By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
It’s the consistency of center Monika Czinano that impresses Iowa coach Lisa Bluder.
Czinano was second in the nation in field-goal percentage as a sophomore, first as a junior, and first again last season as a senior.
“Statistically, for you to lead in any statistical category two years in a row, it’s astronomical,” Bluder said. “For you to back that up year after year, it’s mind-boggling.”
So, why not do it again?
Czinano is back, taking advantage of the additional year granted by the NCAA during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Everyone, it seems, is back for the Hawkeyes after a season in which they shared the Big Ten regular-season title and won the conference tournament — Czinano and the other four starters, 11 returners altogether.
And, there was the bitter taste from the end of last season, when the Hawkeyes were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Creighton.
No way was Czinano going to miss this.
“Playing with these guys, playing for Coach Bluder, it was pretty easy to decide to come back,” Czinano said. “It would have been a lot different coming back to a complete rebuilding year, a rebuilding team.
“It would feel weird if I wasn’t there. I think it would have been a different conversation a little bit if we would have had a whole new team.”
Bluder gave Czinano a week at the end of last season to decide whether to come back.
“I think it took me three days,” Czinano said.
Now she’s back, anchoring the post for a team ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press preseason poll.
Czinano, a first-team All-Big Ten pick the last two seasons and a preseason all-conference pick this season, is a 67 percent shooter for her career. That number, Bluder said, is an indication of the work she has put in on her shot, calling it, “One of the most amazing success stories. She did it all.”
“She had a messed-up shot, to be quite honest, her freshman year,” Bluder said of Czinano, who shot just 54.9 percent in a limited role behind national player of the year Megan Gustafson. “Between her freshman and sophomore years, we got in the gym and we went back to soft-touch shooting and we completely changed her style of shooting. She did the hard work then. We gave her the opportunity. We gave her the education. It was up to her to make it work, and she did. She was in the gym all the time doing one-handed shooting, two-hand soft-touch shooting, doing the things that were required for her to straighten out her shot, and boy, did she ever straighten it out. Shooting 68 percent from the field is amazing.”
But Czinano knows she also has to be better defensively and in rebounding. She was second on the team with 191 rebounds last season, and she blocked eight shots.
“There’s room for improvement in every category,” Czinano said.
What Bluder appreciates the most is that Czinano, like Gustafson before her, is a true post. She’s not going to wander outside to shoot.
“We saw something in her we really liked — she embraced contact,” Bluder said. “So many fives today, so many bigs, do not want to embrace contact. They want to be out shooting threes. I’m old-school. I want the one post down there that’s going to embrace contact, get good position on the block, and score at a high percentage. I love that.”
She’s got that in Czinano, but there’s also depth at the position that Bluder can use. Sharon Goodman is back after a knee injury kept her out last season. Addison O’Grady averaged 10 minutes per game as Czinano’s backup last season. Bluder liked the offseason improvement of sophomore A.J. Ediger, and freshman Hannah Stuelke is a versatile frontcourt player. So there’s some help to keep Czinano from wearing down.
But Bluder is glad to have Czinano back.
And Czinano is glad to be back. It’s one more run with her friends.
“It’s just such a family here,” she said. “It’s not something I was so ready to give up. I love playing basketball at this level. I think college basketball is so fun. It’s been a dream of mine. To see it come true is so awesome.”
SEEING SOMEONE NEW
Iowa and Creighton have played each other so many times in the closed scrimmage teams are allowed to have in the preseason, neither Bluder nor Creighton coach Jim Flanery could remember last March when the streak started.
That was a topic of conversation on the day before the Bluejays eliminated the Hawkeyes from the NCAA tournament, when Lauren Jensen, who transferred from Iowa, hit the game-winning shot in the 64-62 victory.
This year, the Hawkeyes are playing DePaul in their preseason scrimmage.
“Do I need to explain that?” Bluder said with a laugh at last Thursday’s media day. “A little bad taste in our mouth, obviously. You know something, DePaul is a great team. They were ranked No. 1 in the country in points per game, they play in the Big East
“I called Jim and explained the situation. He was great with it. He totally understood. We’ve been doing that a lot of years, and it was just time for something new and especially after that situation last year.”
A LONG WAY AWAY
Iowa and Iowa State were both in the top 10 of the AP preseason poll — the Cyclones were No. 8 — but if either or both make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament this season, they’ll have to travel.
Under the new tournament setup, only two cities — this season it’s Seattle and Greenville, S.C. — will be hosts for the regional semifinals and finals.
And it’s not something that will be in the Midwest for a while — Albany, New York and Portland, Oregon, are the cities set for 2024, Birmingham, Alabama, and Spokane, Washington, in 2025, and Fort Worth, Texas and Sacramento, California for 2026.
“No, it’s not for the Midwest,” Bluder said. “Here we have Iowa and Iowa State both ranked in the top 10 and neither one of us, if we make it that far, would have a chance to play in the Midwest, which is kind of sad.
“You know, the NCAA is trying this to try to get more neutrality within the Sweet 16 because a lot of times those regionals have been right in certain people’s backyards anyway. It’s not like we’ve had a bunch right in the Midwest as it is. I guess it’s good that we’ll have a neutral place to play those games, more neutral than what it’s been in the past.”
Photo: Iowa’s Monika Czinano (right) shoots in a 2021 game at Wisconsin. (Lawrence Iles/Icon SportsWire)