The Iowa women’s basketball team’s 2022-23 season was one of the most thrilling sporting experiences Hawkeye fans have been treated to in a long time. While Lisa Bluder’s squad has been playing high-level basketball for decades, their journey to the Final Four, upset of a seemingly unbeatable South Carolina team, and national championship appearance captivated the sporting world and jumpstarted national interest in the women’s game. While Iowa fans would typically spend their days in April pouring over football practice reports and debating how the outgoing men’s players might fare in the upcoming NBA draft, many Hawkeyes find themselves wondering (possibly for the first time) whether they can stand to wait until next November to watch the women’s team step on the basketball court again.
The Hawkeye women have earned America’s attention; the only question now is what the team does with it next. Iowa’s magical run came to a deflating end in their seventeen-point loss to LSU in the title game, but there is real reason for optimism heading into next season. National player of the year Caitlin Clark will be back to strike fear into the heart of defenses across the country, seniors Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall are taking advantage of their COVID years to return for their fifth seasons with the program, and promising young talent like Hannah Stuelke will have had another year to develop under Iowa’s veteran coaching staff. The Hawkeyes fell just short of a national title, but their incredible performance over the last month of the season must have left the team with belief in their ability to reach the summit next season. Yet the Hawkeyes will face stiff competition both nationally (LSU, Connecticut, Utah, South Carolina) and within their own conference (Indiana, Ohio State, Maryland) in their quest to become champions. What would it take for the Hawkeye women to raise not just another Big Ten banner next season, but a national championship one as well?
1. A healthy Caitlin Clark
“All things are possible when Caitlin Clark has the basketball.”
Any case for Iowa having a chance to win an NCAA title starts and ends with Caitlin Clark, arguably the most unstoppable offensive force to ever play women’s college basketball. Clark shattered records all season long, including breaking Glen Rice’s scoring record for the most points in a single NCAA Tournament regardless of gender (191). Her logo threes are iconic, her passes defy physics, and her ability to make big plays in the clutch is the stuff legends are made of. She is a one-woman wrecking crew who can raise both the floor and the ceiling of her team by several stories. She is Pete Maravich at LSU if Pistol was playing winning basketball. At 21 years old, she is already one of the greatest athletes to ever hail from the state of Iowa. She is the best player in the country, and it may not be particularly close. Given her incredible competitive drive, it also would not be shocking if Iowa’s loss to LSU propels Clark to return as an even more dangerous player next season, if such a thing is even possible.
For Iowa, the most important factor that will determine their championship potential next season is Clark’s ability to stay healthy and keep her energy level high heading into March Madness. Caitlin was already the focus of every defense she faced this year, but her late-season heroics will make opposing coaches and players even more determined to slow her down in 2023-24. Clark can expect to see more physical defenses, harder fouls, and as many double teams as an opponent can throw at one player. This level of defensive attention, combined with her high offensive usage rate, could threaten to wear her down over the course of the season and leave Clark operating at less than full efficiency come tournament time. Accordingly, Iowa will need to find ways to score points and win games that don’t require their star player to drop 40 every single night.
2. Identifying a reliable secondary scorer
The loss of Monika Czinano to graduation is one of the most important storylines to follow heading into next season. Czinano was an ultra-reliable scorer through whom the Hawkeyes could run their offense when Clark needed a break, and her low-post scoring efficiency (Monika shot an incredible 67% from the field over her career) prevented defenses from overloading the perimeter to sell out against Clark. Her incredible chemistry with Clark only served to make each player all the more dangerous.
