Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Praise of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Lisa Bluder

It's hard now to remember that the Iowa Hawkeyes won women's Big Ten basketball championships in 10 of 15 seasons between 1987 and 2001. It probably seemed appropriate to Iowans that it should be so. I mean, Iowa was the nation's leading hot-bed of girls high school ball, its six-on-six variant remaining immensely popular throughout the period when most other states banned girls interscholastic sports.

Still, it took an import--a Pennsylvanian, Vivian Stringer--to put Hawkeyes women's hoops on the map. Arriving in Iowa City in 1983 from Cheyney State, Stringer stayed for 13 years and won 269 games and lost just 84, a .762 winning percentage. Having continued her coaching career at Rutgers in 1995, Stringer is now 3rd in all-time wins among women's coaches and is the only coach to take 3 different schools to the Final Four.

The success continued, if only briefly, under Stringer's successor, Angie Lee. Lee led Stringer's recruits to a 27-4 record and another Big Ten title in 1996. In 1997, the Hawkeyes fell to 9-7 in the conference and 18-12 overall but claimed the Big Ten tournament championship. In 1998, they took the regular season title again at 13-3 (but just 18-11 overall). But after accumulating a 21-33 record in 1999 and 2000, Lee was let go.

Lisa Bluder, a graduate of Linn-Mar High School and Northern Iowa, took over in 2000-2001 and promptly led the Hawkeyes to the 2001 Big Ten tournament title. But, since then, additional success has not been so easy to come by. Another conference championship was only achieved 8 years later in 2008 (regular season) at 13-5 (and 21-11 overall). Bluder's conference record of 88-60 (.583) is not even as good as Lee's, much less Stringer's. Bluder has been subject to criticism from impatient fans throughout her reign, and yet she has lasted 10 years on the hot seat.

And, now, Bluder seems poised to improve the Hawkeyes results significantly.

I mean, look what she did with the 2009 squad. Decimated by injuries, she brought 2 walk-ons on-board just so the Hawkeyes could go 5-on-5 in practice. Iowa started 4-1 but, as the injuries mounted, slid to 5-5 and then 8-10 and 1-6 in the conference. One of the early losses was 72-69 in overtime at Williams Arena against Pam Borton's Minnesota Gophers. I told a friend of mine that these must be the 2 worst teams in the Big Ten. But that's when Bluder and a small nucleus turned things around, emphatically so, and only 1 of the 2 teams in question fulfilled my prediction.

Instead, Iowa continued to play an uptempo style while 3 of its starters played 33 minutes per game or more. And eventually the effort started to pay off, the victories started to come, 7 in their next 8 games, including a 75-54 drubbing of the Minnesota Gophers in Iowa City in mid-February. One poster to the Hawks Nest online forum got it right when he said, "Maybe the Iowa men could learn something from watching Bluder's bunch. Those ladies play with heart and the play hard. It's a shame they had so many injuries this year, because it looks like they could have contended for the Big Ten title."

Well, they did contend for the Big Ten Tournament title, knocking off Penn State 82-75 and favored Michigan State 59-54, before losing to heavily favored Ohio State 66-64 in the final. And thanks to this spirited effort, Bluder was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for the 3rd time.

Kachine Alexander, a graduate of Benilde-St. Mary's, was injured early but came back strong to lead the Hawkeyes with 16 ppg and a remarkable 10 rebounds per game--remarkable because of Alexander's 5-9 stature. Freshman Jamie Printy earned 1st team frosh all-America honors by scoring 15 ppg. Kamille Wahlin, a Crookston, MN, native, scored 14 points and added 3 assists as Iowa's point guard. All 3 return for 2010-2011, as does starter Kelly Krei and several of the injured. The latter include rising sophomores Hannah Draxten (a redshirt sophomore), from Fergus Falls, MN; and Theiarra Taylor, a graduate of St. Paul Central High School. Taylor, a true freshman last year, was pressed into service last year only because of all the other injuries, and really impressed. Taylor scored 8 ppg and added 5 rebounds, though it's true she only shot 34 percent from the field.

The other true freshman, Printy, in particular lit up the Gophers, making 7-of-13 3s in 2 games, plus 10-of-10 FT.

Then, what triggered this article, was a potentially huge breakthrough for Bluder--that is, the successful recruitment of the #10 rated high school player in the high school class of 2011. That would be Samantha Logic of Racine, WI, Case. The 5-10 combo guard scored 15 ppg last year while adding 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals. She picked the Hawkeyes over national power Stanford, among others, and Stanford announced its "disappointment" at her decision. She and Printy will make up as good a one-two punch as you'll want to see, and they'll have 2 years together to do it.

Logic will be joined by Virginia Johnson of Iowa City, a 6-1 small forward rated #11 nationally at her position among the 2011s by one recruiting service.

Meanwhile, coach Borton's incoming 2010 class at Minnesota does not include a single top 100 player.

It must be noted, however, that Iowa's #1 and #2 2011 recruits probably will not be joining the Hawkeyes. 6-3 point guard Taylor Greenfield is going to Stanford, and highly regarded 6-3 post Kiah Stokes is reportedly considering Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland and Tennesee--with a 5th visit to Iowa, Notre Dame or Oklahoma called "a possibility." The fact that she hails from Bluder's alma mater, Linn-Mar, appears not to have influenced her thinking as Hawkeye fans might have liked.

Still, it seems unlikely that Borton's Gophers will be gaining any ground on the Hawkeyes over the next four to six seasons. The historic status quo, in other words, will return. Bluder's tenure happens to have come when the Gophers have fielded some of their best teams ever. And, yet, the Gophers have only broken even with Bluder's Hawks, winning 9 and losing 8. Overall, Iowa leads the series 41-21, meaning that when Bluder came on-board, the Hawkeyes lead was 33-12.

The point is that while the Gophers and Hawkeyes have competed very equally over the past decade, Iowa seems to be headed nowhere but up right now. The Gophers? Well, after 2009-2010, until there's new evidence to the contrary, they seem to be headed in the other direction. And what makes Iowa such a compelling measuring stick for the Gophers is that the Hawkeyes are doing it with Minnesota kids.

Iowa's Minnesotans

Kachine Alexander 16 ppg
Kamille Wahlin 14 ppg
Theairra Taylor 8 ppg
Hannah Draxten 2 ppg

Minnesota's Minnesotans

Kiara Buford 13 ppg
Jackie Voigt 8 ppg
Katie Loberg 2 ppg
Brianna Mastey 2 ppg
Amber Dvorak redshirt freshman
Sari Noga class of 2010
Rachel Banham class of 2011

No wonder, then, that when Bluder showed up in Braham last winter to see freshman Rebekah Dahlman play, Gopher fans reacted by demanding that coach Borton needed to get up there, too, and "get" Dahlman for Minnesota. If Bluder thinks she can play in the Big Ten, then it must be true, and Pam dasn't let the Hawkeyes steal another one from under our noses.

The real question is why Bluder and Iowa attracted the #10 player in the nation from Racine, WI, while Borton and Minnesota can't so much as get a visit from blue chippers like Sam Logic.


  1. You make some great points. But it weakens your argument when you ignore contrary infor -- for instance, it might be worth mentioning that the Gophers have the state's top 2011 player, Banham, who could be a program changer. And that this year's recruits include an Iowa native whose parents both work at Iowa State and who was recruited by both Iowa and ISU, Kellogg.

  2. I mentioned Banham here, and talked about her at greater length elsewhere. Banham's great, I agree. A program changer, possibly. What I asked elsewhere, however, is who on the current Gopher roster is going to be able to keep up with her? My answer was, well, maybe Katie Loberg.