IOWA CITY – The NCAA tournament came early for Iowa. The NCAA selected the program to host the postseason tournament in March. If the Hawkeyes can qualify, their first two games will be at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Wednesday, fans will get a preview of what March will be like. The Hawkeyes welcome Middle Tennessee State to Iowa City, in another tournament. This one is the Preseason Women’s NIT, but neither team expects to be playing in that postseason tourney.
“Not very often do you get to be in a tournament atmosphere to start your season,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “I can feel just the excitement of our players being able to play in a tournament of this quality.”
The Blue Raiders enter the season having played in the last five NCAA Tournaments. They return 10 letterwinners from a year ago, including all five starters.
Three of those five were named preseason all-conference in the Sun Belt. They’ve lived up the hype so far. Forwards Icelyn Elie and Ebony Rowe are both scoring more than 20 points per game. Rowe adds nine rebounds a game, while Elie averages six. Meanwhile, Kortni Jones drops 17.5 points per game wish dishing out six assists.
“Well, a specific game plan to counter them, if I had one, I wouldn’t tell you, for one thing,” Bluder said. “But no, they’re three quality players, obviously.”
Despite the numbers, the frontcourt duo for Middle Tennessee is undersized. Both players are 6-1, whereas Iowa boasts 6-4 Bethany Doolittle and 6-5 Morgan Johnson at the power forward and center positions.
“I think the guards always get a good job of getting the ball inside. Looking for those in-outs is really going to be key,” Johnson said.
Johnson is coming off a career game in which she drained 12 of 13 free throws. She finished with 24 points and nine rebounds. Overall the Hawkeyes went to the line 41 times against Illinois State.
Last year the Blue Raiders led the Sun Belt, pouring in more than 80 points a game. This year has been no different as they average nearly 85 points a game. Slowing an uptempo team down, by working inside out offensively could be Iowa’s best defense. It might also lead to a few fouls against a team that only plays seven.
“I think that’s to anybody’s advantage is to get – when they don’t play a lot is to get to their bench if you can,” Bluder said. “But that’s a hard game plan to think how are we going to ‑‑ sometimes those things happen within the course of a game and you don’t have control over them, and so you just take advantage of it then.”
Iowa couldn’t control who it played in the WNIT either. A win would send the Hawkeyes into the final against either North Carolina or Georgetown, two more potential NCAA Tournament teams.
Another situation the Hawkeyes plan to take advantage of.
“It’s like having two NCAA tournaments a little bit,” Johnson said. “A little bit on a smaller scale but at the same time, you just get excited for each game and you know losing means you go home or you stay home and just have to practice. So getting to play these games is just a great opportunity for us for that NCAA coming down the road.”
Meet the Press
Iowa committed 23 turnovers against Illinois State in the WNIT Quarterfinals. It was more than double the amount the Hawkeyes committed in its season opener against Northern Illinois.
When Middle Tennessee comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, they do so with a full time, full court press. The Blue Raiders have turned teams over 54 times in two games.
“They do cause a lot of turnovers, and a lot of the turnovers that they caused were in their press, and I thought we handled the press very well against Illinois State,” Bluder said. “Where we had some problems is trying to rush things in the quarter court and had too many really unforced turnovers in the quarter court.”