Nov. 2, 2013
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- For the last six years, the University of Iowa women's basketball team has done what no other Big Ten team has: advance to the NCAA Tournament each season.
"We always want to be in the top of the Big Ten, competing for the championship, competing for that Big Ten tournament championship, and be back in the NCAA Tournament," said UI head coach Lisa Bluder, one of 13 active Division I coaches with 600 or more wins. "It is pretty amazing that we have been in six-straight; we are the only Big Ten university to do so. That shows how hard it is to accomplish the stability our program has over the past several years.
"A seventh-straight appearance is something we are striving for. We know how competitive this conference is, but I believe with the focus that I have seen thus far from this team, we can get the job done."
Iowa returns four players with starting experience from a year ago and eight letterwinners, while adding three newcomers.
With only one senior on a squad of 11, and seven underclassmen, a young 2013-14 Hawkeye squad will look to guide the program to a seventh-straight NCAA tournament appearance.
"I love the energy and competiveness," said Bluder. "They compete hard all the time and are focused. They have taken no possessions off, and I love that about this team. When you can raise the bar like that and learn to compete every single second you are out on the floor, it brings that intensity level up that you need for games and prepares you for games.
"These players carry themselves like champions, and you have to have that mentality."
STEPPING INTO NEW ROLES
The Hawkeyes said good-bye to three mainstays in the program -- Morgan Johnson, Trisha Nesbitt, Jaime Printy -- following the conclusion of the 2013 season. The senior trio combined to appear in 348 career games. Johnson (No. 9) and Printy (No. 3) both finished in the top 10 on Iowa's career scoring list, while Johnson also became the Hawkeyes' all-time career blocks leader.
Now, it is time for a new group to step up and lead the charge. The group is led by lone senior Theairra Taylor and a pair of junior guards.
"Any time you replace four-year starters, it is difficult, but we have not missed a beat because of the people stepping into leadership-type roles," said Bluder. "This is Theairra Taylor's team and everybody loves her so much, that they want to be successful for her. She has been a great leader for us.
"Samantha Logic as our point guard has been waiting for this opportunity to have this leadership role. She has been doing a tremendous job. Melissa Dixon has picked up her leadership and is always communicating and talking on the floor. We have people stepping up, ready to assume those leadership roles."
Anchoring Iowa's backcourt will be senior Theairra Taylor and two all-conference performers in juniors Samantha Logic and Melissa Dixon. Taylor started all 34 games last season, scoring in double figures 12 times. Logic, a 2013 third team All-Big Ten selection, started all 34 games and set the school record for single-season assists (217) -- leading the Big Ten in the category. Dixon led the Hawkeyes in scoring (12.3) during league play a year ago en route to earning the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year award.
"Our guard court looks very good," said Bluder. "They can all handle the ball, shoot, get to the rim and play defense. This group of guards is very strong and our freshmen will contribute right off the bat. Ally and Alexa have blended in effortlessly with this group."
Disterhoft (one of 40 high school seniors selected to the 2013 PARADE All-America Girls Basketball Team) and Kastanek (ESPN HoopGurlz Top 100 recruit) were heralded recruits coming out of high school.
"Ally and Alexa are winners," said Bluder. "Both are coming in with state championships on their high school resume."
The added work in the summer has helped the duo acclimate to the Hawkeye program.
"It has been an easy transition to bring them in," said Bluder. "Having time in the gym with our players this summer, which we have never had before, has benefitted those two, and I feel like they are already veterans. They have become a part of this team so easily.
"Both are incredibly versatile players and can play a number of positions. When you can do that, it is easier to get playing time. They are going to give us added depth that we desperately need right now."
Back for the Hawkeyes is Kathryn Reynolds, who missed the entire 2012-13 season due to an ACL injury in her right knee. She played in 21 games as a freshman in 2011-12.
"Kathryn has had a slow recovery since that ACL tear and had some difficulty with her rehab in the healing process," said Bluder. "Soon, she can play some defense, so we're making the move. We are hoping to have her full-strength by the start of Big Ten play."
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
Sophomores Kali Peschel and Claire Till will see action in the middle of the Hawkeye lineup. Both played limited minutes during their rookie campaigns, and Bluder is looking for both to take the next step.
"Those two did not play a lot as freshmen, and there is one of two ways you can go with that," said Bluder. "Sometimes you do not get a lot of minutes as a freshman and you figure that's your lot for the rest of your career here at Iowa. The other way to take it, which both of them have done, is they have used it for motivation.
"They see an opportunity of a place being void because of graduation and our power forward position is open, and they have used it as incredible motivation to show why we recruited them to come here and that they can contribute at this level."
Peschel appeared in 28 games a year ago, and Till saw action in 16.
"Both will be listed as a three or a four, but we run a four-guard offense so there is no real difference in any of our players one through four, except that four takes the ball out of bounds, and the one our primary ball handler," said Bluder. "Once we get initiated in the offense, everybody does the same thing. It is a very versatile offense; you do not need your typical power forward, or off guard, you can just play your best players. That is what makes our offense so hard to guard; you can have any five of your best players out on the floor."
Bethany Doolittle started all 34 games a year ago, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in blocks. The junior will be counted on to lead the Hawkeyes in the paint.
"I foresee Bethany stepping into our starting center position," said Bluder. "Last year, she played the power forward the entire year, which has helped her develop as a complete basketball player. She is more comfortable handling the ball, guarding the perimeter, and shooting the ball from outside.
"Now, she is going back to the position she played most of her life, and being on the outside last year added to her versatility. I think Bethany will be one of the best centers in the Big Ten this year. She has gotten stronger and is more confident. She can score and knows she can score against anybody, and that is a great confidence level to take into competition."
"Nicole has made great strides and her hard work over the summer has given her the most confidence she can have this year," said Bluder. "We also brought in a walk-on, Hailey Schneden; she is a welcome addition to our team. She brings an easy-going, brightness to our basketball team. She's eager to learn and works hard."
Iowa will play in two familiar nonconference tournaments; the Hawkeye Challenge returns, and Iowa makes another trip to Cancun, Mexico, for the Cancun Challenge. The Hawkeyes will host UC Riverside (regular season home opener) and Dayton -- who has advanced to four-straight NCAA Tournaments -- in the Hawkeye Challenge. Iowa will face USC, Boston College and UNC Wilmington in the Cancun Challenge.
Other nonconference highlights include intra-state rivalry games against Iowa State, Drake and Northern Iowa, a meeting with Syracuse in Iowa City in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and a trip to NCAA Tournament-qualifier Colorado.
"We play all our in-state rivalries, and those are always intense," said Bluder. "In our own tournament, we are bringing in Dayton, a top-20 women's basketball program. It is wonderful to bring a top-20 program into Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but it will be a battle in our second game of the year.
"Playing at Colorado, a team that was in the NCAA Tournament last year and had an incredible home court winning advantage, will test us," said Bluder. "You do not always get to control who you play in tournaments like the Cancun Challenge. The beauty of that is you get to play good teams on neutral courts, and that has been very good for us in the past. We are playing tough opponents in Cancun again this year."
In Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes will play five league teams twice (Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State) and the other six once. Iowa hosts Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern, and travels to Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin.
Six Big Ten teams went dancing in 2013.
"We play in one of the best conferences in America," Bluder said. "We want athletes that want to come here and compete against the very best. They know what they are getting into and welcome it."