IOWA CITY — When the Iowa women’s basketball team tips off Big Ten tournament play today, the goal remains the same but the dynamics are definitely different.
For the first time in four seasons, the Hawkeyes will arrive in Indianapolis looking only to add to their resume for the upcoming NCAA tourney.
A 23-6 record, a share of third place in an improved Big Ten and an RPI that stood as the 16th best in the nation have all-but assured Iowa that it will return to the field for the NCAA tournament later this month after a two-year absence.
The Hawkeyes won 19 games two years ago and 20 games last season but found themselves on the outside looking in when NCAA berths were announced, settling for WNIT appearances.
This season, a challenging nonconference schedule and upgraded non-league schedules throughout the conference have helped all Big Ten programs.
The league currently has a collective ranking of third among Division I conferences with eight teams having an RPI of 50 or higher, among factors that position Iowa to receive its 13th NCAA bid in Bluder’s 18 seasons.
"We’re going in without the pressure of having to win, and that’s a nice feeling going into this tournament," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
"We want to win this tournament, but at the same time we go into the Big Ten tourney knowing that we are in the big dance. We know that, so let’s just go play. I think it puts everybody a little more at ease. We’re playing with a great deal of confidence right now. We just need to keep it going."
The fifth-seeded Hawkeyes’ first test at Bankers Life Fieldhouse comes at approximately 1:15 p.m. today when Iowa faces 12th-seeded Northwestern, a 68-63 winner over Wisconsin in an opening-round game Wednesday.
"We’ve beaten both of those teams, so that should give us confidence as well," Bluder said.
The Hawkeyes won a 70-61 game at Northwestern on Feb. 11 in the only regular-season meeting between the teams. The Wildcats bring a 12-19 record into today’s game.
Iowa also takes the court looking to add to a seven-game win streak, the longest ongoing streak in the conference.
"We’re playing with a good deal of confidence right now," guard Makenzie Meyer said. "This last seven-, eight-game stretch we’ve played good basketball. We need to keep it going."
Post player Megan Gustafson said the Hawkeyes, 7-3 in road games and unbeaten in three neutral-site games this season, look to build on the consistency Iowa has shown recently.
The Hawkeyes haven’t lost since dropping a Jan. 28 game at home to Nebraska and earned their share of third place in the Big Ten by winning a pair of overtime games during the past month.
"We put together some awesome finishes in February, and that gives us some good momentum going into the Big Ten tournament," said Gustafson, who leads the nation in scoring with an average of 25.3 points per game and is the Big Ten’s top rebounder at 12.5 per game.
"Anyone can beat anyone in this conference this year on a given day, so we need to go there ready to compete and continue to play the way we have."