15 minutes per came. They have absurd length with a pair of twin towers as Aliyah Boston measures in at 6’5” while Kamilla Cardosa is 6’7” (for reference, Iowa center Monika Czinano comes in at 6’3”)
And now they have a potential chip on their shoulder. While the aforementioned Boston was named Defensive Player of the Year and coach Dawn Staley was named Coach of the Year for the second straight season, Boston did not repeat as national Player of the Year as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark took home those honors this week. For a team that hasn’t lost before the Sweet Sixteen in a decade and is entering their third straight Final Four and looking to repeat as national champions, adding a reason to make things personal is not a recipe for success for opponents.
What’s more, Friday’s matchup is just the first of two games Iowa would need to win to take home a title. The prize for beating the absolute juggernaut that is South Carolina? Getting to face off with 1-seed Virginia Tech or 3-seed LSU - both of which present their own potential nightmares for the Hawkeyes, who would undoubtedly be emotionally and physically exhausted after a battle with the Gamecocks in the Final Four.
It just seems so impossible, especially for Iowa.
Why Iowa Will Win The Whole Damn Thing
But this is March. This. Is. March.
College basketball is great, but what makes it special is just how crazy things can get in March. While the Madness has historically been more limited to the men’s tournament where multiple Cinderella’s fit into the slipper each year, things have gotten much more interesting on the women’s side this go around.
Despite being stuck on the same side as the proverbial Goliath that is South Carolina, Iowa has had a relatively smooth draw. That’s been due to an abnormal number of upsets in this year’s tournament. The Hawkeyes enter Friday night relatively fresh, having been able to avoid playing the 1-seed in their quadrant as 8-seed Ole Miss took down Stanford in the second round. Even before that, Iowa avoided playing the third seed Duke as they were knocked off by the 6-seed Colorado.
There have been 11 upsets thus far in the 60 games that have been played. Who’s to say there shouldn’t be one more in the final three games?
And why shouldn’t Iowa be the one to pull it off? For as much as South Carolina is a tough matchup for Iowa, the Hawkeyes are a tough matchup for anyone and especially the Gamecocks.
For as great as great as Aliyah Boston is, she plays a very different role than Iowa’s star. As a post player, Boston is dependent on entry passes, which the Hawkeyes can deny and prevent via double-teams, fronting and a plethora of other options if Lisa Bluder chooses to go that route. But she may not have to. Boston is only averaging 13.2 points per game this season, not even leading her own team. While she is a force in the low post, she’s not likely to single-handidly beat the Hawkeyes. Especially if she gets winded, as she appeared to against Maryland in the Elite Eight at times.
Boston is averaging right at 26 minutes per game in South Carolina’s preferred style of play, which is a meaningfully slower pace than the Hawkeyes. If Iowa can speed the game up and make this a track meet, Boston may be negated entirely. That’s especially on the defensive end where it’s difficult to be a presence in the paint if you’re not inside the arc when a shot goes up. That’s a factor the Hawkeyes can control and exploit.
They can also attack both Boston and Cardosa in ways a lot of other opponents have been unable to. Because of the attention Clark draws, Monika Czinano is almost certainly going to get clean touches on the block. Nobody in the country is as proficient at catching and scoring from the block as Czinano, Boston included. It won’t be easy given the length of the Gamecocks, but it’s possible for Czinano to be an impact. If nothing else, being the aggressor may put Boston and/or Cardosa in foul trouble and drastically change the rhythm of the game.
Oh, and the Hawkeyes have the best player not only in the game, but perhaps of all time, on their side. If you have Caitlin Clark, you have a chance. Iowa has both.
Clark, of course, presents a world of challenges the Gamecocks have not seen this year. It’s one thing to watch her play, it’s an entirely different thing to try and defend her. Clark will no doubt be hounded by the aggressive, pressuring South Carolina defense but it’s just as likely that aggressive pressure leads to easy drives, dump offs to Czinano (or Stuelke or Warnock or O’grady) and kick outs for open threes for the likes of Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall or McKenna Warnock.
Iowa can, and will, use aggression against South Carolina in a way that is unique to them because they have an uber talented point who can penetrate, dish or pull up from anywhere on the court and change the direction of the game in an instant. And she won’t quit. Iowa may trail early, they may trail often, but as long as Clark is in the game, the Hawkeyes will have a chance.
And if they can take down Goliath, why not win the whole damn thing?