Let's talk about one of the biggest sporting events of the summer, the Pan American Games, an Olympics-style variety competition open to North and South American countries, which... Wait, where are you going? Come back!
Basketball is globally beloved, the second-most popular sport in the world, and the US men's and women's teams are being called upon to compete in, and win, more and more international tournaments. Connecticut Huskies' coach Geno Auriemma still leads the women's Olympic team, but the international basketball schedule is too demanding for one person. Enter Lisa Bluder.
The 2015 Pan American games, held in Toronto, represented a big challenge for the Iowa Hawkeye's head coach. Most countries brought their Olympic team; with the WNBA season in full swing, Bluder brought a U.S.-squad comprised entirely of college athletes who had just completed their freshman, sophomore, or junior years.
Here's Bluder, as reported by Ryan Murken at HawkCentral.com. "They described it to me as David and Goliath because we are going against Olympic teams and our Olympic team is playing in the WNBA," Bluder said. "The last time they did this they finished seventh and obviously USA always wants to go for the gold and that is going to be our goal, but we also know that it is going to be really tough."
Look, the NCAA is probably the third-best women's basketball league in the world, behind the WNBA and whatever Russian league gets run over by Diana Taurasi every year. With a roster heavy on Connecticut players, and featuring the Maryland Terrapin's swiss army knife Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, the U.S. were more of a dark horse than an underdog.
Bluder's challenge was to take a very talented group of raw college kids who had mostly never played together (Connecticut aside), and figure out how to fit them into a functioning system, with only a few months of preparation, against teams that had been together for years. The US managed to snag a silver medal, losing to Canada 's mix of pros and amateurs in the gold medal game.
While one tournament doesn't prove anything, Bluder has, at the very least, demonstrated on the international stage that she can get her players to mesh together quickly, which is perhaps the most important qualification for the U.S. women's coach.
That talent ought to benefit the Hawkeyes, too, as they graduated one of the best trios in the Big Ten and will be counting on freshmen for big minutes. Will Bluder be able to take the Hawkeyes to a ninth-straight NCAA tournament?
The View From The Court
Check out how the Hawkeyes performed last year in a few key areas:
|Pts Per Possesion||
|Pts Allwd Per Possesion||
The worst part about graduating the All-Big Ten trio of Samantha Logic, Melissa Dixon, and Bethany Doolitle is the loss of that offensive firepower. The silver lining? As good as those three were, they played a combined ninety minutes a game for the worst defense- and rebounding-team in the Big Ten. Looking forward to to the 2015-16 season, here are the big questions.
Will the offense be as good?
Not likely. True, Ally Disterhoft will be back for her junior year, and she was the Hawkeyes' leading scorer. But she's coming off surgery for a ruptured tendon in her right wrist, and without Samantha Logic's precision passing and conference-leading 8.1 assists per game, Disterhoft might get worse instead of better.
Will the defense be as bad?
Not likely, if only because last year's team was Bluder's worst defensive unit in recent memory (WBBState.com, the only reliable resource for women's stats on the web, only has detailed information going back to 2011, but Bluder's teams are generally near the top offensively and mediocre defensively.) With just a little regression to the mean, Iowa should be fine. Especially with Bluder's new recruits.
The Incoming Freshman Class
This is where it gets interesting. Thanks, as always, to Dan Olson and ESPN's Hoop Gurlz.
Tania Davis is the headliner: A 5-star recruit, the best high school player in Michigan, and the 12th-best point guard prospect in the country. If you had to quibble, you'd say that Davis is only 5'-4" tall, a full foot shorter than most Big Ten centers. Olson's notes call her a tenacious defender, a great passer and an uptempo transition threat, but she's unlikely to solve the Hawks' rebounding woes.
Don't worry, Iowa fans, the rest of this freshman class is huge. 4-star post prospect Megan Gustafson (6'-3"), 4-star forward Hannah Stewart (6'-2") and 3-star wing Tagyn Larson (6'-2") should help the Hawkeyes bang with the biggest in the Big Ten, even that race of giants that call themselves the Maryland Terrapins.
Never mind, Maryland is still too big. But the rest of the conference shouldn't be overwhelming.
So Who's Starting?
Iowa is only returning two starters, the aforementioned guard Ally Disterhoft (14.9 PPG, 5.9 Reb, 2.4 Ast) who will be a junior, and guard Whitney Jennings (9.1 PPG, 2.1 Reb, 0.5 Ast) who will be a sophomore. If 5'-4" Tania Davis can win a starting job, as one expects 5-star recruits to do, then she and the 5'-5" Jennings will make up one of the smallest backcourts in Division I.
The Hawkeyes need a center, and I think the spot is Megan Gustafson's to lose - because she's the tallest, not because I have any inside information. (Actually, rising senior Nicole Smith is the tallest, but she only played in three games last year and only averaged two minutes per game.) Any of the freshmen, or one of last year's rotation players like Kalie Peschel or Chase Coley could take the final spot.
Going out on a limb here, but my prediction is that Iowa will have at least one win and at least one loss.
Can't you do better than that?
Seriously! Worst case scenario, they collapse like Penn State did last year after graduating all their seniors. Best case scenario, they make a short run in the NCAA tournament, because that's what Lisa Bluder's teams always do. The combination of talent lost, talent recruited, and coaching track record means that any scenario is possible. I think the most likely outcome is that Iowa squeaks into the NCAA tournament with a seed in the teens. But that's what makes the Hawkeyes (and sports generally) so exciting: I have no idea what's going to happen.