Opinion | With defense, No. 9 Iowa women’s basketball could live up to expectations

Iowa women’s basketball could live up to its No. 9 preseason ranking. The Hawkeyes just need a serviceable defense.


Grace Smith

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark and Iowa forward/center Monika Czinano answer questions from members of the media during Big Ten Basketball Media Days at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

Chloe Peterson, Assistant Sports Editor

Iowa women’s basketball isn’t used to being the one to beat. The Hawkeyes are accustomed to being the underdogs, the ones with a chip on their shoulder.

But after a trip to the Sweet 16 in the 2020-21 season and a preseason No. 9 ranking in the AP Poll, the Hawkeyes will need to get used to being “the hunted.”

Iowa is returning all five starters to its 2021-22 squad: sophomore point guard Caitlin Clark, senior center Monika Czinano, junior guards Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin, and junior forward McKenna Warnock.

“I think the experience helps, but we’re not used to being the hunted, right?,” head coach Lisa Bluder said at Iowa women’s basketball media day on Oct. 28. “We’re not used to that. Sometimes I feel like we play a little bit better with a chip on our shoulder and people not expecting a lot out of us. We’ve talked about that as a team, that we have to change our mentality a little bit.”

With four first-year starters in 2020-21 — Clark, Marshall, Martin, and Warnock — the Hawkeyes were largely inexperienced.

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The 2020-21 Hawkeyes struggled on defense, ranking 336th out of 336 Division I Women’s Basketball teams in allowing an average of 80.6 points per game.

Now, Iowa women’s basketball has the chance to make this season a special one. The Hawkeyes have their highest AP preseason ranking in 25 years, and a preseason first-team All-American in Clark.

But first, the Hawkeyes need to make meaningful changes on defense.

Clark has admitted she’s not a defensive player. In her freshman season, she bought into a high-tempo offense, leading the nation with 26.6 points and 799 total.

But the offense-minded Hawkeyes fell in the Sweet 16 to defensively-driven UConn, 92-72.

“I don’t think [defense] was always really in the back of our minds,” Clark said of the 2020-21 season. “It’s like we knew we could outscore every single person. If they scored 90, we could score 93 on them. But we don’t want to do that this year. We want to make it easier for ourselves.”

Now, it’s evident that Iowa is doing a complete overhaul of their on-court mentality — including defense.

“We did make some schematic changes, a few things, but also it’s just kind of more of an emphasis,” Bluder said. “A buy-in from the players that I think they understand that we got to the Sweet 16 with a tremendous offense, but we could have gone farther if we had had a good defense, as well. They want to go farther. They know that’s what’s hindering us from making that advancement.”

Iowa is currently the third-best team in the Big Ten. And the Hawkeyes have a tough task to get to the top, as the conference’s top two teams, Maryland and Indiana, are also returning all five starters.

And Maryland can play stout defense. The Terrapins allowed 69 points per game last year and came out of the 2020-21 season as Big Ten Tournament champions. Maryland also edged Iowa for the best offense in the country last season, as the Terrapins averaged 90.8 points compared to the Hawkeyes’ 86.1.

Indiana is the dark horse of the 2021-22 season, as the Hoosiers were the only Big Ten  team to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last season. Indiana sits at No. 8 in the AP Poll preseason ranking, just one spot above Iowa. But the Hoosiers took down the Hawkeyes on two occasions last season, as the Hawkeyes allowed 89 and 85 points, respectively.

There’s no denying that Iowa’s offense is fantastic. But if the Hawkeyes want to make a run to the Final Four for the second time in program history — or the national championship for their first-ever appearance — their defense will need to step it up.