March 31, 2024 

Sydney Affolter’s moment for Iowa was years in the making

Caitlin Clark: 'Everybody on the team needs a player like Syd'

ALBANY, N.Y. — Standing against a wall in the Iowa locker room on Sunday morning holding court, Iowa Associate Head Coach Jan Jensen broke down the options to guard LSU’s dangerous bigs, Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow. The usual suspects were invoked — Hannah Stuelke, their starting center, Kate Martin, the primary four. And 5’11 Sydney Affolter?

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“Syd can play the four, can handle like a four,” Jensen said. It’s just another element of her game, which blossomed growing up in Chicago playing for her dad, Ed, at every level and then into a tenure at Marist High School during which Affolter received scholarship offers from all over the midwest, including a number of other Big Ten schools.

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That combination of elite defense, rebounding, finishing at the rim and perimeter shooting has made Affolter into more than just a viable solution to Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder’s biggest strategic question of the past month — how to navigate the unexpected loss of Molly Davis, who Bluder reiterated Sunday she expects to be out for the Hawkeyes’ Elite Eight matchup with LSU.

But Affolter has had to wait her turn, too. And a combination of faith in her own game and how the Iowa program best-suited her may have altered the trajectory of both Affolter and this program permanently.

“The beauty of Syd is her mental strength,” Jansen said. “Because as strong as she is on the floor, you know, when that portal so attractive, your circle can even be like — well, and not in a bad way, that maybe you could do better somewhere else. And so when she saw the process, who she was playing behind, but knew every day she’s getting better going against McKenna Warnock, she’s getting better going against Kate [Martin]. So she’s taken all those notes.”

It was work that the public simply didn’t see. Affolter played 178 minutes, total, her freshman season, only getting into 19 games. That jumped to 10.3 minutes per game in her sophomore campaign, but she languished at times at the back end of the Iowa rotation, and averaged 5.4 minutes per game in Iowa’s NCAA Tournament games last season.

Affolter said it was an emotional struggle at times, but that her father balanced reinforcing her emotionally with a reminder of what she knew well, and never wavered from — that she’d made a commitment to Iowa her junior year of high school, and that she should see it through.

“My dad’s super tough and super hard on me,” Affolter recalled, standing in front of her locker on Sunday morning. “So it was more like just keep working, your time is coming. And there wasn’t really any doubt. He knew that from the player and person I am that I was going to get my moment.”

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That changed to an extent this year, with Warnock’s graduation, but for much of the year she still came off the bench, playing a vital but secondary role. This is an increasingly rare story in this moment of change here in college basketball. Amid transfers across the sport, Affolter recognized that the way she played and the way Iowa utilized its wings meshed. A coaching staff made her better, and she put in the work.

“All of us would say Syd was somebody that was in the gym just as much as anybody else,” her teammate Caitlin Clark said Sunday. “She worked on her game. She believed in herself. She came to practice every single day and worked so hard. Now for her this year to kind of take a step and really make this moment hers has been really fun to watch. Nobody deserves it more than her. More than anything, you’re just happy for her. And then when Molly goes down she takes another step forward and really just embraces the moment, isn’t scared of anything.”

And as a result, when injury produced an opportunity and a need, Iowa didn’t just have a player to plug in, but an ideal Iowa system player.

Take a look, for instance, at the Sydney Affolter shot chart, courtesy of, since she entered the starting lineup on March 8. A staff that prizes efficiency over anything else offensively added this profile to the starting lineup for their postseason run.

A heat map of Sydney Affolter's scoring since March 8, 2024, including notable marks of 3-for-4 from the top of the 3-point arc, 2-for-3 to the right of the arc, and 17-of-23 from right under the basket. She has attempted just one shot anywhere in the mid-range in that time.
Affolter’s shot chart since entering the starting lineup on March 8, featuring a whole lot of efficiency at the rim and behind the arc. (Via

If she were simply a floor-spacer, that would be valuable enough. But Affolter finds ways to contribute in every facet of the game for Iowa.

“Syd does things that don’t show up in the box score,” Clark said. “She’s been scoring, she’s been rebounding, but she does so many other things that don’t show up in the box score, whether it’s her physicality, whether it’s her mentality of just diving on the floor for loose balls, whether it’s boxing out hard every possession. Everybody on the team needs a player like Syd, and we’re lucky to have her.”

She’s averaging 7.7 rebounds per game since entering the starting lineup, while posting an assist percentage of 13.8% this season, a secondary playmaker in an offense where the primary one, Clark, is so ball-dominant. Her turnover percentage is down to 13% from 21.5% her freshman year and 17.4% last season, and she’s north of a 2% steal percentage, just below 2% in block percentage. Clark said so much of what she does won’t show up in a box score, but to be clear, so much of it does.

But she’s not in that box score at all without buying into what Lisa Bluder and Iowa have built. She’s not in that box score without the endless hours with Jansen and the rest of the Iowa staff, “working on her moves, working with the pads, finishing through contact”, as Jansen put it. That’s how you get bigger and stronger and more capable. That’s how a 5’11 wing finishes like another in the series of bigs out of the Jan Jensen Iowa Center Factory.

And emotionally? Bluder kept her ready. She kept in her ear, reminding her that sure, she was Iowa’s Sixth Player, but she’d start for anyone else in the conference. Clark shouted her out on social media and more quietly every day in practice.

But she didn’t have a conversation with her about moving into the starting lineup. Nor did Bluder, nor Martin, who chuckled as she realized none had been necessary.

“Honestly didn’t really need any conversations because we felt so comfortable with her stepping into that role,” Martin said. “…We felt really comfortable with her because we’re super confident in her and she’s just a stud. She’s going to work super hard and we know that. And the girl is always in the gym, always working hard, and I’ve gone against her every single day in practice. I was super confident in her, and she’s super confident in herself. No words were really even needed to say to her.”

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To say it was seamless on Saturday would be an understatement. She took six shots, and made them all, while adding five rebounds and an assist. Look at the way Clark and Affolter are connected on this pass from Clark. It takes a perfect delivery. It also takes a skilled finisher. And it takes years of learning each other.

Now, Monday night, in a game the entire nation will be watching, so will Ed, along with her mom Shellie and brother Trey. They’ll all get to take in the moment she’s made possible with years of work and faith.

“My dad’s definitely my biggest role model, hero, inspiration and he’s been there for me when no one else has, for sure,” Affolter said. “And obviously my mom, my brother, too, but people don’t see that. People just see all the points and the playing time I’m getting now but when I was struggling a bit, he was the one that was there for me and he’s always been my coach my whole life. I just know I always have him and he had my back more than anyone else. So I’m glad to share this experience with him.”

And Bluder, too, understands how Affolter’s loyalty helped make this possible — to save Iowa’s season, and continue a foundation for the Hawkeyes next year, after Clark, Gabbie Marshall and this talented senior class depart. Iowa’s bringing in a talented recruiting class. And they can play around Affolter, because whatever Bluder needs from Affolter, she knows she’s going to get it.

“I loved what she said one time,” Bluder said. “She said a lot of people jump when they’re not getting the starting position or when they’re not getting their playing time, and they jump to where they think the grass is going to be greener. She said, I stuck with it because I love this place. That meant so much to me that she made that comment.”

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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