IOWA CITY, Iowa – Given the circumstances, it’s only logical to question whether the Iowa women’s basketball team can sustain its recent level of success.
The team that won 26 games last season, and the team that won 27 games the season before were both led by one of the greatest player triumvirates in school history.
But now all three players are gone.
All-America point guard Samantha Logic, 3-point shooter extraordinaire Melissa Dixon and dependable center Bethany Doolittle all used up their eligibility last season, which ended with Iowa making the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the first time under veteran coach Lisa Bluder.
Losing any of the three would’ve been significant, but to lose all three at the same time has some wondering if the Hawkeyes are vulnerable this season.
Can Iowa reload and make the NCAA Tournament for a Big Ten-leading ninth consecutive season? Or is the program now entering into a rebuilding stage?
“We have great optimism in the gym, and we have a group of women that are kind of excited about proving everybody wrong,” Bluder said Thursday at the team’s annual media day event. “And I also think that’s one of the joys of athletics is when people count you out and you really go out and prove everybody wrong.”
Bluder compared her program to the Iowa football program, which is having a resurgence in Kirk Ferentz’s 17th season as head coach. Neither program has the luxury of signing blue chip recruits on a regular basis, but they both have stayed competitive over long stretches, sometimes even rising near the top of the Big Ten.
“I heard somebody describe Kirk’s (football) program as a developmental program,” Bluder said. “I would have to say that we’re a lot like that as well. We bring players in here that may not be top 10 players in the country, and we develop them, and we take great pride in that.”
In some ways, this coming season is the beginning of a new era for the Iowa women’s basketball team.
It’ll be a chance for Bluder’s new bunch to show that the program is on such sturdy ground that it reloads rather than having to rebuild.
It’ll be a chance to show that Iowa still ranks among the Big Ten’s elite despite losing three great players.
But it also will look and feel different without Logic directing the offense with her poise, imagination and grit, without Dixon draining 3-pointers from North Liberty and without Doolittle’s presence in the paint.
“It’s weird to not have Sam around, but all three of them, to be quite honest, Melissa and Beth,” Bluder said. “But it’s more weird because of the relationships that you form. You grow together so much in four years, and they become like your daughters. So you don’t like to see them leave your program.”
The cupboard certainly isn’t bare without the big three from last season.
Sophomore Whitney Jennings started 31 games last season at shooting guard. She also played some at point guard in those rare cases when Logic wasn’t on the court.
The 5-foot-5 Jennings now moves over to point guard, which is her more natural position. She will be part of a one-two punch at point guard with heralded freshman Tania Davis.
“I’m familiar with offense and I know how coach Bluder wants to play,” Jennings said. “It’s just a much better feeling.”
Bluder said she plans to play Jennings and the 5-4 Davis at the same because they’re both too talented to sit on the bench.
Davis was named Miss Basketball in the state of Michigan and was ranked 36th nationally by ESPN as a high school senior at Goodrich High School in Grand Blanc, Mich.
“The thing I enjoy about our offense is I consider our offense position-less basketball,” Bluder said. “What I mean by that is we don’t have to have the best number one, number two, number three or number four on the team on the floor at the same time.
“What that affords you to do is have the best players, the best basketball players on the floor at the same time. So, yes, Whitney and Tania will be on the floor together.”
Davis downplayed any concern about rebounding with her and Jennings on the court at the same time.
“We find our ways to the ball nine times out of ten,” Davis said. “So rebounding is not a problem at all.”
Without the big three from last season, 6-0 junior Ally Disterhoft is probably the closest Iowa has to a star player. The former Iowa City West standout already ranks 34th in scoring at Iowa with 977 points just halfway through her career.
Disterhoft cherished the two seasons she spent playing alongside Logic, Dixon and Doolittle, but it’s also time to move on.
“I think now the focus is on what we have, it’s not on what we lost,” Disterhoft said.
Iowa has a roster that includes three seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and four freshmen.
Sophomore Chase Coley and freshman Megan Gustafson, both of whom are listed at 6-3, will compete for Doolittle’s vacated center position.
Coley appeared in 29 games last season and shot 64.9 percent from the floor. Gustafson also know something about making shots as the all-time leading scorer in Wisconsin girls basketball history with 3,229 points.
“I just want to help contribute as much as possible,” Gustafson said. “Coach Bluder said it doesn’t really matter how young you are. If you want to work hard and you do that, you’ll be able to play.”
Seniors Kali Peschel and Claire Till also return after playing key roles last season. The 6-1 Peschel was the second most efficient 3-point shooter on the team last season at 43.4 percent. She’ll be relied on even more to make treys this season without Dixon on the team.
The team gained valuable experience in August by playing in an exhibition tour in Italy. That was the first taste of life without the big three from last season.
“Even though the faces have changed in our program, the culture remains the same,” said Bluder, who enters her 16th season at Iowa as the school’s is all-time winningest women’s basketball coach with a 304-174 record. “We have the same group of women that want to come out and achieve, work hard every single day in practice, achieve academically, and be tremendous role models. They represent our program in a first-class manner. So that has not changed. Even though the faces have, those women have the same goals and the same values that we’ve had for the last many years.”