<strong>The Iowa Hawkeyes won the Maggie Dixon Surf 'N Slam Classic in San Diego, Calif., this weekend, but can't seem to gain any traction in the national polls despite an 11-3 record against one of the toughest schedules in the country. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)</strong>
The Iowa Hawkeyes won the Maggie Dixon Surf 'N Slam Classic in San Diego, Calif., this weekend, but can't seem to gain any traction in the national polls despite an 11-3 record against one of the toughest schedules in the country. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Hawkeyes strong pre-conference deserving of national recognition

December 31, 2012 - 8:43pm

SAN DIEGO, Calif -- Can the Iowa Hawkeyes get a little love?

They’ve played one of the toughest schedules in women’s college basketball and heading into the pre-New Year’s weekend and the Maggie Dixon Surf ‘N Slam Classic in San Diego this past weekend, they ranked No. 19 in the country in RPI, right behind Notre Dame, last season’s NCAA Tournament runner-up, which is currently ranked No. 5 in the country in both major national polls. But Iowa's strength of schedule ranking (SOS), also No. 19 in the country at the time, was even better than that of the Irish, who checked in with an SOS of 51. Indeed, the Hawkeyes' schedule strength easily bested more than half of the nation’s Top 25, including:

4/4 Duke 10-0 84
5/5 Notre Dame 9-1 51
6/7 Georgia 12-0 116
7/6 Kentucky 10-1 161
8/8 California 9-1 21
9/9 Maryland 8-2 29
11/11 Purdue 11-1 86
12/12 Louisville 11-2 113
14/13 Oklahoma State 9-0 250 – and, no, that’s not a typo!
15/14 Dayton 12-0 38
16/23 North Carolina 11-1 104
18/17 Oklahoma 9-2 64
19/16 South Carolina 11-1 48
20/21 Texas 7-2 130
21/25 Florida State 10-1 39
22/20 Kansas 9-2 71
23/RV-34 Colorado 10-0 141
25/RV 15 Arkansas 11-1 301 – and that’s no typo, either!

Not to mention the Hawkeyes' schedule is better than those of a host of other teams that have drifted in and out of the national rankings over the course of this young season.

Now ranking teams, especially early in the season, is not as easy as it might seem. It's an art, not a science, a matter of (hopefully, informed) opinion, and it's hard to know, for example, exactly how much weight to place on win-loss records in isolation, whether or not (and if so, how much) score differentials should matter, and how to assess differences in the quality of competition. It's easy to see why North Carolina, which beat the Hawkeyes, 77-64, in Iowa City, or Florida State, who also won, 83-69, albeit at home, in a head-to-head, should be ranked ahead of Iowa, regardless of which team has played the better schedule overall.

But in a world where poll voters, many of whom rarely cover women’s basketball, seem more impressed by lofty win-loss records than quality of schedule, the Iowa Hawkeyes can’t seem to get any love this season. Never mind that they’ve played five teams who are – or were at the time – ranked nationally, plus another top vote getter in Middle Tennessee. Never mind that they've beaten four of that elite number. The Hawkeyes entered the weekend 9-3, and for some poll voters, that’s all that matters. As a result, Iowa has received no more than six votes in the AP poll all season, garnered just four votes in last week’s rankings (and none in the coaches’ poll) and at times has fallen out of the national conversation altogether.

For her part, Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder seems a bit baffled when it comes to why her team seems to get so little respect -- and not just from the AP sports writers who determine that poll’s Top 25, but also from her fellow WBCA coaches, who vote on the USA Today Coaches’ poll, and presumably should know better.

“I don’t know,” she told Full Court, minutes after her Hawkeyes systematically dismantled the No. 20/21 Texas Longhorns, a team that has ranked as high as No. 12 this season, 86-63, in the opening round of the tournament Friday. “Maybe it’s because we’re just tucked away out [t]here in the middle of nowhere.”

One of those poll voters is Sue Guevara, head coach at Central Michigan, another program that has tackled a challenging preconference schedule for which it may not be getting enough credit. The Chippewas’ 6-6 record puts them out of the discussion for the Top 25, but it’s worth noting that this “mid-major” hung in with No. 5 Notre Dame before falling, 63-72, and they, too, defeated No. 20/21 Texas in the consolation round of this weekend’s tournament.

