Iowa sophomore center Monika Czinano went from averaging 5.3 minutes per game to first-team All-Big Ten in one season.
“Baby Post” is what Megan Gustafson, the Iowa center who was the national player of the year last season, calls Czinano, who took her freshman season as Gustafson’s backup and consumed every bit of knowledge.
“It’s such a cute relationship,” Czinano said, laughing at the nickname Gustafson gave her.
Czinano averaged 1.9 points last season. This season she’s averaging 16.1 points. Her field-goal percentage of .699 is best in NCAA Division I play.
“You know, I wish I could say, ‘Oh yeah, I knew Monika was going to be this good,’” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said during Wednesday’s media availability. “But I can’t. I think she’s exceeded everybody’s expectations. We’re thrilled, because she just embraced it last year. She worked hard. She was like a sponge to Megan. She was like this person that was wanting to learn everything.”
“So many people see her as Megan’s backup,” said Iowa guard Kathleen Doyle, who was the Big Ten’s player of the year this season. “She just kind of made her own name for herself this year. None of us are surprised. She works so hard.
“She just wants to get better, wants to learn. She does that every day in practice. I think she shows a lot of maturity in that way.”
“She’s grown a tremendous amount,” senior guard Makenzie Meyer said. “We knew how hard Monika worked, and how great of a player she is. But I don’t know how many people would have predicted her to be first-team All-Big Ten at the beginning of the season. So I’m just so happy to see her hard work pay off, and see her prove people wrong. Especially after Megan left, people thought there would be a drop-off.”
Bluder told Czinano before the season started that she shouldn’t feel pressure taking over the spot of the player who finished her career as Iowa’s leading scorer and rebounder.
Be Monika, she said. Not Megan.
Now she teases Czinano about it, pointing out how Gustafson was fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage in her sophomore year at .696.
“I told her, ‘Megan was fifth as a sophomore. And here you are leading (the nation). So you’ve got that,’” Bluder said with a laugh.
The field-goal percentage number is the one that impresses Bluder the most, because Czinano has been shooting like that all season.
Czinano opened the season with a 4-for-5 shooting game against Florida Atlantic, then went 9-for-9 against North Alabama. By the end of November, Czinano was shooting 74.5 percent.
“I think I was like all of you guys,” Bluder said. “After Game 1, I was like, ‘OK.’ After Game 2, it was like, ‘OK.’ And after Game 5, you’re saying, ‘It’s still early, right.’ After 10, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got something here.’
“She’s on everybody’s scouting reports now. The proof is in the pudding. She’s done it. For her to be able to maintain it, against everybody else’s best efforts inside, is really remarkable.”
In Big Ten play, Czinano made all seven of her shots in a win over Maryland. She was 10-for-11 in games against Minnesota and Purdue.
“I think part of her incredible accuracy is she doesn’t take bad shots,” Bluder said. “She understands she doesn’t ever have to force shots. She doesn’t have the weight that maybe Megan had last year, that ‘I have to make this many shots, or our team’s not going to win.
“ I don’t think Monika has near that amount of pressure on her this year. She knows she has a Doyle, she knows she has a Makenzie, she knows that she has all these people around her who can score. And I don’t think she’s ever looked at herself as being a primary scorer for us, even though she is the second leading scorer on our team. I think that’s helped her a little bit, but I would like to see us try to get her the ball more.”
Czinano knew she had to get better after last season.
“I think it was just working in the summer,” she said. “Sometimes last year, I knew what I needed to do, I just didn’t know how to do it.”
Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen has developed some of the best post players in the program’s history, and Czinano appreciates that relationship.
“Everything she tells you, you know that, number one, it’s coming from an amazing coach,” Czinano said. “Number two, she’s someone who really cares about you. When criticism comes, you know it’s constructive, and for the best.”
Bluder called Czinano on Monday when the all-conference selections were announced.
“I was like, ‘Coach Bluder doesn’t usually call me during the school day.’ I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day,” Czinano said, still smiling two days later.
Bluder said there are things Czinano needs to work on — rebounding, for example. She averages five per game, and that’s a number Bluder thinks can grow.
The rest of the work, though, is something Bluder and Czinano will talk about in the offseason.
Czinano doesn’t mind the extra work.
“Megan never slowed down,” Czinano said. “Ever.”