By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The mood was glum last spring when the Iowa women’s basketball team was unceremoniously dumped by Ball State in the first round of the women’s NIT and finished the season with a 19-14 (8-10 Big Ten) record.
About the most generous description was “a disappointment.”
That season came on the heels of a Sweet 16 berth when the team was carried by seniors Samantha Logic, Brittany Doolittle and Melissa Dixon. It was probably too much to expect for a relatively young team to come close to matching their 25-8 record (including 18-0 at home) and two NCAA victories.
“The Sweet 16 season, going back to that year, we had incredible leadership on that team, and those players had been playing a lot since their freshman year,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Wednesday's at the team's annual media day event. “So they had just grown as leaders, and they were ready to take on that role. And then I just really think it was my fault that I didn't prepare somebody to wear those shoes.”
Then again it’s tough to win consistently with a freshman center (Megan Gustafson) and a freshman point guard (Tania Davis).
Last season Iowa finished tied for ninth in the Big Ten. A review of the league statistics explains why. They were middle of the pack at best in most categories.
The question this year is whether Iowa can move up with a relatively unchanged but more experienced group and an influx of eager freshmen perimeter players.
Junior guard Whitney Jennings (9.6 ppg,) transferred to Butler, and reserve guard Kali Peschel (4.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) graduated, but four starters return including the top three scorers and rebounders and assist leader Davis.
Bluder is still wary of her team’s youth with Gustafson and Davis slated for key roles and a pack of freshmen competing for time.
“But even with all this youth, I really feel that we are the deepest that we've been in a long time,” she said. “I think we're the most balanced that we've been in a long, long time. And you look at places that we can look for contribution, I think there's a number of sources.”
To move up in the standings and contend for an NCAA berth both Gustafson and Davis have to make progress. Davis, who has fully recovered from left shoulder surgery, has been given the keys to the car.
“I’ve definitely picked up my energy in practice, talking-wise, and holding everybody accountable,” Davis said. “That comes with experience.”
Bluder expects Davis to be more of a perimeter shooting threat along with her ball handling duties.
“We did not like the way our season ended last year,” Davis said. “That’s definitely the motivation for us. We’ve picked up our defensive intensity. We have a lot of offensive contributors now, so we’re ready to go.”
After an outstanding freshman season (10.7 ppg, .554 fg pct, 6.8 rpg) Gustafson is poised for a big year. Bluder believes she’s stronger and in a better position to compete in the post.
“That’s what I’ve been working on, just holding my ground and my balance has improved,” Gustafson said.
Mobile 6-3 forward Chase Coley, a junior, complements Gustafson in the post.
“She was our most improved player last year,” Bluder said. “She averaged double digits, shot over 50 percent from the field, and the thing that I'm really excited about is Chase is starting to develop a voice. She's becoming a leader every day. And as you know, she's a versatile player that can play multiple positions for us.”
Senior Ally Disterhoft’s excellence (17.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, .413 3-pt pct) and leadership are a given. That fifth starting spot could go to any number of players like junior Christina Buttenham, senior Alexa Kastanek or one of the freshmen.
The freshmen clearly are going to contribute. Apparently they already have.
“I’m more of a realist, so I don’t let myself get too optimistic, but I’m excited for this season,” Disterhoft said. “The freshmen bring so much energy, and that’s refreshing. It gets you fired up to go out and compete every single day.
“They are a talented group, and we have people coming back this year who know what it feels like to have a disappointing end to the season. We know we don’t want to be back in that position again. So far I’ve been able to see a tangible buy-in and some of that team chemistry that was maybe a little bit lacking last year.”
Iowa Miss Basketball Makenzie Meyer and Illinois Miss Basketball Kathleen Doyle are top combination guards who can shoot and handle the ball. Alexis Sevillian, a teammate of Davis’ in high school, was runner-up for Miss Michigan Basketball. Amanda Ollinger, a Linn-Mar graduate, is a strong 6-1 forward who can shoot from outside or post up inside. Bre Cera, a 5-10 forward, is another versatile, energetic player who can play defense and rebound.
“I think (the freshmen) are going to help,” Davis said. “We have some great shooters in Makenzie Meyer and Alexis Sevillian. All of them can really shoot and play defense, which is amazing and which is what we need.”
Coley said the freshmen have made a huge difference in turning the page from last year’s disappointment.
“I remember when we had our first scrimmage they were so aggressive, and it was fun to see,” Coley said. “They are young and hungry to play. I feel like we’ve got more energy this year. Practices just have a different vibe to them this year than they did last year. It’s really fun. We just had kind of a rocky end to the season last year and to have these new girls come in and not have any of the old remembrance of the last season and they’re just ready to play basketball that it’s kind of a good reminder.”
“I think we bring a lot of energy and hard work to the table,” Doyle said. “I think that we’re really excited to be here and we want to do well.
“It’s a little pick me up, like ‘Come on guys; remember this is fun.’ We bring a lot of energy and spruce up the team chemistry a little bit.”
Iowa is loaded with perimeter players but not real deep in the post. A key injury in the post could derail what should be a much better season.
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