IOWA CITY, Iowa — Judging by her stats, Hawkeyes junior center Megan Gustafson might be the best player in America.
Unfortunately for Gustafson, not many people outside of Iowa see it that way.
Gustafson leads the nation with 25.6 points a game for the sixth-seeded Hawkeyes (24-7), who will face 11th-seeded Creighton (18-12) on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Los Angeles.
Big Ten Conference coaches selected Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell as their player of the year — despite the fact that the 6-foot-3 Gustafson is also fifth in the country in rebounds a game (12.7) and set a league record by earning player of the week honors nine out of 15 weeks this season.
Most major publications didn’t list Gustafson as a first-team All-American, either — even though she’s also shooting a national-best 66.8 percent and scored a Big Ten tournament-record 48 points with 15 rebounds in her last game, a 90-89 loss to Minnesota.
Gustafson insisted those slights motivate her rather than bother her. Her teammates hope they can help Gustafson show the country what she is all about this March.
“Obviously everybody knows how good she is, besides maybe whoever voted (for) the All-Americans. But it makes you mad because she has some of the best stats in the country,” Iowa guard Makenzie Meyer said. “It disappoints me — and she’s a great person. She’s a humble teammate. I mean, I can’t say enough about her.”
Gustafson had shown all the signs of future stardom coming out of South Shore High School in tiny Port Wing, Wisconsin. She made the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team in 2015-16 and earned a first-team nod a year ago after averaging 18.5 points and 10.6 rebounds a game.
It took a devastating injury suffered by one of her teammates for Gustafson to realize that the inexperienced Hawkeyes would need her to carry them this winter. Junior Tania Davis tore an ACL in her knee for the second year in a row in mid-December, leaving Iowa without its point guard and one of its few veteran standouts.
Gustafson took charge, becoming just the second player in the last 10 years to average at least 24 points and 12 rebounds a game.
Gustafson’s exclamation point came against the Gophers, when she shot 19 of 26 from the floor.
“That was really tough. She’s a great floor leader,” Gustafson said about Davis. “I think, at that point, I realized that I really needed to step up. I kept working hard before then. But I think that was a little bit of a turning point for me because…I was the most experienced player on the floor at that time. To be able to gather my team and keep them motivated was really important.”
Teammates said they weren’t surprised to see Gustafson have a breakout season, even if that caught much of the rest of the country by surprise.
The Hawkeyes describe Gustafson as an easygoing and affable teammate whose on-court intensity inspires them — and serves as an invaluable lesson for a team that has just one senior starter.
“She wants it so bad. She works so hard,” Iowa’s Chase Coley said about Gustafson, who was named Big Ten player of the year by media members who cover the league. “She’s always the first one on the floor diving for loose balls. She doesn’t take any breaks. Like, when she’s in that basketball mode, she’s in that basketball mode. She doesn’t have 50 percent or 75 percent. It’s either zero (percent) off the court or 100 percent when she’s on the court.”
Thanks to Gustafson, the Hawkeyes are back in the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence. And though they’re underdogs to survive the first weekend of the tournament, the future looks promising for Gustafson and the Hawkeyes in 2018-19.
“I’m hoping that we’re setting up this year for great things next year,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. “We’re not going to complain about being second-team All-American or third-team All-American. Certainly I believe she’s a first-team All-American.”