The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, November 11, 2020

Initial Top 25 thoughts — Lisa Bluder talks Iowa basketball — Must-click women's basketball links

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The polls are open!

No, not this is not some Eric Trump-style screwup. I am referring, of course, to the AP Top 25 poll, released Tuesday. I have some thoughts.

South Carolina is number one and that strikes me as entirely fair. I don’t see Stanford as clearly ahead of Connecticut at this point, though, not with the addition of Paige Bueckers in Storrs and as many pieces to put back together.

It’s notable to me that voters gave Mississippi State the bump up to sixth in the country, an implicit endorsement of expectations for Nikki McCray-Penson. (I don’t disagree.)

Similarly, Oregon at 10 feels like a placeholder. Sure, Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally are gone, but a ton of weapons return, and Kelly Graves figures things out in-season as well as anyone. (This is no ordinary season to figure things out, though.)

Arizona at 7 is a reflection of a reality that Aari McDonald has a chance to be the best player in the country this year. Cori Close, UCLA head coach, told me this week that Arizona faces Michaela Onyenwere and the Bruins in the opener for both teams. You could be looking at the battle of the top two 2021 WNBA picks in that one.

Maryland at 12 is too low. Indiana at 16 is also too low. Syracuse at 23 is WAY too low.

Princeton getting five votes, after graduating Bella Alarie, reflects an understanding of just how good Carlie Littlefield is. I approve.

I think Rutgers getting just one vote is going to look silly, fast. Arella Guirantes is a first-round talent, the recruiting class was strong and C. Vivian Stringer is back.

But my favorite part about this poll coming out? I got to think about basketball the whole time I was reading it. Take a few minutes and do the same thing. It’s going to be a rocky road to November 25 and beyond. Take refuge where you can.

A word about our friends at The GIST

Howard here again: I want to take a moment to shout out the folks at The GIST, a twice-weekly men’s and women’s sports newsletter that’s written by women. The work in this industry to change how often women are covering sports matters just as much as how often women are coveredin sports, and The GIST does that while getting you up to speed in just five minutes, twice a week, on both men’s and women’s sports. Sign up for free and see the folks doing this important work.

This week in women’s basketball

Brendan Marks looks at Elissa Cunane and NC State.

Kelly Graves joined Fanta and Fischer this week.

Maitreyi Anantharaman wrote a wonderfully readable history of the ABL.

I spoke to Cori Close for Locked On Women’s Basketball.

Doug Feinberg wrote about Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart’s decision to freeze their eggs.

Here’s PJ Brown on Arizona’s high expectations.

Elena Delle Donne talks about her collegiate career.

Muffet McGraw is one of us now, media!

Canada’s best players are dealing with the pandemic in different ways.

Love that statistically, Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird make each other better.

Matt Ellentuck has a review of the new NBA2K game’s WNBA features.

Good stuff from Chantel Jennings on South Carolina.

Brian Fonseca has the Rutgers years of the Betnijah Laney story covered.

Mitchell Northam’s got your massive ACC preview.

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Lisa Bluder (photo courtesy of Iowa Athletics)

Five at The IX: Lisa Bluder, Iowa head coach

Lisa spoke to the media this week. Here’s some of what she had to say.

LISA BLUDER: Our spring and summer have been very different. Kind of unusual, but I’m really happy with our team’s commitment and their attention to detail of focusing and not worrying about the unknown, but instead preparing like the Big Ten Tournament is tomorrow.

I couldn’t ask for a better group, how they’ve prepared in coming to practice every day with masks and having to practice, and just being very aware when they’re away from the arena how they have to be so careful to protect themselves and to protect our team. I’ve just been extremely proud of the young women and what they’ve done.

You look at this year, obviously the last couple years we’ve lost a lot in graduation, and when you think of the last three years, a Big Ten Player of the Year has been wearing an Iowa women’s basketball jersey, so that’s a lot of loss over the last couple years.

