It was all smiles in the Iowa locker room Monday when the Hawkeyes saw their name pop up on ESPN as the sixth seed in the Louisville Region of the NCAA tournament.
The smiles were well deserved.
With its top two scorers from a season ago gone, many saw Lisa Bluder’s 14th season at Iowa as a rebuilding year.
Instead, the Hawkeyes won 26 games, the most in Bluder’s tenure, reached the final of the Big Ten tournament and matched their highest seed in the NCAA tournament since 2001.
There were also some sighs of relief Monday as Iowa dodged the dreaded eight-nine seed game that’s almost certainly a precursor to a matchup with a top-seeded, supremely talented team in the second round.
In the previous 10 trips to the NCAA tournament under Bluder, the Hawkeyes have earned an eight or nine seed seven times.
Three of those eight or nine seeds resulted in opening round wins followed by resounding second-round losses to top-seeded teams.
Last year as a nine seed, Iowa bounced eighth-seed Miami before falling to top-seed Notre Dame by 17 points.
“We are glad to not be on their eight, nine line,” Bluder said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on that eight, nine seed line, so we are glad that we are not there for sure.”
The Hawkeyes no doubt earned their sixth seed and possibly more.
Iowa tied for fourth in a conference that sent five teams to the tournament all seeded sixth or better.
The Hawkeyes boast an RPI in the top 25 and added wins over tournament teams Dayton (6-seed), Syracuse (6-seed), Southern California (9-seed) and North Dakota (14-seed).
Of the Hawkeyes eight losses, six came to NCAA tournament qualifiers all with seven seeds or higher.
Iowa ended up a six seed rather than an eight or a nine but the Hawkeyes’ draw still has that familiar eight or nine seed feel to it with defending national runner-up Louisville waiting.
Louisville, a team ranked fourth in the AP poll with three of its four losses to top-ranked Connecticut, somehow slipped to a three seed, leaving Iowa once again with one of the top teams in the nation likely waiting in the second round.
“You never want to look too far ahead, but you look ahead to Louisville and you think they are probably supposed to be a two seed, and so that is a little disheartening,” Bluder said. “At the same time we have to really focus on Marist, and that is the main thing that we have to focus on at this point. You have to win one, you have to win the first one first.”
Coaches will always preach one game at a time, but with the Hawkeyes’ current NCAA draw, that mindset is a must.
There’s no such thing as a gimme in March. The Hawkeyes saw that firsthand with Penn State’s loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, and six seeds rarely face an outmanned opponent in the opening round.
Yet Iowa’s matchup with Marist proves especially difficult.
The Red Foxes are tournament savvy, having reached the NCAA tournament nine years in a row, they are deep, with five players in double figures, and they are playing their best basketball now having won nine straight and 15 of 16.
Throw in 25-game winner Idaho as the 14 seed and the four-team group coming to Iowa City is the strongest of any collection of equally seeded teams in the tournament.
Iowa has two wins over other six seeds (Syracuse and Dayton) and is perhaps the best six seed in the field.
Marist certainly stacks up with the other 11-seeds, but it is Louisville’s status as a three seed that is the biggest reason that several analysts have listed the Louisville region as the toughest in the tournament.
“They are going to have that chip on their shoulder, obviously, being a three seed isn’t something that they wanted to be. They probably felt like they deserved a little higher one,” junior point guard Sam Logic said. “Ranked as a high as number three in the country and to get a three seed is easily enough to put a chip on their shoulder.”
Iowa wasn’t handed an easy route to reaching its first sweet 16 since 1996, but this year’s group of Hawkeyes wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Hawkeyes have turned in one the best regular seasons in recent program history in a year where many thought they would struggle.
Iowa has been at its best against the best on its schedule, winning four games against ranked teams.
Now the Hawkeyes will try to give Iowa fans a postseason to remember — even if it has to go through Louisville to do so.
“Obviously that fires us up right away,” junior Melissa Dixon said of Louisville. “They are a great team, they made it to the championship last year and anything can happen, so we are looking forward to hopefully getting that first win and getting a shot at them.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball