Two years ago, Iowa went on a magical tournament run that saw them make the Elite 8 for the first time since 1993. That Hawkeye team was led by a superstar in Megan Gustafson, but she had plenty of talented players supporting her, including future Big Ten Player of the Year Kathleen Doyle.
This year’s Iowa team doesn’t remind me of the 2018-2019 team, though. It reminds me more of the 2017-2018 team. That year Gustafson was a junior and had emerged as one of the nation’s best players. Iowa was clearly a good team, but a year away from truly competing as one of the best teams in the country. The Hawks earned a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament that year, but were upset by 11 seed Creighton.
This year’s Iowa team has a superstar in Caitlin Clark. It has a multiple year All-Big Ten player in Monica Czinano. And it has players surrounding them that have stepped up in big games and otherwise fill needed roles on the team. But it feels like this team, which has no seniors in the regular rotation, is a year away from being one of the better teams in the country.
Coming into today’s NCAA Tournament first round against 12 seed Central Michigan, Iowa had a chance for their young team to gain NCAA Tournament experience. But they also had an opportunity in the next few days and weeks to turn a very good season into a great one.
Iowa started the game a little slow, and trailed 13-8 in the very early going because Central Michigan was hitting from three. But then Clark and Kate Martin started hitting shots to match them. And Central Michigan’s leading scorer and the player they had guarding Clark, Micaela Kelly, picked up her second and third fouls in the quarter and had to sit. Iowa used that combination to go on a run in the last half of the quarter, and led 27-20 at the quarter’s end. Martin led Iowa with 13 first quarter points.
The second quarter was a quarter of runs. Iowa pushed its lead to 11 early in the quarter, but Central Michigan battled back and narrowed the lead to six. Iowa then responded with a 10-0 run of its own, and pushed the lead to 16. But just as Iowa looked to push the game out of reach, Clark picked up her second foul. Central Michigan put Kelly back in as Clark went to the bench, and CMU battled back again. At half’s end, Iowa led 48-37, but the Hawks had failed to put things out of reach.
Early in the third quarter, it looked like that might come back to bite Iowa. Kelly took over the game again on offense, and Iowa’s lead was quickly cut to six. It stayed between six and eight for most of the quarter, as Iowa was scoring, but allowing baskets right back on the defensive end. Finally at the end of the quarter Iowa strung stops together and kept scoring. The Hawks led 65-52 after three, and had extended their lead despite Central Michigan playing its best quarter. McKenna Warnock had 11 in the quarter to lead Iowa.
Iowa largely controlled the fourth quarter. Central Michigan got things as close as 10 with a few minutes to play, but Iowa got a couple baskets right after to put the game out of reach. The Hawks ultimately won 87-72.
Clark led Iowa with 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists. She only had 8 points in the second half, but had a big impact on the glass and in creating for her teammates. Like this dazzling behind-the-back assist:
Yall need to learn this name: Caitlin Clark. pic.twitter.com/1RQFCByxxQ— Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) March 21, 2021
Czinano also had 23 points (on 10-18 shooting) and added 7 rebounds. She wasn’t as sharp as she was in the Big Ten Tournament, but still did well. Warnock scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for her first NCAA Tournament double-double. All 13 of her points came in the second half. Martin was the last Hawkeye in double-figures with 13. All of her points came in the first quarter. A box score for the game is here.
Clark: 7 pts
Marshall: 18 pts
Martin: 8 pts
Warnock: 6 pts
Czinano: 17 pts
Meyer: 1 pt
Taiwo: 0 pts
Cook: 4 pts
Goodman: 0 pts
Team: 11 pts
Minute numbers weren’t available in the box score I was using, but it’s safe to assume the starters all played 30+ minutes and that Taiwo played the most of the reserves.
Overall, this wasn’t a great defensive game for Iowa. Martin and Marshall were matched on Kelly for most of the game, with Marshall giving up the most points, particularly in the first half.
Czinano also struggled on defense, mostly because she was matched with a player that extended to the three-point line. She gave up a couple threes and a couple drives where she couldn’t stay with her player. Any team that has five players with range out to the three-point line will be a tough matchup for Iowa, because guarding that far out is a big weakness for Czinano.
Both Tomi Taiwo and Sharon Goodman played important minutes off the bench, and did so without surrendering any points.
Central Michigan’s total points only look decent in this one because they stopped hitting most of their jumpers in the second half. Iowa will have to tighten things up if they wants to move onto the Sweet 16.
The good news is that Iowa didn’t play particularly well today and still won by 15. Offensively, Iowa missed a few bunnies that they would normally make. They occasionally got sloppy and made passes that directly led to Central Michigan runouts. Players like Martin, Warnock, and Czinano had great stretches, but didn’t play their best games.
Iowa played a similar game in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament against Purdue. The Hawks didn’t play their best, but got better as the tournament went along once the first game jitters were out of the way. Hopefully Iowa will have similar improvement in their second round game on Tuesday.
Iowa returns to action on Tuesday at a TBD time against either 4 seed Kentucky or 13 seed Idaho State. Kentucky finished the season 17-8 overall and 9-6 in the SEC. They finished #18 in the final AP Basketball Poll, and are led by Rhyne Howard (20.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), a multi-year All-American.
The only common opponent between Kentucky and Iowa is Indiana. Kentucky beat the Hoosiers 72-68 in early December. Iowa lost to Indiana twice in conference play, but both games were close until the very end.
Idaho State finished the year 22-3 overall and 15-2 overall in the Big Sky Conference. They won the Big Sky Conference Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament, and their closest game in that Tournament was a 10-point win.
Idaho State played Nebraska in early December and lost 64-51. Iowa defeated Nebraska twice in Big Ten play in fairly close games.