But we’re kind of focusing instead on what we return, and obviously I want to start that conversation with Monika Czinano. Monika was a first team all-Big Ten selection as a sophomore. It’s really remarkable. She was the second best field goal shooter in America last year. If she would have made two more field goals, she would have led the country in field goal percentage, two more field goals over the course of 30 games. Her improvement from freshman to sophomore year I think was nothing but remarkable, and her commitment. I’m so excited to have Monika for a few more years, and I think she’s just continued her growth over the past year.

Lexi Sevillian returns as a fifth-year senior for us. She is also a captain along with Kate Martin and Zion Sanders. All three of those women have done a really terrific job of their leadership during this uncertain time.

McKenna Warnock returns. McKenna was on the all freshmen team, just a terrific power forward for us, she rebounds well. In addition she can really be physical inside but also bring people out for three-point shooting, and so she really can stretch the defense, as well.

Gabbie Marshall has also really improved, and really I feel like all of our returners made some significant progress over the summer.

We also as you know have the 17th ranked recruiting class coming in here. Caitlin Clark leads that, Caitlin being a five-star recruit. She was the fourth best player in America last year, the second best point guard in America, from Dowling Catholic. She was a McDonald’s All-American, the Iowa Player of the Year, the Gatorade Player of the Year. She’s won two gold medals in USA Basketball and she holds state records for most points in a game with 60 and most three-pointers in a game with 13. Some pretty remarkable statistics, and Caitlin is coming here expecting to contribute right away, and she will be contributing right away. We’re excited to have that next point guard. We’ve had so many great point guards come through our system, and excited about this one.

Lauren Jensen also is joining that recruiting class. Lauren is from Lakeville (North) High School. She shot 45 percent from three-point range in high school, 25-point-per-game average, and she was a finalist for Miss Minnesota Basketball, and for those of you that don’t know, the No. 1 player in America was from the state of Minnesota. Not bad to be a finalist to the No. 1 player in America.

Sharon Goodman is an Iowan that comes from Crestwood High School. She is the all-time (leading scorer) — she was the Player of the Year for 3A in her junior season, all-state selection, as well.

Shateah Wetering is from Montezuma, Iowa, our closest recruit, the all-time leading scorer at Montezuma, and she’s also won two national AAU basketball tournaments.

Our schedule I can’t really talk about. We still don’t have one. It’s kind of an unusual situation. That’s kind of what we talk about with our players. Never have we gone into a season not knowing who we’re going to play or when we’re going to play until this year. It is what it is. We just have to be ready for everybody.

We’re trying to schedule our three in-state schools along with two other non-conference. We’ll only have five non-conference this year, and we’ve moved our Big Ten schedule from 18 to 20 along with playing the Big Ten Tournament a week later than it has been.

It’s still a work in progress, but I do know the Big Ten is going to be — I probably say this every year, but I really believe it, as strong as it’s ever been. We just did not graduate a lot from the conference. There was some within-conference transfers, but obviously those players are experienced and have all been given immediate eligibility.

You said last year not to compare Monika to Megan, but I thought Monika went to her left better than Megan went to her right her sophomore year because Monika seemed like she could score either way.

LISA BLUDER: I think that’s a really good point. I think that’s true. I think Monika uses her left probably better than Megan used her right as far as as a sophomore. But Monika continues to improve. She’s very physical. She’s more of a vocal leader this year than she was last year, and she knows the team is counting on her to put the basket in the hole.

Did that surprise you a little bit with her field goal percentage? She was just tough down low.

LISA BLUDER: Yeah, I’d be silly to say that I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, come on. She comes from being really a very role player her freshman year to being the second best field goal shooter in America. Who wouldn’t be surprised by that? That was remarkable.

Talk about her budding leadership, and as you look at her career she kind of had the ability to learn early and watch Megan and then have a bigger role last year and then now it’s kind of her team in a sense in terms of what you count on. Just in terms of molding her into that leader, that person that you hear the most, how has she transitioned into that role among other things?

LISA BLUDER: I think she’s doing a great job leading. She’s not a captain. I think as a sophomore we needed her to work on so many other things and concentrate on so many other things that I didn’t want that to be on her plate, as well, but she is a leader just because that’s the type of person she is.

