Rome and Milan were great. The Sistine Chapel was unforgettable. But Megan Gustafson's favorite part of an Italian excursion with the Iowa women's basketball team in 2015 was the small seaside village they visited in the remote stretch of the Italian coastline known as the Cinque Terre.
Of course it was. She was a kindred spirit. You can take the basketball player out of Port Wing, Wisconsin, the isolated hamlet on the shores of Lake Superior in that state's far northern reaches, but you can't take Port Wing out of the basketball player. Which partly explains why Iowa coach Lisa Bluder spent that trip fretting about the freshman who so quietly and readily slipped into the background.
Bluder, worried that Gustafson might be homesick, made a point to pull her into photos, to do something, anything to include her.
"I was actually worried about her on that trip," Bluder said. "I was worried about her not being able to make it [at Iowa], eight hours from home. I didn't know how to interpret her quietness then. ...
"Now I know she was loving it. And it didn't matter that she wasn't around the group and being boisterous. She was taking it in, thinking, 'This is really cool, I can't believe that I'm here.'"
To be sure, Gustafson might have been awestruck on her first trip abroad. She might have been shy around teammates. Mostly, though, she just savored the moment in her own way.
"I was just kind of sitting back and taking it all in," Gustafson said. "I think that's what it was more than anything."
Nearly four years later, time is running out to take things in. Averaging 27.3 points per game entering the week, Gustafson is on track to be the first player from a major conference to lead the nation in scoring in back-to-back seasons. She would be the first to do so on a team of national significance since Southwest Missouri State's Jackie Stiles nearly 20 years ago.
There is nothing quiet about Gustafson's feats. And with Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles still available, and the potential for the first NCAA tournament win during her tenure, she is not sitting back. She wants Iowa to be heard.
After Gustafson averaged 25.7 points per game a season ago, Bluder cautioned her that a repeat might be unrealistic. Not because she would play worse but because defenses would pay even more attention. When Gustafson scored 29 points and made 14 of 19 shots in a win against Ohio State this past weekend -- three days after scoring 41 points on 17-of-21 shooting in a victory against ranked Michigan State -- Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff summed up how those adjustments are going for defenses trying to limit the 6-foot-3 post with the quick release and quicker decision-making.
"She's an incredibly efficient player," McGuff said. "She really knows how to play the game. She understands angles, and she gives her teammates a great target to throw the ball to. And then she also really knows how to function within their offense."
The Buckeyes played just about every defense in their arsenal: zone, man-to-man, box-and-one. None of those defenses worked any better than what they used last season, when a much better version of the Buckeyes watched her score 29 points in a win. Everyone tries to defend Gustafson. She's still shooting 70.4 percent, second in the nation at the moment, but also what would be the third-best season-long mark in Division I in more than a decade.
"They're definitely mixing it up all the time," Gustafson said of the adjustments encountered this season. "A lot of times they'll have two or three posts rotating in, and I'll be playing the whole time, which I'm fine with. I'm very well-conditioned, and I'm thankful for it. Just seeing that they're giving me, double- and triple-teams -- and trying to figure out where they're coming from -- is definitely something I've worked on."
As is her wont, she credited coaches for help with that work, including Iowa associate head coach and former national scoring leader Jan Jensen. Then she cited her teammates for their offseason shooting work. It might be excessive humility, but it's not empty praise. Take Gustafson out of the equation and Iowa is shooting 45.4 percent from the field this season, compared to 42.9 percent minus her contributions a season ago. That would be the difference between a place among the 25 best marks nationwide and a place outside the top 60 (with her contributions, Iowa's 52.2 percent shooting ranks second nationally).
Hawkeyes not named Gustafson made 14 of 40 shots in an opening round NCAA tournament loss to Creighton a season ago. They haven't been perfect this season (a blowout loss against Notre Dame among the examples), but there is statistical backing for the camaraderie they tout as their strength.
But that supposed wallflower that Bluder worried about in Italy? Gustafson has never been reticent about scoring, not in becoming the leading scorer in the history of Wisconsin high school basketball and not as the leading scorer in Hawkeyes history.
"That's part of my role -- if I have to take over a game, I'm going to have to do it," Gustafson said. "My teammates know that. They depend on me, and they trust me 100 percent. Even if they're thinking, 'I don't know if I can get this ball in there,' they're going to throw it up there anyway because I'm telling them to. They do a great job of reading when I do know I can get it, even if they don't think they can get it to me. At the end of the day, the trust is there."