January 23, 2023
How no dribbling, elite footwork and an infectious personality produced Iowa post Monika Czinano
'If everybody was a little bit like Monika, I think this world would be a lot better place'
Monika Czinano didn’t know how she could ever live up to the expectations at Iowa.
She joined the program before the 2018-19 season as a three-star recruit out of Watertown, Minnesota. A small town of about 4,500, Watertown’s Wikipedia page lists just four notable people; Czinano is one of them. But she was anything but notable coming out of high school.
She hadn’t received a ton of looks from Power 5 programs. But Iowa City – population 75,000 – became her desired destination. She knew she’d be poised to ultimately replace Megan Gustafson, if it was even possible to replace someone that dominant. Perhaps she didn’t fully know what to expect.
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That first season, the team finished 29-7, won the Big Ten tournament and reached the Elite Eight. Czinano only played about five minutes per game, taking a backseat as Gustafson shot 70 percent from the field, averaged 27.8 points and 13.4 rebounds per game, all among the best marks in the sport.
“We were like, ‘Man, how’re we ever going to live up to that?’” says Kate Martin, now a fifth-year guard who, like Czinano, arrived in Iowa City wide-eyed and in a bit of astonishment of who she played basketball with every day.
Yet five years later, Iowa continues to shine. The Hawkeyes reached the NCAA tournament again in Czinano’s junior and senior years (they would’ve her sophomore year, too, if not for COVID-19) and hoisted the oversized-but-shiny Big Ten regular season and tournament trophies last year. Meanwhile, Czinano has blossomed into one of the most prolific post players in the country.
Few aspire to fill the shoes of an all-time great. Especially early on, expectations are enormous, comparisons frequent and disappointment all but certain if lofty achievement isn’t immediately met. Yet through her four years as the Hawkeyes’ starting center, Czinano’s navigated it all with grace, persistence and her contagious smile.
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Along her journey, she’s mastered the catch-pivot-layup sequence that’s elevated her to one of the game’s most lethal threats; she’s grown into one of the heartbeats for a team that’s endured exceedingly high expectations year after year; and she’s achieved it all while studying biology with hopes of one day becoming a doctor.
“Not only is Monika a great basketball player, she’s just a great person,” says Martin, who’s been Czinano’s roommate for the last four years. “The whole program’s been very blessed and lucky to have a person like Monika around. Everybody on the team is a better person because of her. She lifts everyone up around her, and she’s really the heart and soul of this team.
“If everybody was a little bit like Monika, I think this world would be a lot better place.”
It feels like a sin to dribble
Thinking about dribbling pains Czinano. She clutches her chest with her hand when she imagines herself doing it. It’s almost as if she’s instead acting out how she would react if one of the snails she cares for in her lab somehow broke loose.
At this point in her career, she knows why she doesn’t need to dribble. It wasn’t always that way.
When she arrived her freshman year, associate head coach Jan Jensen provided simple instruction.
“You need to get a drink when Megan gets a drink. When Megan goes to that basket, you go to that basket,” Jensen recalls telling her. “Absorb all you can from Megan because she’s one of the all-time greats.”
Czinano, eager to learn but still only a freshman, often stood in awe.
“She would ask me to go shoot every single day,” she says. “Off days, days we had practice. I’m like, ‘Dang, really? No off days?’”
But when Mozart teaches you how to play the piano, you listen.
“I think that was really invaluable to me, just having that role model to look up to,” Czinano says. “As for me coming in and making an impact? I didn’t even know how I would do that quite honestly.”
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Step one involved buying into one of the more counterintuitive philosophies you could ever have in basketball: how to not dribble.
Fifth-year senior Czinano rarely puts the ball on the floor in the post. You’re more likely to see Caitlin Clark drop 45 points than you are to see Czinano dribble more than 10 times in a game.
High school senior Czinano only dribbling 10 times in a game? Not so much. She dominated with a dribble drop-step. When you’re taller and quicker than the person guarding you, go for it. But the realities of playing in the Big Ten required a recalibrated approach.
“(Coach Jensen) was like, ‘Why? Why dribble? What is it doing for you? You’re already so close to the basket. It’s giving a chance for guards to come in,’” Czinano remembers.
Adds Jensen: “The dribble, you don’t need it in my opinion. If you can seal well enough and your timing and footwork are sharp enough, then you don’t have to risk dribbling off your foot, you don’t have to risk a guard choking.”
Early on, it felt like a nuanced obsession from her coach, but Jensen’s worked with post players for three decades. She does know what she’s talking about.
“When I didn’t dribble, all of a sudden, my defense wasn’t there,” Czinano says. “I was making all these shots way faster. … At this point in my career, it feels like a sin to even dribble. I take one dribble, and I’m like, ‘I just know I’m gonna see it on film later.’”
