Have no doubt, Iowa’s Megan Gustafson will take you to school.
She’s been doing it to opponents all season; it’s why she entered Saturday’s games leading the nation in scoring, at 27.3 points per game, across all divisions for the second year in a row. She’s shooting 70.9 percent from the field, also tops in Division I, which is all the more impressive considering she had attempted 78 more field goals than anyone else ranked in the top 10.
And if you ask how it is that the 6-foot-3 senior forward so rarely misses even though teams have had almost four years to figure out how to stop her, the answer probably comes down to school, too. As in elementary school: That’s when Gustafson learned to love the old-school drill that made her the scorer she is today.
“She does the Mikan drill,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said recently, “which every post player in America grew up doing, and she does it with two basketballs, and she does it better than anyone I’ve ever seen do it in my life. She does it all the time.”
The Mikan drill — invented in the 1940s by two Hall of Famers, center George Mikan and coach Ray Meyer, at DePaul University — involves a player standing under the basket, laying the ball up with her right hand, rebounding the ball with her left, then laying it up with her left and rebounding with her right, and so on.
Gustafson does hers with a twist, adding an extra ball so she’s rebounding and making layups with both hands at the same time.
“It’s definitely one of my favorite drills; it’s where I get my confidence from at the rim,” Gustafson said. “I like to see how fast I can get it going. It helps me see different angles and get my shot up quick.”
It’s a simple exercise, but then again, few players have weaponized simplicity the way Gustafson has in the past two years.
A native of Port Wing, a tiny town on Lake Superior in far northern Wisconsin, Gustafson grew up in a family of post players. She has not followed the fashion among modern bigs to step out and shoot three-pointers, having attempted one all season, which is one more than she shot last year.
Rather, Gustafson has led No. 14 Iowa (20-5, 11-3 Big Ten) to second in the conference standings — with a visit from the leader, No. 7 Maryland (23-2, 12-2), looming on Sunday — by being really good at a few key things. She likes to dart to the low post, catch inside, then turn and shoot before anyone has time to get near her.
That style of play has made for a successful marriage of player and program. Bluder, who is in her 19th season in Iowa City, stresses teamwork and humility in her program above almost all else. (The Hawkeyes sit No. 2 in the country in assists.) She discovered Gustafson, who was part of a graduating class of 11 at her public high school, at a state tournament and recruited her by building a strong relationship with her, plain and simple.
“She was a pretty darn good post player who could run the floor and didn’t mind contact, and those are hard to find,” Bluder said. “It was about relationships and trust. Saying, ‘Come here and we’re going to make you a star’ probably would have turned Megan off, to be quite honest. She’s a very team player. It’s funny; we’d talk to her dad, and he’d say, ‘Well, we were just hoping she was going to get to play a little!’ That was their kind of mentality. It matched ours on court. It’s always kind of been our philosophy — like, you need four good post moves. You don’t need to have 20 post moves. I think some people try to be a jack of all trades and master of none.”
Gustafson made a leap between her sophomore and junior years. Last season, she led Division I at 25.7 points per game and became the second women’s college player in the past 10 years to average at least 24 points and 12 rebounds, after WNBA star Chiney Ogwumike did it at Stanford.
On Sunday’s nationally televised showdown, Gustafson will be the Terps’ problem to solve.
The answer to dealing with such an efficient shooter seems to lie in keeping the ball out of Gustafson’s hands as much as possible, which is easier said than done. Michigan, one of three Big Ten teams to beat Iowa this season, was able to frustrate Gustafson on defense even though the Wolverines allowed her to score 27 points on 14 shots.
“She’s strong, she’s physical, and she can shoot through people,” Michigan Coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We tried to throw an extra body around her early. … It’s important to catch her at the foul line and start bumping her there. If you let her go to the block on you, I think it’s over.”
Maryland has had success wrangling Gustafson in the past — the Terps haven’t lost to Iowa since they joined the conference in 2014 — and limited her to 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting last season, when Maryland’s defense wasn’t as strong as it is now.
The Terps have the length and experience to combat Gustafson with 6-5 Shakira Austin, 6-2 Stephanie Jones and 6-3 Brianna Fraser. But Maryland Coach Brenda Frese knows defending the forward will be a challenge.
“What Megan has grown into, I mean, just to see what she’s evolved into, I think she’s definitely an all-American, one of the best 10 players in the country,” Frese said.
Gustafson has grown in the past year; a lefty, she has become more confident using her right hand. After Bluder sat her down in the offseason and let her know it would be okay if she didn’t top the numbers she put up her junior year, Gustafson worked to add a midrange jumper to her repertoire.
Gustafson didn’t want to deviate from her game too much, but being able to step out to the free throw line was just enough to make sure she kept improving.
“I told her she couldn’t top her junior year,” Bluder said. “It’s so funny now; our expectations are off the charts for her and really are unrealistic. She’ll miss three shots in a game, and we’ll be like, ‘What’s wrong?’ It’s kind of a shame. You start getting used to greatness.”