Speaking on the phone Monday from Iowa City, her voice rough from a cold and, perhaps, the frenzy of her team's regular season finale, Iowa women's basketball coach Lisa Bluder was asked how much what happened last year was motivating her team this year.
Less than you might imagine, she said.
Last year? Iowa won the Big Ten's regular season and tournament championships. The Hawkeyes received a No. 2 NCAA seed. They opened the tournament at home at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They cruised through their first-round game. And then?
Bang. Iowa ran into a Cinderella buzz saw, losing to a 10th-seeded Creighton team 64-62.
To Bluder, that motivation came in the summer, as the Hawkeyes prepared for another season.
But center Monika Czinano isn't having it.
"It is a lot of motivation," said Czinano, a Watertown, Minn., native whose sister, Maggie, plays for the Gophers. How much? Given a week after last season ended to decide whether to come back for the fifth year allowed by the NCAA in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, it took Czinano three days to decide to come back for a final try.
"It always has been,'' Czinano continued. "It's been on our minds. It goes to show how important every game is. It's so true.''
The Hawkeyes (23-6 overall, 15-3 Big Ten) begin their defense of the conference tournament title Friday, playing Purdue, who beat Wisconsin Thursday night. There is so much more for Iowa to play for, including a better NCAA seed and confidence going into that tournament. After their weekend is over — they hope it comes in Sunday evening's final — they will head home, where Carver-Hawkeye will again host the first two rounds.
"Yes," Czinano said. "That's been our goal all season. Making it further than Coach Bluder has ever been."
Bluder coached Iowa to the Elite Eight in 2019.
So the next step? Final Four or bust.
At first glance so much seems the same. The Hawkeyes returned their entire starting five from last season, led by two-time conference player of the year Caitlin Clark, Czinano, McKenna Warnock, Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall. All have posted nearly identical numbers from a year ago. Clark, again, has been spectacular, averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists.
But some things are different. The Hawkeyes are deeper.
"Through the portal we got Molly Davis, a true backup point guard," Bluder said. "We didn't have that last year, and it's been a blessing. Also, [freshman forward] Hannah Stuelke [fifth on the team at 7.2 points per game] has made a difference for us, an athletic individual coming off the bench. We are deeper."
The starting five accounted for nearly 85% of their points last season. This year it's down to 71.3%. As a team the Hawkeyes are scoring more than last year, allowing fewer points.
And then there's that motivation. At Big Ten media days last fall Clark talked about how her older brother, Blake, would occasionally text her the same picture: Creighton players celebrating under the scoreboard at Carver-Hawkeye.
The Big Ten tournament is where the Hawkeyes will start deleting that photo.
Iowa is coming off a strange final week of the regular season. The Hawkeyes lost 96-68 at Maryland on Feb. 21 in a game where the Hawkeyes couldn't make a shot and Maryland couldn't miss. Sunday, at home, Clark's last-second three gave Iowa an 86-85 win over regular-season champion Indiana.
"It shows resiliency," Czinano said. "And this tournament is about mental toughness."
Iowa led the Big Ten in home attendance (10,737). Both Bluder and Czinano expect a lot of fans driving north for the weekend.
"I'm so happy they moved it to Minneapolis," Czinano said. "Of course, I'm biased. We'll have a good showing."