However, it’s not clear that Iowa has a secondary scorer who can replace Czinano on their roster. Martin and Marshall are both valuable role players and deadly shooters, but neither can create their own shot against top-tier defenses the way Czinano could on the block. Molly Davis averaged 17.8 points per game over three seasons at Central Michigan before transferring to Iowa and is capable of scoring more than she showed last season (3.8 points per game), but her 5’7” frame leaves her seriously undersized against bigger guards. Hannah Stuelke showed real promise as a first-year player (especially with her ability to run the floor), but it’s unclear whether she can reach Czinano’s level of offensive production as a sophomore. Kylie Feuerbach and Sydney Affolter have flashed scoring potential, but in limited roles. Taylor McCabe was a top 100 recruit in the class of 2022 who can light it up from deep, but she averaged only 7 minutes per game over 18 contests and shot under 20% from two last season and will likely be a rotation player next season. Incoming recruit Ava Jones might have had a shot to play a co-starring role if not for a tragic accident that nearly took her life and left her basketball career in serious jeopardy.
In reality, Iowa’s best hope at finding a secondary scorer is likely in the transfer portal. Iowa’s fan support, national profile, and star point guard should make them an attractive destination, but that would also require a scholarship player choosing to move on from the team during the offseason, as the women are currently out of available scholarships for 2023-24. If Iowa cannot find a secondary scorer in the transfer portal, it may have to rely on a “by-committee” approach next year.
3. Finding a low-post enforcer (or two…or three)
Czinano’s departure will not only deprive Iowa of a reliable offensive weapon, but its best post player as well. Czinano was a solid rebounder who set excellent screens and was more than willing to wrestle opponents in the paint. Yet Iowa’s relative lack of size in the post put them at a disadvantage against some of the sport’s bluebloods. Over two Final Four games, the Hawkeyes lost the offensive rebounding battle 35-9, and both South Carolina and LSU were able to frustrate Iowa players with their length and physicality in the interior.
Unless Iowa can get some additional size in the portal, Stuelke and rising junior Addison O’Grady should have the first crack at the job. O’Grady took a bit of a step back during her sophomore season, but also made some significant plays over the course of the NCAA Tournament. She and Stuelke should benefit from having another year under the tutelage of low-post guru Jan Jensen. Rising juniors AJ Ediger, Sharon Goodman, and Shateah Wetering should also compete for minutes in the post, and forward Jada Gyamfi could be in the mix; she redshirted last season after averaging only 3.4 minutes over eight games, but was the 76th-ranked recruit in the 2022 class, and certainly has the pedigree to develop into a formidable post player.
4. Improving on defense
Iowa’s defensive statistics are skewed because of their pace of play, but there’s no way to sugarcoat them having the 331st-ranked defense out of 361 teams. Iowa’s post players struggled to cover opponents who could attack them off the dribble, and the barrage of three-pointers the Hawkeyes surrendered to LSU will not be forgotten anytime soon. Iowa also allowed opponents to make two-point baskets at a rate of 45.7%, which ranks 212th in the country. Iowa does not need to lock down opponents every game to make another tournament run, especially given how well the team scores. But the Hawkeyes lost every game last year in which their opponents scored 85+ points in regulation and won every game in which their opponents scored under 83. Improving even a few points per game on the defensive end could be the difference between winning or losing a handful of important contests next year. Given Iowa’s defensive struggles, incoming recruit Kennise Johnson Etienne, who has a reputation as a lockdown defensive player on the perimeter, could play an important role on next season’s team.
5. Learning how to handle being the hunted instead of the hunter?
Iowa’s place in the national spotlight is a double-edged sword; Caitlin Clark and her teammates have earned the adoration of people across the country, but they will also have a target on their back in a way they never have in program history. The Hawkeyes will get their opponent’s best shot in every game next season, and the team may face growing national skepticism if it ever plays below the expectations set by their incredible Final Four run. The state of Iowa will leave and die on every one of Caitlin Clarks jumpers, which is an immense burden to shoulder for an entire season. For Iowa to win a national championship next season, it will need to learn to manage sky-high expectations and maintain the bond and team culture that propelled them on last season’s run despite playing under a microscope. Fortunately for Hawkeye fans, Clark, Bluder, and the rest of the program appear to have the focus and disposition to weather whatever turbulence comes their way. Whether or not Iowa manages to hoist a national championship banner next year, the smart money would say not to bet on the Hawkeyes coming apart under pressure.