By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder asked the media to do a favor for one of her players on Tuesday.
The player was sophomore center Monika Czinano, who might have the biggest shoes to fill in women’s college basketball from a figurative standpoint.
The 6-foot-3 Czinano is expected to replace 2018-19 National Player of the Year Megan Gustafson as Iowa’s starting center.
“Monika, I know she’s got big shoes to fill and everybody is going to be comparing her to Megan,” Bluder said. “You guys, she’s playing really well as a sophomore that got literally kind of limited time last year. She is just coachable. She is a quick learner. She embraces the contact like Megan did down there.
“So do her a favor and don’t compare her to Megan, compare her to just a post player. I mean she is a good post player.”
Bluder and Czinano both met with the media on Tuesday to discuss the team’s upcoming trip to Spain where Iowa will play three exhibition games over the next 10 days.
Senior guard Makenzie Meyer, junior guard Alexis Sevillian and redshirt freshman guard Kate Martin also met with reporters after practice on Tuesday.
“I want them to have fun,” said Bluder, who led Iowa to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight this past season. “I want them to go over there and play basketball. But I also think that this is a chemistry part. The chemistry part is such an important part of our team.
“I think we win games because we get along better than other teams. We have that chemistry. And so when you have three new freshmen coming in, this is a great time for us to build that chemistry.”
Gustafson’s impact stretched far beyond the court where she was a double-double machine. She also excelled as a leader and was part of a senior class that left an indelible mark, along with former point guard Tania Davis and forward Hannah Stewart.
Iowa returns 10 letterwinners from a team that finished 29-7 overall and won the Big Ten Tournament title.
Czinano spent last season’s as Gustafson backup at center, and the day-to-day grind was a valuable learning experience.
“I’m still learning from her even though now she’s gone,” Czinano said of Gustafson, who now plays for the Dallas Wings in the WNBA. “So no, I don’t feel any pressure.
Czinano described her freshman season as a whirlwind.
“Just seeing how physical the Big Ten was was a huge part, how much more work you have to put in in college compared to being in high school,” said Czinano, who is from Watertown, Minn. “And then Megan’s work ethic was indescribable. It was amazing.
“So I’m kind of trying to mirror that in the best way that I can and just making sure that I’m doing what I need to do to make the team the best it can be.”
And though she only played limited minutes in games last season, Czinano had the luxury of competing against Gustafson every day in practice.
Czinano learned quickly why Gustafson was such an unstoppable force.
“At first, it was like, oh, my gosh, like I understand it now,” Czinano said. “She won all these awards and I’m like, yeah, yeah, it makes sense.
“But it was super fun to learn all the new defenses with her and playing against her. She’d get a really tough shot and I’d be like, dang, well, it’s Megan. And then get back on defense. So it was definitely invaluable. I couldn’t have asked for it to go better.”
Czinano is thrilled to be traveling overseas with her college teammates.
Iowa junior center Paula Valino Ramos is from Ourense, Spain, so her knowledge has been beneficial to her teammates.
“It’s super awesome that we have Paula who’s been there and knows everything,” said Czinano, who scored over 1,600 points and grabbed over 1,000 rebounds in high school. “She sent us a list of best foods to try and little translations that we should know. It’s going to be so fun just being there with my team and getting to play basketball. It’s like my two favorite things and just taking it across the ocean. So I can’t wait.”
The trip to Spain will be the next step for Kate Martin, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury.
“I think Kate Martin, she is playing real well,” Bluder said. I’m very pleased with the way she’s playing.”
Martin has had plenty of chances to prove herself in practice this summer with the absence of All-Big Ten senior guard Kathleen Doyle, who is representing Iowa at the Pan American Games.
Martin still wears a wrap on her surgically repaired knee, but she shows no effects from the injury, which occurred in a high school all-star game.
“I’m really excited,” said the 6-0 Martin, who is from Edwarsville, Ill. “Any opportunity to play basketball is a great opportunity. So I’m really excited to get over there and see how things go for us.”
Bluder also praised sophomore forward Logan Cook, who graduated from Iowa City West High School, for making a jump during the spring and summer.
“I think she’s done a good job with that,” Bluder said.
Iowa will also add three freshmen to the roster next season and Bluder thinks all three of them could make an immediate impact. Iowa’s freshmen class consists of guards Gabbie Marshall and Megan Meyer and forward McKenna Warnock.
Meyer is a Mason City native and the younger sister of Makenzie Meyer.
“That’s exciting,” Bluder said.