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Improvement on defense crucial for Iowa women’s hoops

BY KYLE MANN | FEBRUARY 24, 2015 5:00 AM

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At the Iowa women’s basketball team’s media day on Oct. 30, 2014, head coach Lisa Bluder said team’s real, tangible goal was to finish the season in the top 16 and secure home-court advantage in postseason play. Last week, the NCAA released a preview of those projected teams, with Iowa appearing right on schedule.

Then, things took a turn. For the first time this season, Iowa dropped two games in a row to Minnesota and Ohio State, each on the road. The Hawkeyes (21-6, 12-4) then found themselves, of course, ranked No. 17 in the updated AP rankings released on Monday.

Bluder and Company are still poised to receive a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, standing alone in second place with only two games remaining, but the season has always been about more than that. They will still challenge for a spot in the top 16, but the recent slip-up now raises the question: Is this team truly elite nationally?

It’s no secret: The Hawkeyes run on 200-proof offensive power. At 38.7-percent collectively, they are the leading 3-point shooters in the Big Ten and are fourth in the NCAA. They are also second in the conference and ninth in the country shooting 45.7-percent overall.

That’s all well and good, but as it turns out, Iowa has glaring weaknesses.

“The areas we need to improve are defense and rebounding,” Bluder said before Iowa tipped off the season.

So the issues were recognized well in advance. Several months later, however, there’s still plenty of improving to be done. The Hawkeyes are the least tenacious rebounders in the conference, grabbing only 36 per game, and they are also third-to-last in rebounds surrendered (41.1 per game).

Unsurprisingly, three of Iowa’s four conference losses have come to Minnesota (the leading rebounding team in the Big Ten), Maryland (third), and Ohio State (fifth).

Even more worrisome than the rebounding, however, is the defense. There is the unsettling possibility that the team has accepted the notion it can’t beat teams with defense.

“We are an offensive team, and that’s what we hang our hat on,” Bluder said before the season began. “Do we need to improve on defense? Absolutely. Are we working on it? Yes. But that’s never going to be our calling card.”

Just as she anticipated, the offense has thrived, but the defense has been nothing to write home, or any where else, about.

The Hawkeyes give up the most points of any team in the conference (72 points per game) and allow opponents to shoot second-highest 41.6-percent from the floor. As a result, Iowa has been defeated by the Maryland, Ohio State, and Minnesota, which rank first, second, and fourth in the league in scoring, respectively.

Bluder has been a remarkably successful coach for more than a decade, but if this team stalls, it is possible that her defensive philosophies could use some tweaking.

“I don’t always look at scoring defense because we play an up-tempo game,” Bluder said in October. “We’re going to give opportunities for our opponents to score more because we’re shooting the ball quicker, so what I like to look at is [scoring] margin.”

Bluder’s focus on scoring margin is where things really come into question. Her team is only sixth in the conference at plus-7.4, and she may find that number to be far too low come tournament time. Nine of the AP’s top-10 teams have a margin of plus-17.7 or higher, and in Bluder’s desired top 16, 15 have a margin above 10.

Iowa has had a good season because it has a talented team, but as the tournament approaches, a big question looms: Are the Hawkeyes built for the big time?

Follow @KyleFMann on Twitter for news, updates, and analysis about the Iowa women’s basketball team.


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