I don’t want to say this is her team. I don’t think anybody ever feels that way with our basketball teams. We try to be really balanced. But certainly having a great inside attack like Monika opens up things for our three-point shooting. We still want to play the same style. We want to get up and down and run, and she does a great job with that in the inside position, but also we want to pass the ball really well. She’s a wonderful target to pass the ball to. She’s got great hands.

You talked about leadership and all that stuff, and you lose that in Kathleen. Where does that come from?

LISA BLUDER: That’s what I’m really missing the most right now is that emotional leadership. You know, Kathleen just wore her heart on her sleeve, and sometimes that can be a detriment but most times it’s really positive. I just think that a lot of times as a point guard a lot of people feed off of your energy, and she just brought that all the time, in practice, in games. So other people are kind of having to step up in that role.

Again, I’m not really expecting Caitlin as a freshman to do that, but people like Kate Martin and Monika are really doing a good job with that.

What have you seen from Caitlin so far and just your thoughts on her?

LISA BLUDER: You’d better be ready to guard her when she crosses the half-court line. She’s a player that loves to shoot the ball and has tremendous range. I think sometimes her passing gets overlooked. We have had so many ‘oh, wow’ moments in practice already, highlight-type passes. We had one today, like put that in the highlight film already because it was so unbelievable.

I think sometimes people overlook how good of a passer she is just because she’s such a tremendous scorer.

You’ve not had somebody come in with her credentials right away and expecting big things from Game 1. As you’ve gotten to see her mental makeup more up close and how she’s handled all that came in high school and will here, as well, what has impressed you the most from that aspect of her?

LISA BLUDER: I love how coachable she is. She really wants to learn. She wants to get better. She asks questions. She comes in and watches film. I’ve been very, very pleased with how coachable she is and how much she understands she still has to learn.

Sometimes people can come in with that kind of accolades and think they know it all, and that’s not at all how Caitlin acts.

Last year we saw McKenna Warnock step up in big some big against top 25 teams and really felt like she was taking over at the end of games and as a freshman that’s pretty special. What do you think her ceiling is, particularly when you think about performances in games like that?

LISA BLUDER: McKenna just did a tremendous job, and the reward at the end of the year being on the all-freshman team was very deserved. I think McKenna is going to probably move into our starting position this year as a power forward. All four of our guards kind of all do the same thing basically, but I think McKenna has gotten stronger. She can go both hands a little bit better than she has. I think that McKenna could be one of our top rebounders.

We lose Amanda. Amanda was our best offensive rebounder. We need offensive rebounds, and I think we can get that out of McKenna this year.

You mentioned this is the third year in a row you’re coming to this press conference and you’ve lost the Big Ten Player of the Year. Do you think that there might be a player on this roster, maybe a couple options who could be in competition to make it a fourth straight Iowa women’s basketball player as Big Ten Player of the Year?

LISA BLUDER: I don’t know about fourth straight, but I think ultimately we could have one of those players in an Iowa jersey this year. I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year but I think ultimately it could. We’re a young team, and we’re optimistic but we also realize that what other people in the Big Ten have returning, and they’re very senior dominated teams, and we’re not. We could possibly start not have any seniors in our starting lineup.

How much will you need Clark to score? Obviously that’s what she was known for in high school. How much is she going to have to do that this year?

LISA BLUDER: I think she’s going to have to do it because that’s her game, and I think she will be out of sorts if she’s not doing that, if she doesn’t have the ball in her hands, if she’s not looking for that. I don’t think we’ll see the best Caitlin unless she is really looking to score.

But again, I cautioned her and really all of us that she’s not going to put up the numbers she did in high school. She averaged 35 points a game or something like that. No, we’re a balanced team. She’s smart, and she’s played with enough good players with the USA Basketball experience that she understands that and she knows this isn’t going to be a one-woman show, and she understood that when we recruited her.

What was the sales pitch you think you sold her on?

LISA BLUDER: Taking us back to the Final Four. That’s really something that we want to do. We want to get back to the Final Four, and it hasn’t been done since we’ve been here. We were one game shy a couple years ago.

I think wearing the Iowa jersey is also something special for young ladies that grow up in this state, to be able to put on the University of Iowa jersey and walk out that tunnel into our great attendance that we get here. It’s pretty special.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.