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NCAAW Preview: All eyes will be on Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes

The Iowa Hawkeyes are embracing the privilege of pressure as they look to maintain national prominence.

Syndication: The Des Moines Register
Will this be Caitlin Clark’s final collegiate season?
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennis legend Billie Jean King and famed sports writer Christine Brennan wrote a book in 2008 called Pressure is a Privilege. It is about King’s life journey as a world-class tennis player who broke through barriers and advocated for gender equality in sports. She uses the title as her motto for life, where pressure is something positive rather than negative.

The pressure of working harder to reach a goal is something to relish and not run away from. That idea and its encompassing ethos is what head coach Lisa Bluder uses as a set of principles for her Iowa Hawkeyes, who are coming off the most memorable season in their history.

It was a season that was a picture-perfect highlight reel. They charged through with their break-neck pace of play, infectious chemistry and underdog superlatives. The combination helped propel their popularity within the world of women’s college basketball and beyond. Their improbable run did not end until the national championship game, where they fell short against the champion LSU Tigers. The game was watched by an estimated 10 million viewers, becoming the national water-cooler talk, both in person and online, in the days after.

Caitlin Clark is ready for her encore

The face of the team remains none other than Caitlin Clark, arguably the best player in the country who captured the Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year, many other pieces of hardware and the hearts of millions in the state of Iowa and elsewhere. The whirlwind that she has been on is still something that she is trying to comprehend, but, according to Bluder, she knows where her feet are at.

“I think that’s just the biggest thing is just soaking it in,” Clark said. “It kind of takes you back for a second because I feel like I was just that young girl that was playing basketball, and I still feel like a very normal individual.”

She also recognizes that many have elevated her as premiere star in women’s basketball and is willing to wear that title with pride. “If I have to be the face of women’s basketball or women’s college basketball, I think that’s a really good thing,” she said. “I think that’s cool. I think it’s something that’s only going to help the game grow more. It’s not anything that I feel comes with a lot of pressure.”

How Iowa will enjoy the pressure in 2023-24

Now Clark and company come into this season ranked sixth nationally with about 40 percent of their roster from last year gone. They are facing enormous expectations, with predictions that the team will at least go back to the Final Four—if not win the national title outright. “So I think we have to remember that, that we’re in this situation of facing pressure because we’ve done well. Let’s enjoy that. Let’s rejoice about that,” Bluder said.

Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock, two members of Iowa’s core, graduated this past year, but returning for their fifth seasons will be shooting guards Gabby Marshall and Kate Martin. Marshall is a sharp shooter known for her quickness in transition and Martin is often looked at as the team’s workhorse who can shoot, rebound and dive on the floor for loose balls. The question is who will fill the voids left by Czinano and Warnock.

Fortunately, the Hawkeyes have a lot of depth working for them. Returning this year are dynamic forward and fan-favorite Hannah Steulke and fifth-year playmaker Molly Davis. Both were major fixtures coming off a limited bench last season and will be expected to step up this year. Steulke is known for her agility, finesse and aggressiveness, taking after Czinano in her ability to remain vigilant in the post and score on the block, as well as hit the glass with relentlessness. Bluder has noticed her growth in confidence and could use her at the center position. Davis can play on the perimeter, whether as a point guard, shooting guard or small forward, and, in some ways, takes after Clark with her shooting and ball movement.

Other returners will be sophomore Taylor McCabe, junior Sydney Affolter, junior AJ Ediger, junior Sharon Goodman, junior Addison O’Grady and junior Kylie Feuerbach. O’Grady and Feuerbach have been floated as potential replacements for Czinano at the center position due to their experience. Feuerbach was out last season with a torn ACL, but she is expected to be in good standing when the season starts.

Which players fill the remaining two starting spots and which ones come off the bench remains to be seen, but the Hawkeyes have options. Last year they had so few options, yet did so well. Just imagine what they could do with more talent in Bluder’s system.

Iowa’s ready for an epic start to the season

The Hawkeyes kick off their season in the most extravagant way imaginable. On Oct. 15, they will play an exhibition game against DePaul at Kinnick Stadium, home of the Hawkeye football team, with an expected attendance of over 50,000—the largest crowd to watch a women’s basketball game in America.

For history’s sake, they will have more fans than witnessed the Battle of the Sexes at the Houston Astrodome in 1973, when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs.

Clark frequently has been checking the weather to make sure all systems are go and expects to shoot two air balls because of the wind. She also acknowledged the recent Nebraska volleyball game that drew 90,000 spectators as an inspiration. “I’m super excited” she said. “I think just watching Nebraska volleyball and what they were able to do. Obviously ours is going to be a little bit on a smaller level, but still, we’re going to be able to break the women’s basketball record for most people at a game.

With so much riding on this year—the scrutiny over every potential loss and the uncertainty on whether Clark will come back for an extra year of eligibility or go to the WNBA—Bluder offers a reminder of what is important to her and her staff, as opposed to everyone else.

“As coaches, we love wins, but we also look at a lot of other things,” she said. “Do our kids graduate? Are our kids great human beings? Do they grow as women while they’re here? Are we mentoring these women so they become the next generation of great female leaders? That speaks to me. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”