By Susan Harman
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Big Ten begins in earnest Saturday when Minnesota visits fourth-ranked Iowa for a 1 p.m. game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Of course, each team has played one conference game already, but this is the beginning of non-stop Big Ten play uninterrupted by visits from far-flung teams that will not be heard from in March.
Minnesota was all bright-eyed and bushy tailed last year with a load of talented freshmen. But the Gophers had growing pains befitting their youth and finished 13th in the Big Ten. This year they are a year more experienced and have built an 11-1 record, with the only loss coming to UConn.
“I feel like they’re a much-improved team over last year,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “Last year they were very young. They were starting three (actually four against Iowa) freshmen, and they got a lot of playing experience.
“I think their defense is a lot better this year. To me, they’re working harder defensively. And I just think they are harder to guard. They’re running less sets that can be scoutable and more motion offense. They are harder to scout because of that.”
Statistically Minnesota is improved in nearly every category, but of course the Gophers haven’t played a full Big Ten season yet.
Scoring 80.2 71.4
FG pct .455 .407
3-pt pct .353 .319
FT pct .681 .734
Reb margin +9 +4
Turnovers 13.1 17.7
Minnesota is led by the sophomore class guards, Mara Braun, Mallory Heyer and Amaya Battle. The three combine to average 39.5 points, 16.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists. Braun and Heyer combined to make 64 of Minnesota’s 101 made threes. Braun is the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten (20.3 ppg), Battle is third in assists (6.0), and Heyer fourth in rebounding (8.4).
“Mara Braun is as good of a shooter as there is in the conference,” Bluder said.
Bluder said Iowa’s defense can’t just sit on the arc in guarding the Gopher sharpshooter or her mates. Like last year Iowa wants to keep the ball out of Braun’s hands by denying. Overplaying might enable Braun and her teammates to make back cuts to get open and go to the hoop. So help defense will be key.
The Gophers lost forward/center Rose Micheaux to Virginia Tech after former coach Lindsey Whalen left, and freshman point guard Katie Borowicz had to retire for medical reasons. That moved Battle to the point.
But the Gophers have added two key pieces to the super sophs. Sophie Hart, a 6-5 transfer from North Carolina State, has had a big impact in the post.
“Obviously having a center and a big in (the paint) is huge,” Minnesota junior Maggie Czinano said. “I think Iowa knows that just as much as anyone else. We had Rose here last year who was our center but really could play a four if she wanted.
“Really having a solid post player is huge. You can play four out, one in, or if you put in a smaller lineup you can really get up and down the court. We have a lot of options.”
Hart averages 10 points and five rebounds and is shooting 64 percent from the field. Her very presence inhibits dribble penetration.
“Hart was a big get for them,” Bluder said. “She’s physical, a good rebounder, averaging about two O-boards a game. I think she’s a difference-maker for them.”
The other addition is another talented freshman shooter, Grace Grocholski. Bluder said Grocholski has a quick shot and good range. She’s averaging 10.7 points and 37 percent behind the arc. Czinano touts the freshman’s serene approach on the floor.
“As far as their starting five they are as good as any starting five in the Big Ten,” Bluder said. “Very balanced, excellent shooters.”
Bluder reported that all Iowa’s players are healthy and available to play Saturday.
One thing Iowa (12-1) wants to improve is its 3-point shooting. As a team it’s shooting .356, but some players have struggled to get to the level they shot last season. Gabby Marshall, in particular, is shooting .273 from 3-point range and finished last year averaging .379 despite an early season slump. Kate Martin is shooting a respectable 37 percent, but it is below last season’s .414. Molly Davis is also off a bit.
“The only thing you can do, in my opinion, is get back in the gym, keep working at it and fill them with confidence as much as you can,” Bluder said. “If you’re not feeling it you’ve got to drive the ball and get yourself some easy ones so it opens it up again. It’s such a mindset to just see the ball go through one time no matter (what shot) it is.”
Iowa will have a quick turnaround as it plays host to Michigan State at 8 p.m. Tuesday.