Fortunes can change quickly in basketball. Coming into the season, Maryland was a Top 5 team that some observers thought was capable of winning a national championship. Indiana was a veteran team that was a dark horse to win the Big Ten and even advance to a Final Four. And Michigan and Iowa were borderline Top 10 teams that were expected to challenge both.
For much of the season, Iowa looked like a shell of the team that made the Sweet 16 last year. But in the last few weeks, the Hawks have gotten back on track and look as dangerous as any team in the conference.
Mighty Maryland already has six losses on the season (including three in conference). Most of those have been against highly ranked teams, but the Terps still look far from the unstoppable force they’ve seemed for most of their time in the Big Ten.
Indiana has largely lived up to—or even exceeded—the lofty pre-season expectations attached to them, but recently lost star post Mackenzie Holmes to a knee injury that has placed the rest of her season in jeopardy. The Hoosiers are the only remaining team left undefeated in conference play, but face more depth questions than ever.
And then there’s Michigan. The Wolverines are 16-2 on the season, 7-1 in conference, and have generally done well this year. They look like a more well-rounded group than last year with better outside shooting. But they also got blown out by 21 at Nebraska and defeated Maryland on the day that Terps coach Brenda Frese learned that her father passed away.
All this is to say that everything Iowa hoped to achieve in conference this season is still on the table. Coming into the season, Iowa hoped to compete for a Big Ten title. Up until a few weeks ago, that dream seemed dead. But roughly one-third of the way through the conference season, Iowa is just one loss behind Indiana, equal on losses with Michigan, and two losses ahead of Maryland. Iowa also has four (or five if the Indiana home game is rescheduled) match-ups against those teams remaining.
But in order for Iowa to actually win the conference, they can’t afford to lose any more games to teams that aren’t Indiana, Michigan, or Maryland. And that started today with a home game against one of the weaker teams in the conference in Illinois.
The first quarter started much like the Minnesota game. Iowa took a fairly commanding lead early, but missed a few shots around the basket that kept the game a little closer than it should’ve been. All told, Iowa led 19-5 after the first quarter.
Iowa’s offense started out fairly sloppy in the early second quarter, but eventually turned things around late. The defense wasn’t quite as good as in the first quarter, but still did more than enough to keep a big lead. A late Kate Martin shot in the paint made it 41-19 Iowa at halftime.
Iowa was in cruise control for most of the second half. The Hawks led 67-31 after three quarters. In the fourth, quarter they played the backups for most of the quarter, and closed out an 82-56 victory.
Monica Czinano led Iowa with 21 points and 6 rebounds. Caitlin Clark had 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists, falling a little short of a third straight triple-double. Illinois guarded her extremely tight most of the game, and she wasn’t close to her best. Tomi Taiwo had one of the best games of her career, scoring 14 points on 6-7 shooting. Kylie Feuerbach was the last Hawkeye in double-figures with 10. A box score for the game is here.
We all wanted Clark to get her third straight triple-double today, but I’m glad the coaches didn’t keep her in most of the game trying to get it. In the last game against Minnesota Clark was at her best and the 30-point triple-double was within reach. Today, Clark’s teammates missed a few open shots they normally would hit off her passes and she wasn’t at her best. There was no guarantee she would’ve gotten a triple-double even if she played more. It was better to get her out and prevent injury.
The coaches did a good job of rotating in backups throughout the game today. Nine of Iowa’s ten players got at least 13 minutes today, which was valuable experience, particularly for the freshman. Iowa also got players like Kylie Feuerbach some valuable experience on the ball with Clark out of the game. The backup point guard role has been somewhat problematic for Iowa so far this year, so that experience in a game situation was very useful.
Iowa returns to action on Tuesday, January 25 at 5 PM CT on the road at Penn State. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network. The Nittany Lions are 9-8 on the season and 3-4 in the Big Ten. This is another game that Iowa should win if it wants to compete for a Big Ten title.