The Hawkeyes made a believer out of Guevara this weekend, as she watched them easily handle the ‘Horns, then bounce back from an early double-digit deficit to defeat the home-standing San Diego Toreros, 83-73, and take home the title. “Maybe they just don’t know about it,” said Guevara of her fellow voters and their evident indifference to the Hawkeyes’ success against a schedule much tougher than those faced by the vast majority of the teams who are ranked nationally. “They need to get the word out there.”

“They’ve got my vote,” Guevara added emphatically.

Bluder had been hoping that Iowa’s 86-63 blowout of the Longhorns in a game the Hawkeyes dominated from nearly start to finish will finally attract some notice. “It should,” said Bluder. “They’ve earned it.”

But when this week's polls came, it looked like Gueverra’s epiphany had been a lonely one. Just as when they defeated then-No. 12 West Virginia and then-No. 22 Iowa State -- not to mention Middle Tennessee State, which at the time of their meeting was just outside the Top 25, drawing 82 votes in the AP poll -- the Hawkeyes' accomplishment in upending No. 20 Texas seemed to have passed nearly unnoticed by the AP voters when their poll was released Monday.

Predictably, Texas fell out of the polls, but the Longhorns were replaced in the AP poll not by Iowa, but by Nebraska, a team whose win-loss record (10-3) is equivalent to that of Iowa's but against a much softer schedule (SOS 103). And that's a bit hard to fathom. No disrespect to the 'Huskers, who will soon have the opportunity to prove on the hardwood whether they are the better than the Hawkeyes when the Big 10 season gets under way. But if the AP voters have any faith at all in the fruits of their own "work," shouldn't a runaway victory on a neutral court over the team you thought, just last week, was the No. 20 program in the country, as Iowa did to Texas, count for more (indeed, a lot more) than an 84-39 romp, at home, over unranked Grambling State, whose record stands at 1-10 against a slate ranked No. 92 in SOS, which was the Cornhuskers' claim to fame over the weekend?

Over that same weekend, Iowa’s SOS ranking had improved to No. 15, its RPI now stood at No. 12 in the country, and its record of 12-3 now included its fourth victory over an elite opponent. And the coaches didn't do any better. When their poll came out today, Iowa had picked up Guevara's vote -- and those of three other coaches. But Texas had been replaced in their poll, by Colorado Buff. Fair enough, the Buffs are 11-0, but they achieved that mark against a slate whose strength (or lack thereof) weighs in at No. 149. And at No. 24, the coaches have Jim Foster's Buckeyes, whose record, at 10-3, is no better than that of Iowa's, but whose SOS is a lowly 126.

And so, the Hawkeyes were dissed yet again by both sets of poll voters in favor of the following teams who had opted to rack up the Ws against easier schedules, some of them so soft as to be laughable:

3/4 Duke 11-0 102
5/5 Notre Dame 11-1 25
6/6 Kentucky 12-1 154
7/7 California 10-1 21
9/9 Penn State 10-2 17
10/11 Georgia 12-1 109
11/10 Louisville 11-2 107
13/12 Oklahoma State 11-0 217
14/14 Purdue 11-2 50
15/23 North Carolina 13-1 128
17/16 Oklahoma 10-2 62
18/15 South Carolina 12-1 74
19/21 Florida State 11-1 39
20/25 Colorado 11-0 149
21/20 Kansas 9-2 71
22/18 Dayton 12-1 38
23 Arkansas 12-1 299
RV-36/24 Ohio State 10-3 126
25 Nebraska 10-3 103

Or, to look at it another way, of the 26 teams that are currently nationally ranked in one or both of the polls, only seven -- No. 1 UConn (11-0, SOS 2), No. 2 Baylor (10-1, SOS 4), No. 4 Stanford (11-1, SOS 1), No. 7 Maryland (10-2, SOS 14), No. 12 Tennessee (9-3, SOS 3), No. 16 UCLA (8-2, SOS 8) and No. 24 Texas A&M -- can claim to have compiled an equal or better record against an equal or better competitive slate. And just two can boast, as can Iowa, of beating four elite teams that were either nationally ranked or receiving significant poll votes at the time of the contest: Connecticut, which emerged from the weekend in the top position in the AP poll, and Tennessee, which moved up from No. 13 to No. 12, thanks to weekend wins over Davidson and Rutgers (neither of them ranked).

