Basketball is full of the unexpected. It’s why we’re glued to our TVs for days during March Madness. It’s why we don’t just assume a preseason #1 is destined to win it all. But for every unexpected memory we have, there are tons of games that go exactly as they’re supposed to. One team is superior on paper and plays like it the night of the game. The result is never really in doubt even as the game itself is being played.
In Iowa’s game against Wisconsin tonight, we got the expected. The Hawkeyes were the favored team going in. They were ranked #17 in the latest AP poll and were defending their home court. Wisconsin, meanwhile, was better than they’ve been in the past couple years, but were still projected to finish in the bottom half of the conference.
Tonight, Iowa played like the better team. They jumped out to a 21-13 lead after the first quarter, and were up by a similar margin at halftime. Iowa eventually grew that lead to double digits in the third quarter, and held off every effort at a Badger run in the fourth. In garbage time, they extended the lead further, coasting home to a 71-53 victory, their 20th straight win over Wisconsin (a streak that dates back to 2007). Just like everyone expected.
Also as expected, Megan Gustafson led Iowa with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Kathleen Doyle finally got going again offensively, adding 15 points and 7 assists. Makenzie Meyer and Hannah Stewart also scored in double figures for Iowa, scoring 11 and 10 respectively. A box score for the game is here.
Though the result was expected, how Iowa got there wasn’t as expected. In the first half, Wisconsin made a strong effort to limit Gustafson offensively, and it mostly worked. She had only six points on four shots at halftime. Unlike we've seen in some of Iowa’s losses this year, though, Iowa’s guards responded well offensively. They shot 5-12 from three, and were quicker to attack the basket. Though that shooting fell off somewhat in the second half, it was good to see Iowa’s guards being aggressive and leading the team without Gustafson playing a big role early.
Speaking of being aggressive, Iowa did a great job on defense all night. The Hawks forced 17 Wisconsin turnovers and scored 23 points off of those turnovers. Often, it was the guards who were jumping passing lanes to start a breakaway. Hopefully tonight’s performance by the guards is a sign of things to come in the rest of conference play.
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Though Iowa’s results for the past week have gone about as we expected, that hasn’t been true for much of the conference. Coming into the Big Ten season, the conference favorites (along with Iowa) were: #4 Maryland, #12 Minnesota, #15 Michigan State. Those three teams racked up five losses last week, with most being upsets.
It started last Monday, with Rutgers going on the road and shocking a previously undefeated Maryland team 73-65. The same night, Minnesota went on the road and got flattened by Michigan 76-60. Then on Thursday, Michigan State suffered their first conference loss of the season on the road at Northwestern. The Spartans also fell on Sunday on the road against Indiana. Finally, and perhaps most shocking of all, Minnesota dropped another game, this time at home against an Illinois team projected to finish near the bottom of the league.
Rutgers and Indiana now lead the Big Ten at 3-0. Both teams are better than expected this season, though it’s too early to call either a new favorite for the conference. Iowa now joins Maryland and a few other schools in a tie for third in the conference at 2-1. The Terrapins are still probably the conference favorite, but look significantly more vulnerable than they did at the start of conference play. Both Minnesota and Michigan State have two loses in the conference already, and that’ll soon move to three for one of them, as they play each other on Wednesday.
In sum, it was a very good week for Iowa’s conference championship hopes despite not winning any really big games themselves. Some of their fellow contenders for the conference dropped games they shouldn’t have, and still have plenty of challenging matchups ahead of them.
Iowa returns to action on Thursday, January 10th at 7 PM CT at Purdue. The game will be televised on BTN. Purdue is 11-5 on the year, and 2-1 in the Big Ten, with home wins over Ohio State and Michigan and a road loss to Wisconsin.
This is another big game for Iowa in that they can’t really afford to drop it with so many big games remaining. Iowa is projected to be better than Purdue this year, but the Boilermakers have been strong at home thus far and will give Iowa all they can handle.