After eight consecutive years of making the NCAA Tournament, the Iowa women’s basketball program didn’t get the invite this past March – with 19 victories and the pedigree of playing in the demanding Big Ten Conference, the Hawkeyes were maybe one win off the total they needed.
Putting together a unit that can make things right in 2016-17 became coach Lisa Bluder’s assignment, but rather than lean most heavily on experienced players, she’s turned to a relatively fresh lineup for the grind ahead. When the games kicked in, Iowa kicked off with two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup – the team sits at 4-1 overall heading into its two games at the Cancun Challenge, Nov. 24-25.
Are there extra stress points in that journey, breaking in new players for a program that doesn’t want to spend a lot of time “recovering” from a down year? Bluder says the path back to the NCAA’s can be tackled with this approach.
“It’s a great time to bring in this class – they’re excited to play, and they’re good enough to play,” said Bluder of the five freshmen suiting up. “Are there going to be some bumps in the road? Absolutely. But I look back when we were a Sweet 16 team two years ago, and a lot of those players started as freshmen. We excelled because they had so much experience. I see it paying dividends down the road.
“I like our balance, and we’re deeper than we’ve been in a lot of years. We’re taking really good shots, and I like our defense – we need to take better care of the ball, and we could shoot the 3-ball better. We do it at practice, but we need to do that in a game situation.”
One important part of the season ahead is the one that’s hard to anticipate – when the conference schedule seems to take a punishing air, and a quick loss or two can slip into an extended funk. The Hawkeyes were always looking to bounce back from a 2-7 stretch in Big Ten action last season and finished two games under .500 on that front.
But the page has turned, and Iowa seems to have the depth and productivity to prevent another damaging lull. The team’s senior leader and all-court weapon, Ally Disterhoft, is expected to be in the middle of it all, but that’s no surprise given her resume. If she stays healthy, she’ll end up the all-time leading scorer in Iowa’s history, and she also has a plus-4.0 GPA and a job waiting for her in New York City in the world of financial investment banking.
If anyone was going to be cross about having to break in a bunch of newbies, it would be someone of Disterhoft’s stature. But she’s not the least bit troubled.
“They call me Grandma, and I don’t know how I feel about that,” Disterhoft said, laughing. “It’s been exciting. Hey, when you come to college, you want to be the leader and who other players look to at crunch time. I have conversations with coaches about how to best help this team. I want the players comfortable in coming to me.”
And with all the accolades and attention, Disterhoft is making sure she’s not settling for just how today feels, when tomorrow has the potential to be even more rewarding.
“I hope I just keep peaking. I’ve had an incredible experience at Iowa, and I love being a Hawk having been raised in Iowa City,” she added. “I want to be the best version of myself I can be, and I’ve had a lot of help along the way. Hopefully, I’ll just be able to improve throughout my senior year. I knew coming to Iowa, I had lofty goals – I wanted to be one of the best Hawk players of all time. I didn’t come to college thinking I wanted to do this or that – just work my butt off and do what’s best for the team.
“I’ll always remember and cherish the memories. You go to these big stadiums like Maryland or Michigan State, and you go out and silence the crowd – it’s fun to compete against the best teams in the nation. You take something away from every game, and it’s a battle every night. It’s what you want as a competitor.”
“I’ve known Ally since she was about 8 years old, so it will definitely be weird next year, and I’m not even letting my mind go there right now,” Bluder said. “She’s such a wonderful young woman, active in our community and a leader on the team. She does everything right without being asked.”
Iowa will play national powerhouse UCLA and a tenacious mid-major program in James Madison at the Cancun Challenge.