The no–dribble philosophy is just that: a philosophy. It’s not necessarily right or wrong.
Jensen and head coach Lisa Bluder just want what’s easiest.
“I think people try to overcomplicate post play sometimes, ‘I have nine post moves that I can go to,’” Bluder told The Next’s Howard Megdal before the season. “How about just four basic post moves? Why not just have four basic moves and do the same boring thing really, really well over and over and over again? I don’t mind that.”
It’s the old cliché, taught subliminally through basketball: Don’t be the jack-of-all-trades but master of none.
By the midway point of the non-conference schedule her sophomore year, Czinano wasn’t quite yet a master of post play, but she felt the belief in herself grow. Against Clemson on Dec. 4, 2019, she turned in a career-high 24 points.
A lesser-known player at the time, opponents may not have scouted her much. Even still, she tasted what was to come.
“I was like, ‘OK, I can really do this,’” she says of how she felt after that game. “I really felt like I had arrived, and I can do this. I can be a really successful post player in the Big Ten.”
Embrace the mundane
The 2022-23 version of Iowa bears the uniqueness of returning the same five starters from last season.
That continuity makes life easier for Czinano – her teammates know where she likes the ball and how to throw it into her at exactly the right moment.
“You learn pretty quickly that if you have the best-shooting-percentage post in the country on your team, you want to get the ball into her,” Martin says.
To a casual basketball fan, Czinano’s post play likely wouldn’t appear anything close to dynamic or eye-popping. It’s rhythmic; it’s subtle; it’s sly.
And it’s what works. It’s hard to argue when she’s been in the 100th percentile in field goal percentage the last three seasons and the 99th percentile this year, per Her Hoop Stats.
“I think every post player will tell you, there’s not a ton to reinvent that wheel,” Jensen says. “Guards, they’ve got Euro steps, they’ve got different ways to hop into their three-point shot. … But when you’re at that block, there’s not a whole lot of stuff. You have to embrace the mundane.”
Another secret behind her success? Thinking multiple passes ahead of her defender.
When Clark dribbles up the floor, Czinano’s not necessarily preparing for a high-low pass right away. Rather, she’s anticipating where that second or third pass will go, so she’s ready to catch, pivot and lay it in.
So far this season, she’s shooting 65 percent from the field, while averaging 17.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Maybe not as gaudy as Gustafson’s final year, but Czinano plays with Clark, so the load isn’t all on her shoulders. She’s also in the 100th percentile in offensive win shares, underscoring just how valuable her offense is to an Iowa team that’s off to a 15-4 start this season.
“If they’re ever guarding her on her back, you gotta get the ball in automatically because nobody can really guard her down there,” Martin says. “She makes us guards look good. She says we make her look good, but man, does she make us look good.”
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A beast of its own
Czinano had just finished feeding some of her snails.
“It’s part of what I love to do, honestly,” she says.
A biology major, medical school remains an intermediate-term focus. She still has more basketball to play first.
She plans on testing the WNBA draft waters and dreams about playing basketball in Hungary, where her dad’s from.
“As long as I have the body, I have the abilities to do it, why not?” Czinano says. “Medical school is going to be the beast of its own, so I’m gonna have to just keep pushing that off for as long as I can.”
She hasn’t pushed off thinking about it, though. She’s still deciding if she wants to study obstetrics or podiatry – the latter, a fitting thought considering how valuable her own feet have been in elevating her basketball career to one of the best in the country.
But right now, she still wants to squeeze as much juice out of the orange at Iowa while she still can. Her student-athlete experience brings such joy to her already upbeat personality, even if the student side of the student-athlete equation requires a bit more time in the library than some of her teammates.
“She’s always studying,” Martin says. “She loves going to her coffee shops and studying, or she’s always in her room doing extra homework.”
Of course, Iowa women’s basketball has also done quite a bit of winning since Czinano arrived on campus, posting a 111-36 record. And while her teammates and coaches will surely cherish all the memories of big wins and cutting down nets and triumphantly clutching trophies, Czinano’s impact transcends winning.
“Whenever I think of Monika Czinano, I’ll think of this genuine smile where you see this little fourth grader in the midst of this nation’s best center,” Jensen says.
Czinano’s industriousness, plus this deep support system around her, has pushed her this far. Her immensely successful journey might’ve felt unlikely at first, but in hindsight, it all makes perfect sense to anyone who knows her well.
Jensen has witnessed every millimeter of Czinano’s growth. Her heart fills with palpable joy as she thinks back to the beginning. She’s coached at Iowa for 23 years now. The feeling never grows old.
“These jobs we do are intense, and we wanna win – we gotta win to keep our jobs,” she says. “But why I certainly do it is just to see Monika Czinano go from a little, uncertain, Watertown, Minnesota incoming freshman and now be one of the best centers arguably in the country who’s going to be a doc. How cool is that?”
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.