By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Lisa Bluder already knows that she has one of the best players in the country in senior center Megan Gustafson.
There is no disputing Gustafson’s greatness with her coming off a junior season where she averaged 25.7 points and 12.8 rebounds per game and was named an All-American by seven outlets, including first-team by Sports Illustrated.
Gustafson is one of only two NCAA women’s players in the last 10 years to average more than 24 points and 12 rebounds per game.
But she is hardly a solo act and that’s why Bluder thinks so highly of her current squad and embraces the high expectations that will accompany her team into the season. including being ranked 13th in the Associated Press preseason poll.
“I have unbelievable confidence in them. I believe this team can be very good,” Bluder said Wednesday at Iowa’s annual media day event. “We're challenging ourselves there's no doubt about it. But I do have so much belief in Megan, the whole group. It's just a good feel.
"When you're around our team and you feel how much they care about each other, how positive it is, you can't help but feel like this has really good opportunities.”
Bluder was asked at media day if she feels her current squad could be her best in 19 seasons as the Iowa head coach.
“I think it has all the capabilities to,” Bluder said. “Again, I think what we have the experience at those key positions, I think it definitely has the possibility.”
Bluder is the anti-Kirk Ferentz when it comes to embracing expectations.
Ferentz is more guarded and likes to temper expectations, while Bluder says bring it on.
Neither approach is better than the other. It just comes down to what fits your personality and your style.
Bluder wouldn’t just talk the talk without feeling confident that her team has what it takes to be successful.
She has a once-in-a-lifetime player controlling the paint, along with three other returning starters from a team that finished with a 24-8 record last season.
She also has a dynamic point guard in senior Tania Davis, who is close to being fully recovered from her second season-ending knee injury.
“We're a better team with Tania on the floor,” Bluder said. “She is such a good floor general out there, and so is Kathleen. And I'm lucky to have two really good point guards on my team, and both scoring point guards. They're not just set up other people point guards, but they have the ability to do both, and that's a nice luxury to have.
“But there is no doubt that Tania makes everybody on the team better when she's on the court, because she has the ability to see the floor. She knows the game so well, knows when to attack, when to pull it back, when to get the ball to whom, and she's really good at that.”
Much like during a game, Gustafson drew a crowd at media day on Wednesday as reporters wanted to learn more about what makes her tick, and about her expectations for her much-anticipated senior season.
“It’s super exciting,” Gustafson said. “To be able to have it as my senior year, the last year, we have a lot of weapons back, which is super exciting. And we all love the coaches and we want to play for them and play super hard for them.
“This is my last year with coach Bluder and the rest of the coaches, so I’m really going to lay it all out there, and I know my teammates are as well.”
Davis can’t wait to lay it all out there, but the 5-foot-3 Michigan native also has to be smart and patient when it comes to her recovery from a second torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.
The physical recovery is hard enough, but Davis said the mental side has been more challenging and more frustrating, especially coming off two knee injuries.
“There’s just a lot of mental road blocks for me,” Davis said. “Just getting over the fear that I don’t want to do this again, obviously, because this is my second time. As a senior, I don’t want to lose another year due to a silly injury.
“So physically, I already knew what the recovery was going to be like. It’s just the mental par, getting up every day and wanting to come to come Carver and play my best and do a full practice even though my body won’t allow me to.”
Bluder said Wednesday that Davis would not play in the first exhibition game against Dakota Wesleyan next Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“She's doing almost everything. But, we're just not really kind of pushing the envelope on it,” Bluder said of Davis’ workload in practice. “We just don't feel like there is a need to. So she hasn't been like going over five minutes for a scrimmage. We kind of back her off a little bit on some of the defensive things that we're doing.
“The thing with Tania being a senior, she doesn't maybe need quite as many reps as the freshmen and sophomores do, and she's such a knowledgeable player that missing those reps won't hurt her. I just want her to be very, very comfortable and confident before she takes the floor.”
Gustafson enters her senior season as one of the greatest players in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program, and that’s saying something, considering Iowa’s rich tradition in the sport.
The Port Wing, Wis., native is a 6-3 left-handed double-double waiting to happen. Gustafson is blessed with incredible foot work in the paint and the ability to absorb contact and make shots from all sorts of difficult angles.
As for what to expect from opposing defenses, Bluder is bracing for it all.
“Everything and anything,” Bluder said. “We're going to see doubles, triples, we're going to see everything against her, just like we did last year. So we tried to kind of give the team a different look every day in practice for that, but I think she's — she understands that she can score doubles and triples. She did it last year, and I don't think she shies away from that.”
Senior forward Hannah Stewart will fill the void left by Chase Coley, who was a senior last season. Stewart has been a key contributor off the bench, but now steps into a new role as a starter.
Stewart should get plenty of open looks against defenses that will be designed to contain Gustafson.
“I think teams would be silly not to double or triple-team her,” Stewart said of Gustafson, who was named the Big Ten Player of Week nine times last season. “Why wouldn’t you?
“So we’ve been working a lot on knowing we’re going to have other players open around the arc, or players who like 15-foot jump shots.”
Junior guards Kathleen Doyle and Mackenzie Meyer give Iowa two established players on the perimeter.
The 5-9 Doyle started 28 games last season and made second-team All-Big Ten, while the 5-9 Meyer started 26 games last season and scored in double figures 14 times.
Meyer also led the team in free-throw percentage last season at 91.2 percent, which is the second highest single-season average in program history.
Sophomore guard Alexis Sevillian started 23 games last season and led the team with 59 3-point baskets.
Iowa also adds a four-player freshmen class, although, guard Kate Martin is out for the season due to a knee injury that she sustained while playing in a summer all-star game in her home state of Illinois.
The other freshmen are 6-3 forward/center Monika Czinano, 5-10 guard Tomi Taiwo and 6-1 forward Logan Cook from Iowa City West High School.
Bluder spoke optimistically about Cook’s progress in practice.
“She has been playing well, and just keeps getting better,” Bluder said. “She gets more comfortable all the time. She'll be playing the power forward position for us but can foresee moving her to some small forward as the year goes on.
“She can stretch the defense because she is a very nice 3-point shooter, and she also has great length on defense. I have very high hopes for Logan.”
And while there is plenty of reason for optimism, the players and coaches also have something to prove after losing to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season.
“A longer trip in the NCAA Tournament is certainly something that we'd like to have,” Bluder said. “I will tell you kind of their attitude this summer somebody ranked us at 17th and they were mad. You like that. You want your team to want even more and you want them to be hungry like that, and they are.”