Iowa women's basketball duo takes aim at history again

Caitlin Clark, right, jumped into teammate Monika Czinano's arms after the duo helped Iowa win a share of the Big Ten regular-season title last February. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

As soon as they were on court together for the Iowa women's basketball team two years ago, Monika Czinano realized then-freshman guard Caitlin Clark had no fear of taking risks -- or really anything, for that matter.

"It's hard to believe how much confidence she had coming in," Czinano said.

As for what Clark noticed about Czinano, it was simple math: Feed the forward/center the ball anywhere near the block, and odds were excellent it would result in an assist.

"She is so reliable 100% of the time," Clark said.

Clark and Czinano are entering their third year together as the Hawkeyes, ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25, try to finish atop the Big Ten again and make up for a disappointing second-round exit in the NCAA tournament last March.

The Hawkeyes took some critics' hits about that loss to Creighton and their defense, which allowed 70.2 PPG and ranked 306th in Division I. But when it comes to offense, Iowa is at the head of the class. The Hawkeyes are not just fun to watch, having ranked second in D-I at 84.2 PPG last season, but Clark and Czinano as a duo put in a record-setting performance.

Clark led Division I in points per game (27.0) and assists per game (8.0), while Czinano led the nation in field goal percentage (67.89). According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, since assists per game began to be tracked for men (1983-84) and for women (1984-85), no other Division I college teammates have led in those three categories in the same season.

It also has never happened in a WNBA season, and has been done only three times in the NBA: the 1973-74 Buffalo Braves with Bob McAdoo (PPG and FG%) and Ernie DiGregorio (APG); the 1962-63 San Francisco Warriors with Wilt Chamberlain (PPG and FG%) and Guy Rodgers (APG); and the 1951-52 Philadelphia Warriors with Paul Arizin (PPG and FG%) and Andy Phillip (APG).

Not surprisingly, when Lisa Bluder, a Division I head coach for 32 seasons including the past 22 at Iowa, was asked to name a statistically comparable duo to Clark and Czinano, she said, "Gosh, I'm not sure I can."

Czinano is back for her super-senior season after averaging 21.2 points and 6.2 rebounds last season. The 6-foot-3 native of Minnesota spent her freshman year as an understudy to Hawkeyes great Megan Gustafson. Clark was No. 4 in the ESPN HoopGurlz rankings for 2020, but Czinano wasn't in the top 100 in 2018. Part of it, Bluder said, was that Czinano's shot was "whack" coming into college.

"I mean, it was bad her freshman year," Bluder said. "She had really bad form. But she took the effort to change it, and that's not easy to do when you're 19 years old."

In longtime assistant Jan Jensen, the Hawkeyes have a well-known "post doctor" on staff. Czinano did countless drills, including a lot of soft-touch shooting, which involves powering the ball with your hand and wrist to get a better feel for the shot. Czinano also watched Gustafson win her second Big Ten Player of the Year award in 2019 and get drafted into the WNBA.

"Monika was so smart using her time with Megan: She learned how to compete, how to practice and how much extra it takes to be really good from watching Megan," Bluder said. "They both embrace the contact so well, and their footwork and their hands are so good."

Czinano moved into the role of the Hawkeyes' top post player as a sophomore, and was well aware of that Clark kid in West Des Moines, Iowa, whom the coaches had worked so hard to recruit.

"I knew about the spark she could create," Czinano said. "So it made me excited to be on the same team as her.

"I think the first time we played together was a summer scrimmage. I just remember seeing some of the risks she was taking and how fearless she was. I knew even if some of the things might not have worked in that moment, it was going to develop into something really special."

Caitlin Clark nails a deep 3-pointer for Iowa

Iowa's Caitlin Clark nails a deep 3-pointer vs. Creighton.

Clark -- a unanimous preseason first-team AP All-American -- doesn't just want to enjoy playing basketball, she wants people to enjoy watching it. It was clear they did even early in her freshman year. Clark could shoot from anywhere on the court -- yes, even the half-court logos are fair game. She found teammates before they even knew they were open, and she was also an exceptional rebounder.

The finer aspects of defense admittedly weren't really her thing then. But with Clark's 26.6 PPG and 19.3 PPG from Czinano, the Hawkeyes reached the championship game of the 2021 Big Ten tournament and the Sweet 16, where they lost to UConn. Iowa established itself as a team you didn't want to miss on television.

Last season, Clark had five triple-doubles and 11 games in which she scored 30 or more points, including a career-high 46. She also set a school record with 18 assists in a game. She had a streak of 19 consecutive games in which she recorded at least 15 points and five assists, a Division I mark second only to former Oklahoma men's player Trae Young, now with the Atlanta Hawks.

Meanwhile, Czinano was busy filling up the basket from the field (277-of-408) and the free throw line (102-of-121, 84.3%). The Hawkeyes tied Ohio State for the Big Ten regular-season crown and won the league tournament, the first time Iowa took both those titles in the same year.

The Hawkeyes went into the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed, hosting early-round games at sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. And then things went sideways in the second round against Creighton, the No. 10 seed pulling a 64-62 upset.

It was less surprising than the seedings make it appear. Creighton's five-out offense was hard for many teams to guard; the Bluejays ended up beating No. 7 seed Colorado and No. 3 seed Iowa State in the tournament as well before falling in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion South Carolina.

The Hawkeyes had depended all season on offensively overwhelming teams. But Creighton did everything possible to put the clamps on Clark, rotating defenders on her, and she was limited to a season-low 15 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Czinano led Iowa with 27 points, but no other Hawkeye hit double figures.

Both players had fully expected Creighton to give Iowa trouble, and both credited the Bluejays afterward. But they're pragmatic about what was learned, and neither wants to overly dwell on the loss going into a new season.

"Having a veteran group is going to be super important because we know there will be some really hard times," Clark said. "We've been through that the past two years. But it's what you do with those times that's going to make you who you are in the long run."

Bluder said Clark has embraced defense as an older player, understanding much better how important it is to team success. She also thinks the 6-footer can take advantage of more post-up opportunities on offense against smaller guards. Clark also might play off the ball just a little more this season, although keeping the ball in the hands of the nation's leader in both scoring and assists is a pretty strong strategy.

And as much as Clark recently recommended young players work more on fundamentals and higher-percentage shots rather than following their idol in expanding their so-called range to half court, watching Clark shoot from the logo is a blast.

Both Clark and Czinano are expected to put up impressive numbers again this season, but the Hawkeyes will need more than the duo, of course. They also have returning starters in forward/guard McKenna Warnock (11.0 PPG) and guards Kate Martin (7.2) and Gabbie Marshall (6.8). Iowa has some important nonconference tests, including Missouri Valley favorite Belmont, a possible matchup with UConn in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, ACC power NC State and the always heated rivalry with Iowa State, this year's Big 12 favorite. Then comes the Big Ten grind.

Clark and Czinano sound like they can't wait. And fans of dynamic duos and high-octane offense find them pretty irresistible.

"It's been great for Iowa City," Czinano said of the excitement about Iowa women's basketball. "Over my five years now, every year more and more people have been tuning in and coming up to me and saying, 'This is so cool.'

"I've been working my whole career for this, and so I'm just kind of remembering to soak it in and realize we are as good as we want to be."