At Iowa, it all boils down to chemistry

If a picture is worth a thousand words, you might choose to skip all of the letters that follow and absorb instead the picture of Iowa teammates Melissa Dixon, a senior, and Whitney Jennings, a freshman, in the closing seconds of regulation in a January game against Nebraska.

The more pressing question for Iowa as the postseason approaches and the best start in program history fades into the shadow of a forgettable week is whether that picture is worth a thousand rebounds.

Or at least a few dozen.

Dixon is most clearly visible in the picture, forehead to forehead with Jennings as her left hand envelops the right side of the freshman's head while the older player is in the act of saying something. Already easy to miss, the 5-foot-5 Jennings is all but invisible because of Dixon's hand and the approaching forms of teammates Ally Disterhoft and Samantha Logic.

One second remained in the second half and Iowa trailed 61-60 when that moment was captured. Or more accurately, the Hawkeyes still trailed by that lone point. Fouled with one second on the clock, Jennings missed the first of two free throws.

A win against Nebraska, something that no Iowa player in uniform that day had managed during their time in Iowa City, would, at best, come only in overtime. And that only if the freshman with all eyes on her hit the next free throw. The first free throw hadn't felt like it was off when it left her hand, but now the doubt of one miss threatened to drown out a lifetime of makes.

It was then that Dixon approached.

"I was just trying to calm her down a little bit," she said. "That situation is never easy, especially to be a freshman. I was just trying to calm her down and tell her she had the second one."

It was not a new exchange between senior and freshman, mentor and pupil.

Between friends.

"She's definitely been the one to just kind of always believe in me, always give me confidence," Jennings said. "She's always letting me know that I can do this. On the court, if I miss a shot or I have a turnover, she's always there to pick me up and tell me I'll hit the next one and that everything is fine."

Jennings made the second free throw to force overtime. Iowa finally beat Nebraska. And to hear them tell it, part of the reason they won -- part of the reason they won 21 of their first 25 games and remain ranked No. 17 even after back-to-back losses this past week slowed that record pace and ensured Maryland's Big Ten title -- comes down to nothing more complicated than the fact that they like each other.

"I feel we have beaten teams that are more talented than we are," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "But because we do those little things better, we have come out on top."

This is far from the first place wherein it is suggested that what we call chemistry when it comes to sports is much closer to alchemy. It is more magic than science. It can't be measured. It can't be quantified. It can't be tested. Its existence might not be a matter of faith -- almost all of us have been part of a workplace, athletic team or club where people got along and have likely experienced the same when such harmony was absent. But its place in the equation of success, whether it resides closer to cause or effect, is entirely a matter of belief. The basic conundrum remains.

Do teams win because they have good chemistry?

Or do teams have good chemistry because they win?

"I think teams win because they have good chemistry," Jennings said. "That's a hard question, but I honestly think that because we have such good chemistry outside of basketball, we're all friends outside of basketball, it makes it so much more fun to play on the court with each other. I think when you have those relationships outside of basketball, you want to succeed for one another on the court. We're all working so hard in practice every day because we want to succeed for one another and we want to win for each other. ... It gives you a purpose to work hard every day."

What makes Iowa such a fascinating study is that it is a team whose success this season comes despite a glaring weakness. It is rare for a Top 25 team to run a rebounding deficit of any kind. Football has the struggle to control the line of scrimmage and thereby the game. Basketball has the boards. But Iowa isn't just running a rebounding deficit; it finished the weekend ranked 305th in the nation in rebounding margin, one spot behind Rhode Island and one spot ahead of a tie between Detroit and Delaware State. Those programs don't need to worry about keeping their schedules free for the second week of the NCAA tournament. Iowa does.

It shouldn't be one of the best teams in the country with those numbers. It is.

"I didn't think it was going to be an issue all season, and it frustrates me because it's something we drill every single day in practice," Bluder said. "Everybody understands it and everybody knows the importance of it; we're just not always getting the job done. ... We've got to turn it around. If we want to be playing later in the season, that makes a difference in close games."

If you want to keep your feet on the firm ground of the tangible, Iowa makes up for that deficiency in one area by excelling in others. It is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. The Hawkeyes rank fourth in the nation in overall field goal percentage, ninth in 3-point accuracy and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio. They make the most of the possessions they have. There have been a lot of Iowa teams with good shooting numbers but few that accumulated those numbers in quite the same way.

"She brings joy. Everything she does, the kid smiles and laughs. Sometimes she's so emotional, and not in a bad sense, but she'll start to tear up because she's so happy. You just don't see emotion out of kids like that a lot of the time." Iowa coach Lisa Bluder on senior Melissa Dixon

That is a collective effort, from Logic as the consummate point guard and potential All-American to Disterhoft's growth as a sophomore into an assertive scorer (ask Maryland about the frustration of avoiding fouling some part of those long arms and legs when she drives to the basket) and Bethany Doolittle's play in and around the paint. But Dixon is as emblematic of Iowa's strengths as any player. The 3-pointers she grew up shooting as an equalizer against her brothers on a full court in their backyard are now an equalizer against the best Division I has to offer. She shoots 44 percent from the 3-point line on around eight attempts per game and has committed just 32 turnovers in 835 minutes.

Yet the players and coaches around her will insist that what makes this team successful is at least as attributable to that moment when Dixon took Jennings' head in her hands as what the shooter does with the ball in her hands.

"She brings joy," Bluder explained. "Everything she does, the kid smiles and laughs. Sometimes she's so emotional, and not in a bad sense, but she'll start to tear up because she's so happy. You just don't see emotion out of kids like that a lot of the time. Kids want to be cool, they don't want to show their emotions. She wears it on her sleeve."

It isn't just Dixon, of course. As with the scoring, it's fellow seniors Logic and Doolittle. It's Disterhoft and Jennings. It's reserves like Claire Till and Kali Peschel. Asked how problems are resolved when they arise, as they inevitably must when 14 people spend months in such close proximity, Dixon fumbled around for a few seconds before finally admitting she didn't know. There hadn't been any problems to resolve.

Is that the gospel truth? It's difficult to believe given human nature, but as Bluder said of what is now a 15-year tenure in Iowa City that will soon include its 12th NCAA tournament appearance, you start to figure out which players fit the mold and which players, no matter how much you salivate over their talent, would break that mold.

"We all know that's the way to do things," Bluder said. "But we all see it doesn't happen that way all the time."

The past week will test that unity and test how much it matters. Minnesota and Ohio State exploited Iowa on the boards. Minnesota's Amanda Zahui B. nearly had more rebounds on her own than the Hawkeyes. The losses left the team clinging to a No. 4 seed and the right to host the first two rounds in Charlie Creme's most recent NCAA tournament projections, with a rematch against Minnesota looming before the Big Ten tournament.

Iowa will need to hit 3-pointers. It will need to keep valuing the basketball. It will need to keep believing.

"We genuinely just love playing together and being out on the court together," Dixon said. "You can tell how much fun we have."

Cause or effect?

Or to put it another way, how many rebounds is that photo worth?