Not only was Iowa still outside the Top 25 when the AP poll was released Monday, the Hawkeyes picked up just six ballots since last week, bringing them to a grand total of 10 votes. That’s not only fewer votes than any of the 18 schools who did make the Top 25 despite having earned their records against feebler competition, but also behind Iowa State (50 votes) and West Virginia (22 votes), two teams Iowa has beaten in head-to-head contests either on their own home floors or on neutral courts this season. Big Ten10 rivals Ohio State (10-3, 36 votes, and now No. 24 in the coaches' poll), Michigan (11-2, 13 votes) and Michigan State (12-1, 12 votes), all pulled more votes from the sports writers than Iowa, despite strength-of-schedule rankings of 126, 53 and 121, respectively. Indeed, the Hawkeyes tallied only six more votes in the AP poll -- and just one more from the coaches! -- than the Texas team they had just shellacked, despite the ‘Horns’ 7-4 record, current 118 SOS ranking and back-to-back losses to unranked opponents over the weekend.

Still, Bluder and her charges maintain a good-humored attitude about their ranking woes, as Bluder keeps her eye on the bigger picture. She’s hoping her team’s tough schedule will help the Hawkeyes draw a higher seed from the NCAA Selection Committee come March and she knows it will serve them well as they prepare to enter the tough Big 10 conference portion of their schedule, where No. 9 Penn State (10-2, against a preconference schedule that with an SOS of 17 has been roughly as challenging as Iowa’s) and No. 25 Nebraska (10-3, SOS 103) have been ordained the preseason favorites to finish one-two by both coaches and the media. The coaches picked No. 14 Purdue, currently 11-2 against a preconference schedule that, despite a meeting with (and blow-out, 91-57, loss to) now-No. 1 Connecticut), was significantly weaker than Iowa’s. The media gave their third-place nod to Ohio State, currently 9-3 against a powder-puff (SOS 126) nonconference slate that included only two Top-25 matchups, both of them losses, at home to Notre Dame (57-51) and on the road at North Carolina (57-54).

Like Ohio State, Iowa also lost to the Tar Heels, by a much wider margin (77-64) and on the Hawkeyes’ own home floor. So perhaps in the end, the predictions of the pundits will prove true. (Iowa will get its chance to prove itself against the Buckeyes on Thursday, when Ohio State visits Iowa City in the conference opener for both teams. The game, which tips at 5:30 p.m. Central, will be aired on the Big Ten Network, in case any poll voters would like to take a look.) Iowa also lost badly (83-69) on the road at Florida State, which was then unranked but has since entered the polls and is currently No. 19/21. And in their worst loss of the year, the Hawkeyes fell to unranked Florida International, 66-65, at a Thanksgiving tournament in Miami.

That one was a heartbreaker, Bluder recalls, as the Hawkeyes, who led throughout the entire first half and by double digits even in the first five minutes of the second, but never delivered the kill shot, wound up getting bit in the game’s final seconds. Iowa still led by five points as the game entered its final minute, but freshman guard Claire Till missed three consecutive, and crucial, free throws down the stretch. Meanwhile, Panthers' point guard Jessica Coley drained a three-pointer with 18 ticks left on the clock and followed that up by driving coast-to-coast for the game-winning buzzer-beater.

True, the game slipped away by the narrowest of margins in the final seconds, but Bluder refuses to offer excuses. “They’re on their home court, and we let them hang around too much and let them get a lot of confidence,” she said. She was determined not to let her team make the same mistake this weekend, continually reminding them of the threat posed by San Diego playing on its own home court.

