MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Monika Czinano only needed a few days to finalize her decision to play a fifth season for Iowa.
With the sting of losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament still fresh, the fun of playing for the close-knit and well-supported Hawkeyes was the only feeling that could override it.
With superstar point guard Caitlin Clark leading the way for a third year in black and gold, Czinano and the rest of her teammates are revved up to go well beyond just a defense of their Big Ten title.
“It’s just such a family here. It’s something that I wasn’t ready to give up,” Czinano said Tuesday in Minneapolis at Target Center, where the conference took its men’s and women’s basketball media days this year. “It would feel weird if I wasn’t there.”
The Hawkeyes were the consensus favorite in the Big Ten preseason polls. Ohio State was picked second by the coaches and third by the media. Indiana also took second (media) and third (coaches). Maryland finished fourth in both surveys.
Clark, who last season became the first NCAA Division I player to lead the nation in both points and assists per game, was the easy pick for Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. Czinano, who was third in the conference in scoring in 2021-22 and led the country in field goal percentage, joined Clark on the 10-player preseason all-star team.
Opponents have routinely been overwhelmed by Clark’s 3-point range and slick passing skills, but the shooting touch and confidence Czinano plays with is another vital asset for a Hawkeyes team that drew a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament before being upset by No. 10 seed Creighton.
“I feel like I get better every time we play Iowa, just because of the way that Czinano challenges me in the post,” Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes said. “She’s a great competitor, so I have a lot of respect.”
Clark has become one of the faces of her sport, having just signed an NIL deal with Nike with four other college basketball players including Bronny James.
“When you have WNBA stars and NBA stars reacting to your game, that’s pretty cool. Those are people I grew up watching and idolizing,” Clark said. “But at the same time I’m still the same person going out and doing what I love every single day. That just brings so much joy to me, and I hope I never lose that. I don’t play for the attention or for people to tweet about me. I play because I love it. I play because I get to play with my best friends.”
That includes Czinano, who worked tirelessly to improve her shot — “It was terrible,” coach Lisa Bluder said — between her first and second seasons after playing behind star Megan Gustafson as a freshman. Czinano, a native of Watertown, Minnesota, is eligible for the fifth year because of the NCAA’s waiver of the 2020-21 pandemic season.
“She definitely wasn’t highly recruited. We saw something in her, though, that we really liked, and that was that she embraced contact. So many bigs these days do not want to embrace contact,” Bluder said. “They want to be out shooting 3s. I’m old school.”
The Big Ten picked Target Center for media days to plug the first-time host of the women’s tournament in March. None of the 14 head coaches who stood behind a podium were more buoyant than Bluder, who has begun her 23rd season on the job with the Hawkeyes.
Part of that palpable optimism is personality. Part of that is players.
Not only do they have a first team All-American in Clark and one of the best post players in the country in Czinano, but their three other starters — McKenna Warnock, Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall — are also back. Iowa has not been to the Final Four since 1993.
“I told the team the other day when we were picked as the No. 1 team in the preseason in the Big Ten that that can be a lot of pressure, but it can also be something that’s really enjoyable,” Bluder said. “You’ve earned this.”
Success won’t come automatically, of course, particularly in the top-heavy Big Ten. If Creighton can beat them, so can Indiana, Ohio State, Maryland and just about anybody else in the conference.
“It’s definitely still motivating us. We get it brought up in practice a fair amount, especially if we miss a few boxouts here and there,” Martin said. “We have that sour taste in our mouth from last year. We’re moving on from last year, but it’s good to look back on that to motivate us and get us right so we don’t ever have to feel that feeling ever again.”
Taking the court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in front of 15,000 fans is a much better feeling. The Hawkeyes were third in the nation last season in attendance.
“It’s a special place. We’re lucky to play there,” Clark said. “We’re lucky to have their fan support, and I imagine there’s going to be more than three sellouts this year in Iowa City.”
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