By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
They downplayed the ranking, of course, because everyone does that when it comes to the preseason polls.
Still, everyone on Iowa’s women’s basketball team appreciates the rare air that comes with the No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press preseason poll that was released Tuesday.
“It’s amazing,” forward McKenna Warnock said at Thursday’s media day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “The vast majority of people don’t get to have this feeling. You kind of take it with a grain of salt. It’s a really amazing thing. But in the back of our heads, we know we have something to prove to everyone.”
The Hawkeyes bring five starters, and almost everyone else, back from a 24-8 team that shared the Big Ten regular-season title and won the conference tournament last season. That returning group includes consensus All-American and national player of the year finalist Caitlin Clark, who led the nation in scoring and assists, and center Monika Czinano, who led the nation in field-goal percentage.
“We’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year,” said coach Lisa Bluder, whose team also was picked as the Big Ten favorite in the conference’s preseason poll. “We shouldn’t be after coming off of a historic year last year, winning both the conference tournament and the regular-season title.”
The national ranking, the program’s highest since 1994, didn’t surprise Clark.
“I figured we would be around there,” she said.
The Hawkeyes’ success has been about the program’s consistency. This is the third consecutive season in which all five starters return.
“Bringing back five starters for the third consecutive year, that’s not common in any sport, unless you’re a professional sport,” Clark said.
There is pressure, though, and Bluder wants her team to embrace that. She mentioned, as she did at last week’s Big Ten media day in Minneapolis, that tennis legend Billie Jean King once told her that pressure is a privilege — King went so far to write it down on a piece of paper, with her autograph, and that bit of memorabilia hangs in Iowa’s locker room.
“This is what you work for, to be ranked high in the country,” Bluder said. “Does it bring pressure? Yes. But, man, you worked hard for it, so you’d better enjoy it, too.”
And then there was how the Hawkeyes finished last season. Coming off an NCAA tournament run in 2021 that ended in the regional semifinals, Iowa was expected to be around for a while in March, especially with the way the Hawkeyes finished the season.
Instead, the Hawkeyes were eliminated on their home court in the second round by Creighton.
“We lost to a really good team that advanced to the Elite Eight,” Bluder said. “But it has definitely been a very good driving motivator for our team. We talk about it a lot. We talk about it almost daily. We’re bringing up examples from that game or that we fell short, because I think if you don’t do that, you’re not using an opportunity to really motivate your athletes and kind of fuel the fire a little bit for them.
“Now, we don’t want to focus on it so much that it’s all that they see. We certainly want to celebrate the Big Ten championship and the Big Ten Tournament and those type of things, as well, because if you focus just on a loss, that’s a little depressing, right, and who wants to come to practice then. We really try to use it more as a fuel for fire than anything else.”
All of the expectations can weigh down a team. Instead, the Hawkeyes seem to enjoy them.
“People see that potential in us,” guard Gabbie Marshall said. “But we can’t let the outside noise affect us. We’re going to get every team’s best shot. We know that.”
“We’re going to keep working our tails off to show we belong here, and to prove ourselves,” forward Kate Martin said.
The Hawkeyes will be a hot ticket this season — approximately 5,200 season tickets have been sold, the largest number in program history. The last three home games of last season — the regular-season finale against Michigan, and then the two NCAA tournament games — were sellouts.
“Fifteen thousand fans in here, that’s amazing,” Martin said. “You’ve just got to enjoy it, and use the fans to your advantage. Give them what they want.”
It is easy to dismiss the preseason polls. The Hawkeyes, though, don’t want to dismiss the expectations that come with all of the opinions.
“We’ve shown what we can do,” Clark said. “Now it’s about putting it all together, and being consistent throughout the year.”
“The nation,” Bluder said, “is paying attention.”
Photo: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark celebrates during last season’s Big Ten Tournament. (James Black/Icon Sportswire)