By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Megan Gustafson is one of those rare talents whose exploits are so incredible that it seems almost certain we'll never see the likes of her again on the Iowa women’s basketball team.
That isn’t a knock against the Iowa program because why would you criticize a program that makes the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis, and is well on its way to doing it again this season?
Instead, it’s high praise for the 6-foot-3 Gustafson for being the greatest player in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program.
I reached that conclusion on Wednesday after watching her dominate a talented Rutgers squad that is known for playing in-your-face defense with 32 points and 12 rebounds.
Iowa hung on to defeat Rutgers 72-66 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and afterwards Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer gave high praise to Gustafson.
“She’s the best that I’ve seen,” Stringer said. “She’s truly the best center in the country, bar none.”
For Stringer to say that about Gustafson carries a lot of weight, considering what Stringer has accomplished during her legendary coaching career.
Stringer built Iowa into a national power during her 12 seasons as head coach from 1983 to 1995, and she did so by recruiting players with immense talent.
In fact, I was reluctant to rank Gustafson ahead of one of her former Iowa players – Michelle Edwards – until watching Gustafson have her way against Rutgers.
The most incredible thing about Gustafson scoring 32 points against Rutgers is that she only needed 16 field-goal attempts to do it. She made 13-of-16 field goal attempts despite facing the kind of suffocating defense that has made Stringer highly successful.
Gustafson also scored Iowa’s first 13 points in the game and she played nearly 35 minutes in a game that was physical from start to finish.
“The beautiful part about Gustafson is she runs,” Stringer said. “She played 34, 35 minutes. She did everything on both ends of the floor.
“We had no answer for her. None.”
Again, this was C. Vivian Stringer saying that about Gustafson, a coaching genius who prides herself on defense admitting that she had no answer for Iowa’s dynamic left-handed center from tiny Port Wing, Wis.
To hear Stringer say it with conviction has convinced me to finally rank Gustafson ahead of Edwards.
And that’s saying a lot because Edwards was a terrific player for Iowa as a quick and skilled shooting guard.
Stringer also coached some of the top centers in the history of the Iowa program in Toni Foster and Tangela Smith, but Gustafson, in my opinion, has surpassed both of them in terms of greatness.
Stringer said Gustafson was the best center in the country for this year, while I'm saying Gustafson is the best player at Iowa regardless of position.
Edwards helped build Iowa into a national power in the 1980s, but she didn’t produce at the level at which Gustafson has produced, especially over the past two seasons as a junior and senior.
Gustafson is already Iowa's career leader in scoring and rebounding, and she still has 10 regular-season games and the postseason to build on those numbers.
Gustafson makes recording a double-double look easy. The challenge now seems to be if she can record one by halftime.
She recorded her 18th double-double of the season in Wednesday’s game against Rutgers, and it was the 73rd of her career.
Not since the days of Reggie Evans has an Iowa player, man or woman, produced at that level at which Gustafson has produced.
But Gustafson's success goes beyond just individual statistics. She also has made Iowa a winner and that's a huge part of achieving greatness.
The only thing that can stop Gustafson, or so it seems, is time.
Iowa only has five home games remaining, including Sunday's game against Purdue, so the opportunities to see Gustafson do her thing are running out.
She is a joy to watch for what she does individually, but also for how she plays with her teammates.
Gustafson is Iowa’s star player without being Iowa’s star player. She goes out of her way to praise her teammates because Gustafson understands that basketball is a team sport, and she knows that her teammates play a huge role in her success.
"I believed in my teammates and they believed in me," Gustafson said after Wednesday's victory that impvoed Iowa's record to 15-4 oveall and 6-2 in the Big Ten.
That's a powerful statement because it shows that everybody is on the same page, and shows that Gustafson values and appreciates a group effort.
Iowa guards Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer do a spectacular job of feeding Gustafson in the post with passes that often give Gustafson the right body lean heading to the basket. Combine that with Gustafson’s uncanny ability to make shots from different angles off the glass and you have an effective combination.
“They work with precision,” Stringer said. “They understand how to hit the big girl.”
Gustafson wouldn’t be the force that she is without help from Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder and from her assistant coaches, and that can’t be understated.
Iowa associate head Jan Jensen has worked miracles with Gustafson, who was accomplished coming out of high school, but not to where you would’ve expected this kind of stardom in college.
We’re witnessing something that we’ll probably never see again with Megan Gustafson.
She is a gift that keeps on giving with dominance, the kind of dominance that now makes her the greatest player in the history of the Iowa women’s basketball program.