IOWA CITY — Monika Czinano averaged 5.3 minutes per game last season for the Iowa women’s basketball team, but that paled in comparison to the hours she spent learning on a daily basis.
From the time she spent on the practice court competing against all-American Megan Gustafson and senior Hannah Stewart to the time she spent simply watching Gustafson work, Czinano soaked it all in in order to prepare for a season which begins tonight.
“To think about what I’ve learned and how much that has helped me, it’s a little overwhelming but there is so much more out there,’’ Czinano said. “I’m anxious to continue to learn and grow.’’
She will have that opportunity beginning in Iowa’s 6:30 p.m. season opener against Florida Atlantic, looking to build off of a perfect performance in the Hawkeyes’ 98-53 exhibition win over Winona State on Sunday.
Czinano warmed up for the season opener by knocking down all 13 shots she attempted in Iowa’s lone preseason exhibition and scoring 27 points.
“We obviously still know how to feed the post,’’ Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
The coach is anxious to watch Czinano progress as the Hawkeyes’ starting center, playing not only to her own strengths but blending in some skills she learned from being around Gustafson last season as a freshman.
“She’s not Megan. She’s her own person,’’ Bluder said. “She’s better in some things than Megan was (as a sophomore), but I think that’s going to be something that will really hold her down all year if people keep trying to make that comparison. They’re two different people.’’
The 6-foot-3 sophomore from Watertown, Minnesota, spent the summer developing her game and gaining an understanding of how she now fits into an offense that is shifting to a perimeter-based approach with just one post player on the court at a time.
“It’s been different for me, just like it has been different for our guards,’’ Czinano said. “We’ve all been learning how this is all going to fit together and I’m looking forward to taking on my role and seeing what I can do with it.’’
Spending a year going up against Gustafson in practice proved to be a tough and sometimes humbling experience.
“In high school, you don’t get your shot blocked a lot, but you’re also not going up against all-Americans every day,’’ Czinano said. “It was a learning curve and it still is. I’m still learning every day. That won’t stop.’’
The experience she gained dueling with Gustafson has helped Czinano.
She learned to celebrate the occasional defensive stop against a player who rewrote the Hawkeye record book and she learned by just watching how Gustafson had her successes.
“To see her moves and compare them with mine and then to try to weave them together, taking some things she had success with and seeing if they might help me, working on those things, that’s helped me,’’ Czinano said.
Bluder said Czinano is also working on developing moves that Iowa coaches have traditionally taught their post players.
There will be times when her approach to the basket resembles moves that Gustafson found success with during her career. As she prepares for her first collegiate start, Czinano continues to work on developing the quick release on her shot that made Gustafson so effective.
“Is she going to be as quick getting the ball off? Who knows? We’ll see,’’ Bluder said. “She’s only a sophomore and she’s only played one year of college basketball.’’
The season opener becomes the first page in the next chapter of Czinano’s career.
“I’m looking forward to seeing where it all can lead,’’ Czinano said. “I don’t have to be Megan on this team. I have to be Monika, be who I am and keep working to become the best Monika I can be. That’s what my goal is and how I can really help the team the most.’’