November 14, 2020 

Monika Czinano leads Iowa into its biggest challenge yet

Hawkeyes junior center guides a young program back into the spotlight

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Monika Czinano. (Photo: Iowa Athletics)

A year ago, Iowa’s Monika Czinano was a relatively untested sophomore expected — however tacitly — to try to fill the shoes of one of the best to ever wear a Hawkeye uniform.

Heading into her junior season, the Hawkeye center has proven herself and then some.

“Her improvement from freshman to sophomore year I think was nothing but remarkable, and her commitment,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said during a news conference Monday. “I’m so excited to have Monika for a few more years, and I think she’s just continued her growth over the past year.”

As a freshman, Czinano got plenty of minutes behind Megan Gustafson, the All-American and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year. But Gustafson was always the focal point, the one teammates looked up to, and her departure for the WNBA left Iowa with a literal and metaphorical hole down low.

Going into last season, Bluder reasonably wanted to strike a different tone. Czinano was a lot like Gustafson, sure — same size, same ability to finish. Her lack of experience, though, was key: Czinano appeared in all but two games as a freshman, but only played more than 10 minutes once after the start of Big Ten play.

“[Czinano is] better in some things than Megan was,” Bluder said at last year’s media day. “But I think that’s going to be something that really is holding her down all year if people keep trying to make that comparison because they’re two different people.”

But last season, Czinano not only was second on the team in scoring but also second in the country in field-goal percentage. And while it was admittedly a surprise to Bluder to see that kind of production so quickly, she’s not shy about talking about how close she was to equaling the prestige Gustafson collected for herself during her junior and senior seasons — “two more field goals,” Bluder pointed out twice, separated Czinano from Oregon senior Ruthy Hebard.

When asked again about the comparison this year, Bluder remained coy yet optimistic about the reality of the situation down low.

“I think Monika uses her left probably better than Megan used her right, as far as a sophomore,” Bluder said. “But Monika continues to improve. She’s very physical. She’s more of a vocal leader this year than she was last year, and she knows the team is counting on her to put the basket in the hole.”

That started with Czinano being named to both the coaches and media 2020-21 preseason All-Big Ten teams. While Iowa itself wasn’t included in either preseason poll — the conference only recognizes five teams — it wasn’t recognized last season, either, one that ended with a third-place finish, a chance it might host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament and Kathleen Doyle being named Big Ten Player of the Year.

Czinano isn’t an official team captain, but Bluder acknowledged her playing development was the priority last season and remains such this season. She’s still a junior on a team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores. Not having the title doesn’t mean she can’t emulate the leadership of those who came before her.

“I think as a sophomore we needed her to work on so many other things and concentrate on so many other things that I didn’t want [being a captain] to be on her plate, as well,” Bluder said. “But she is a leader just because that’s the type of person she is.”

She’s also a leader that Iowa could keep around not just for her junior and senior seasons, but for another season past that, thanks to the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to winter sports athletes in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps, though, Czinano will want to cede the floor to incoming freshman Sharon Goodman — a player who may as well have the same relationship with Czinano that Czinano did with Gustafson. Goodman, who shares Czinano’s height at 6’3, broke her high school’s scoring, rebounding, and blocks records and was a three-time first-team all-state selection in Iowa.

With as much as Czinano soaked up playing behind Megan for just one year, even two years playing behind Czinano could make Goodman the next Iowa big to watch nationwide.

“I am so excited about Sharon Goodman,” Bluder said. “One of our downfalls [last season] was that we didn’t have a good backup 5. And now this year, we have two exceptional post players.”

Bluder added that the pair have looked similar in practice, right down to their dual 70% shooting, and that she wouldn’t hesitate to go to Goodman off the bench. The luxury of having so many fouls to give at the center position is one Bluder is already excited about.

But the lingering question of using up all five years of eligibility remains, and it’s one that will take some thought on all sides over the next two years. Until then, though, the Hawkeyes look to keep improving — and then, perhaps, opt to keep some familiar faces around.

“If Monika decides to come back for that extra year, boy, to have her be in that starting position for four years or having that much experience, I just know a lot of people would love to have two posts like we have right now in their freshman and junior,” Bluder said. “If you have that experience around for that long of a time, I think it could really bode well for us.”

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