If their performance this weekend is any indication, the Hawkeyes have learned their lesson. In the Friday opener, “Our kids were fired up to play a ranked team on a neutral floor, and we took full advantage of it,” said Bluder. “We socked them early. We shot the ball well. We defended well. We rebounded.” Then on Sunday, the Hawkeyes bounced back from a slow start and an early double-digit deficit to take the 83-73 win over hosting San Diego, another program that has chosen to test itself early, going 6-4 against the fifth-toughest schedule in the country.

Morgan Johnson shoots Iowa's senior center, 6-5 Morgan Johnson, was named tournament MVP after putting up back-to-back 20-point games and adding three blocks in each. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Friday’s opener between Iowa and Texas had been forecast as a potentially brilliant post battle, pitting Iowa’s 6-5 senior center Morgan Johnson, a preseason All-Big 10 coaches’ team selection, and her understudy, 6-4 sophomore center Bethany Doolittle, who starts alongside Johnson in the Hawkeyes' unusual two-center/three-guard lineup, against the Longhorns’ own array of talented bigs – 6-4 senior post Cokie Reed; 6-7 freshman center Imani McGee-Stafford who has been making quite a case for Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors; and 6-1 sophomore forward Nneka Enemkpali, who got the season started on a roll with six straight double-double performances, though she has struggled a bit offensively in some of the ‘Horns’ most recent games.

But Iowa caught a bit of a break with Reed still sidelined by an illness she has been battling for the past two weeks, and in McGee-Stafford’s first return to her Southern California stomping grounds, the veteran Johnson simply schooled the youngster. Both McGee-Stafford and Enemkpali were saddled with foul problems, with McGee-Stafford picking up her fourth personal, followed promptly by her fifth, a technical, with nearly nine-and-a-half minutes to go. When McGee-Stafford headed to the bench for good, she was the only Longhorn player who had breached double figures in scoring, though by game’s end, Enemkpali had notched 13, plus 12 boards for the double-double, and junior guard Chassidy Fussell, typically the team’s leading scorer, had nosed her way to 11, albeit on dreadful four-of-14 (28.6 percent) field-goal shooting and an even worse one-for-five (20 percent) from long distance. Iowa’s pestering defense held Texas as a team to just 30.4-percent (seven-of-23) field-goal shooting in the opening half, and though they improved to 45.2 percent (14-31) after new coach Karen Aston’s halftime talk, that was only good enough to stop the hemorrhaging, not to fill the hole they had dug for themselves early on.

Bluder said there had been nothing special about her game plan, but Johnson was a bit more forthcoming. “We watched a ton of film,” she said, smiling. “We figured out that we wanted to use a lot of fakes; they’d bite on them.”

And that they did. In one particularly entertaining sequence, Johnson pump-faked right, bringing McGee-Stafford with her, then faked left, with McGee-Stafford again mirroring Johnson’s move. Then, when Johnson ever-so-slightly dipped her right shoulder, McGee-Stafford “bit,” as Johnson so aptly described it, overplaying to the right, while Johnson wrapped her lanky frame around to the left and hooked the ball through the iron in a Jordan-esque move – all the while keeping her pivot foot securely planted to avoid being called for the travel.

Johnson, who doesn’t sashay down the court – or even jog, as do so many players her size – but outright sprints from one end of the floor to the other, finished the game with 20 points on a sizzling eight-of-13 (61.5 percent) from the field and four-of-five (80 percent) from the charity stripe. She posted 20 more a day-and-a-half later against hosting San Diego on even better 80-percent (eight-of-10) field-goal shooting and a perfect four-of-four at the line to help her team to the tournament championship and earn MVP honors for herself in the process.

But Johnson's defense was at least as impressive as her offensive production. The continually smiling pre-med major and Academic All-Big-10 selection from Platte City, Mo., who despite great grades says she fears her MCATS won’t be high enough to take her straight to medical school and so plans to spend at least a year studying overseas before retaking them, recorded three steals and two blocks against Texas, then registered three more swats and a steal against San Diego.

