A commonly accepted definition of an “X factor” is something that will have a strong, yet unpredictable outcome. Translating that to sports, a team’s X factor has an important role on the team, yet there is some question about how he/she will perform. This year’s X factor for the Iowa women’s basketball team is Tania Davis. If she plays well, the Hawkeyes might return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two years. If she struggles, or if, God forbid, she suffers another injury, Iowa’s NCAA Tournament drought might well extend to three years.
AN UNKNOWN COMMODITY
During her first two years as a Hawkeye, Davis has been a consistent contributor. As a freshman, she averaged 8.1 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, and 3.4 assists per game. Those numbers jumped to 10.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, and 4.3 APG by part way through her sophomore year. Then, during a February 5th loss to Michigan, Davis tore her ACL. The rest of her season was lost, and her 2017-2018 season was thrown into question.
ACL tears are among the worst injuries an athlete can suffer. The minimum recovery time, for freaks like Iowa safety Brandon Snyder, is 6 months. A more common recovery takes between 10 months and a year. Even then, there are no guarantees the player will return the same. Davis appears to be ahead of the typical recovery schedule, as she is already practicing with the team. Whether she will be back to her normal self during the season remains a key question.
AN UNKNOWN ROLE
Last year, Davis began the season as the team’s primary point guard, the most important position on the court. Though she played well at the position before her injury, whether she begins this season as the team’s starting point guard is an open question. In her absence, Kathleen Doyle stepped into the point guard role and played admirably, scoring 9.2 points per game, while adding 2.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per contest. Doyle also participated in tryouts for the Under 19 United States women’s basketball team over the summer, and was voted one of the two captains of the 2017-2018 Iowa team, along with Hannah Stewart.
If I were Coach Bluder, I would start the year with Doyle primarily running the point. She averaged slightly more assists than Davis last season, especially factoring in that she wasn’t the primary point guard for most of the season. She also turned the ball over less. Finally, Doyle is better at penetrating the lane, while Davis is the better 3-point shooter (33% last year to Doyle’s 23%). It is easy to envision teams needing to play more help side defense to limit Doyle’s drives to the basket, which could open up additional 3 point shots for Davis and fellow guard Makenzie Meyer (a 40% 3 point shooter).
AN IMPORTANT PLAYER, REGARDLESS
Even if Davis doesn’t begin the year as the point guard, she will still play a vital role for a young team looking to replace all-time leading scorer Ally Disterhoft. Scoring-wise, she is the team’s second best 3-point shooter behind Meyer. She is also the team’s best free throw shooter (88% last season), which will be vital to closing out close games. Beyond scoring, Davis is a surprisingly good rebounder for her height (5’3’), as she was 4th on the team in rebounds per game last season. She also handles the ball well, which will be important as an option to break presses or in leading the team when substitutes are in.
If Tania Davis returns from injury and does as well, or better, than she’s done in the past, Iowa will have a potent starting lineup. Davis’ shooting will help create space for Doyle to drive the lane and for Big Ten player of the year candidate Megan Gustafson to dominate in the post. She will also be part of a trio of guards than can all handle the ball well, meaning Iowa will have the ability to play a faster tempo with three different players who can start the break.
If she doesn’t play well, or if she gets hurt again, Iowa will have problems. Some of the space her shooting will create would be gone. Defenders would be free to play further off the wings to limit Doyle’s penetration or to double team and frustrate Gustafson in the post. Iowa would also be down to two experienced ballhandlers (Doyle and Meyer), both of whom would also have added pressure to be scorers if Davis cannot.
If Tania Davis plays like she has in the past, Iowa will have a lethal starting five that can compete with almost anyone in the conference. If she is absent for a prolonged period, or if her play is diminished due to lingering problems from her ACL injury, Iowa’s NCAA Tournament hopes will take a significant blow. She is this year’s X factor.