May 17, 2023 

State of the Program: Iowa rides high of national championship appearance into 2023-24

The Hawkeyes gear up for Caitlin Clark's senior season

The dust still hasn’t settled for Iowa’s head coach Lisa Bluder. More than a month after her Hawkeyes lost to LSU, 102-85, in the national championship game, it all feels like a whirlwind. She’s received letters and emails from fans across all 50 states and countries around the world about her team.

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“I really think this team, the Iowa Hawkeyes, captured America’s heart this year,” she told The Next.

A year after an upset loss in the tournament’s second round to Creighton – a 10 seed – the Hawkeyes barreled through elite competition en route to their first national championship game appearance in school history.

Iowa beat Louisville to advance to the Final Four and South Carolina – the overwhelming favorite to win it all – to advance to the championship game. And although Caitlin Clark and co. came up short against Angel Reese, Alexis Morris and an ultra-talented Tigers team, Iowa still played its part in elevating the sport on its biggest stage.

Partly captivated by Clark’s dazzling back-to-back 41-point performances against Louisville and South Carolina, the Hawkeyes helped draw the largest audience to the women’s national championship game in history.

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“I’ve heard a lot of people describe this women’s Final Four as making about the same change as the ’99 women’s soccer team did,” Bluder said. “If that’s true, it would be an amazing honor to be a part of it. Caitlin certainly is so exciting to watch. But it takes a group around her to embrace that. Caitlin gets all the headlines and deservedly so, but if you have people around her that don’t encourage that, that don’t embrace it, that don’t welcome that, it doesn’t work. I always want to commend the rest of the women on our team as well.”

2022-23 record: 31-7 (15-3 Big Ten), lost in national championship game to LSU, 102-85.

Big Ten finish: 2nd

Notable wins: vs. Iowa State (70-57), @ Michigan (94-85), @ Ohio State (83-72), vs. Maryland (96-82), vs. Indiana (86-85), vs. Maryland (89-84), vs. Ohio State (105-72), vs. Colorado (87-77), vs. Louisville (97-83), vs. South Carolina (77-73).

Departures: Monika Czinano (WNBA), McKenna Warnock (graduation), Shateah Wetering (transferring).

Additions: Kennise Johnson-Etienne (first-year), Ava Jones (first-year).

Key returners: Caitlin Clark, Kate Martin, Gabby Marshall, Hannah Stuelke.

In 2023-24, the Hawkeyes will be without two of their most reliable players from this past year’s run: Czinano completed her five-year career and was selected 26th overall by the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA Draft; Warnock ends her career after four years and now heads off to dental school.

Czinano’s elite post play became a security blanket for Iowa when opponents focused too much attention on Clark. The Watertown, Minnesota native averaged 17.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, shooting 67.4% from the field, the seventh-best mark in the country. Meanwhile, Warnock offered strong shooting from beyond the arc. She was the Hawkeyes’ third-leading scorer at 10.9 points per game and shot 38% from 3-point range.

“They’re the epitome of Iowa women’s basketball,” Bluder said of her two graduating players. “They’re smart in the classroom, they’re great role models, they’re great teammates, they have unbelievable work ethics. Those two women will go down in history as some of the best in Iowa women’s basketball.

“McKenna is going to go on to dental school; Monika, being drafted by the LA Sparks, wants to go overseas and play and then after that go on to med school. Both of these young women, I’m not going to say that this was the highlight of their life; I think they have big things in store for them.”

Though Bluder said they won’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to their offense next season, losing two of the most consistent offensive sources will certainly open up opportunities for other players to step up.

In the post, keep an eye on rising sophomore Hannah Stuelke and rising junior Addison O’Grady.

Stuelke presents a bit of a different skill set than Czinano, with greater athleticism and abilities to rebound.

“Hannah Stuelke is just a tremendous athlete,” Bluder said. “She’s somebody really that I haven’t had the opportunity to coach for a long time that has these athletic skills, somebody that can run the floor as fast as she does, get off the floor for rebounds out of her area. It’s a different type of five than we’ve had lately. I just look forward to the challenge of incorporating a shorter, more-athletic five into the mix than a Monika or Megan Gustafson was. It’s just a fun challenge for us.”

One area in particular that Bluder sees Stuelke bringing value: offensive rebounding. The Hawkeyes ranked 338th out of 361 teams this past season in offensive rebounds per game and in the bottom 75 in offensive rebounding rate, per Her Hoop Stats. Of course, having the top field goal percentage in the country means fewer opportunities for offensive boards, but it’s still an area Stuelke should help Iowa improve in.

As for O’Grady, the tallest player on last year’s roster, she provided valuable bench minutes throughout the NCAA Tournament after struggling to find playing time during the regular season.

“In the NCAA Tournament, we were going against much taller women, and we needed her height, and she came in and responded,” Bluder said. “She sees a huge opportunity right now with Monika leaving, and I think she’s really motivated to work hard this summer to try to gain herself some more minutes, if not a starting position.”

Iowa also adds two first-years to the mix in Kennise Johnson-Etienne out of Joliet, Illinois and Ava Jones out of Nickerson, Kansas. Jones’ long-term status is unclear, Bluder said, after the tragic accident that killed her father and severely injured her mother and her last June.

‘These women deserve it’

2023-24 could also be notable for Iowa because it might be the last fans see of Clark in a Hawkeyes’ uniform. After capturing multiple Player of the Year awards and playing her best basketball in March, it’s hard to fathom how much more she can actually improve.

But as Bluder mentioned, the roster next season will be a bit different, something Clark hasn’t had to contend with much in her time in Iowa City. After all, the Hawkeyes ran back the same starting five in 2022-23 as they had the previous season. And while Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin will be back next year, providing that stability in the off-ball guard positions, Clark will need to integrate other players into the fold as well.

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“When she came here, it was kind of a veteran group, and she didn’t have to worry about that, but now as a veteran herself, she has to learn how to be that person that brings other people along,” Bluder said.

Other possible areas of growth for Clark: defense and limiting turnovers.

“She’s never going to be a person that is a 4:1 (assist-to-turnover) point guard just because she does take risks, and I want her to take those risks,” Bluder said. “I think it’s exciting some of those passes that she makes. Nobody else in the country would dare make those passes. But that’s what makes her such a fun player. She’s always going to have a few more turnovers because of that, but it doesn’t bother me one bit.”

It also doesn’t bother Bluder that Iowa had to halt season ticket sales for the upcoming season because the demand was too high. While the Hawkeyes will have to move on from the magic that was their starting five each of the last two years, Iowa will surely be right back in the mix in 2023-24 to take home a Big Ten championship and compete for a deep run in March.

“I’m just proud of the product that we have,” Bluder said. “I’m proud of the support that we have from our community; they love these women, and these women deserve it. They work hard, and they’re tremendous role models. We were kind of the Cinderella story last year, and I think it was very well deserved.”

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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