“Oh, she broke the school record for blocks five games ago,” says Bluder matter-of-factly. Johnson has lost count of her own numbers (she has 29 blocks for the season and 249 to-date for her career, according to the Iowa record books), and says she just enjoys playing defense. But there is one other motivator, Johnson admits – she’d like to one-up her mother Leslie Johnson (nee Daberkow), who still holds the career (265), single-season (109) and single-game (12) blocks record from her playing days at Midland Lutheran College in Nebraska.

If there’s a relative weakness in Johnson’s game it’s rebounding; she averages 6.64 per game and has elevated that number to 7.25 per game this season, but one might expect more from a 6-5 center. But not to worry, Bluder gets plenty of production on the glass on a team basis, including six boards per game from Doolittle, and 6.1 from a perhaps unexpected source -- 5-9 sophomore point guard Samantha Logic, who earned both Full Court Freshman All-American and Big 10 All-Freshman team honors last year. Beating out all the highly touted posts on the court in Friday’s game against Texas, Logic hauled down a game-high 15 rebounds, then turned that into a rare non-points double-double by handing out a school-record 14 assists (against just three turnovers).

“I have been coaching 20 years and I don’t know if I have ever seen a guard double-double without [one element] being points,” said Bluder afterward. “Those are amazing numbers.” A school spokesman said he had searched all of Iowa’s digitally stored records without finding another player who achieved that feat.

If Iowa’s rebounding is a team effort, then so, too, is its offense. Four Hawkeyes finished with double-digit scoring against Texas, including Johnson, Doolittle (10), Jamie Printy (21), and Melissa Dixon, who came off the bench for a game and career-high 23 points, including five of her 10 attempts from downtown. Despite a seven-game hiatus of her own due to a torn meniscus, Dixon acquitted herself well when called upon to step into the starting role for eight games last season as a freshman, when Printy was sidelined with an ACL tear (her second) in the final seconds of the Hawkeyes’ overtime win at Wisconsin.

Printy says she’s back to 100-percent health, and when she followed up her 21-point performance against Texas with a game and career-high 33 points Sunday on 50 percent from the field (10-20) and seven-of-12 (58.3 percent) from beyond the arc, earning selection to the All-Tournament team alongside Johnson, it seemed to confirm that self-assessment. With Printy back in the rotation, Dixon has returned to a relief role, which might have other players in a pout. But Dixon is not just spouting the party line when she says she’s happy in her role of providing “a spark off the bench.”

In fact, it’s hard to imagine the future business major sulking -- on the court or off, she seems never to stop smiling. She was laughing aloud as one trey after another sliced the nets on Friday – not in a taunting or derisive fashion toward her opponent – but with an infectious joy in the game, and her teammates were laughing and celebrating right along with her. Asked if Dixon was always that cheerful or whether it was just the thrill of the career-game at work, a constellation of assistant coaches, team managers, water-bottle-fillers and others waiting outside the locker room were quick to answer: “She’s always that way,” they agreed. Then one added, “They all are.”

It’s part of the team ethos at Iowa, explains Printy. Asked to pick three adjectives to describe the personality of her team, the senior picked two standards – “dedicated,” and “hard-working.” And then after thinking a moment, she added, “And fun. Our coaches, everybody, want to be sure we’re having fun.”

Printy Shoots Iowa's Jamie Printy serves up two of her game and career-high 35 points to lead the Hawkeyes to an 83-73 win over San Diego and the Maggie Dixon Surf 'N Slam Classic championships in San Diego Sunday. Printy, who also posted 21 points in Friday's win over Texas, was named to the All-Tournament team. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Perhaps that’s why even as Texas’ Karen Aston cancelled a scheduled trip to the famed San Diego Zoo on Saturday, during off time between the tournament’s two games, Bluder and her charges went ahead with the outing, despite the rain. They took the tram tour, said Bluder, both to stay dry and because she was mindful of the fact that the San Diego players they would face the next day would not be out there traversing the sprawling park on tired legs. But they went nonetheless, and enjoyed every minute of it. The favorite – the gorillas, followed closely by the pandas, though the gangly Johnson cast a dissenting, but appropriate, vote: “It would have to be the giraffes,” she said with an air of certainty.