The Sweet Sixteen, nationally televised on ABC, with each team trying to keep their season alive. It’s the biggest stage that Paige Bueckers and UConn’s six other freshmen have ever played on in their young careers.
It’s also the biggest stage for Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s superstar freshman, that — depending on who you talk to — is right there with Bueckers as the best freshman and player in the country. Heated Twitter debates over which player is more deserving of those titles has turned a seemingly routine regional semifinal game for the Huskies into the must-watch event of the NCAA women’s basketball season.
But Bueckers, Clark and even Geno Auriemma were quick to shoot down any notions of Paige vs. Caitlin — it’s still about UConn vs. Iowa.
“It’s like a big football game where they say it’s Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers. It couldn’t be further from the truth,” Auriemma said. “Like it always is in these games, they’re just a part of it.”
That’s especially true for Iowa, who will need to find ways to slow not only Bueckers but all the Huskies’ weapons if it hopes to pull of the upset.
“It’s not going to be an individual matchup with [Bueckers], it’s going to be a whole team effort, more than anything,” said Clark ahead of the matchup. “We’ll try to run a lot of different things at her but UConn has more than just Paige and I think that’s the biggest thing. You have to control the rest of the team too.”
For UConn, Auriemma’s point also stands, but containing Clark will be at the front of the Huskies’ game plan. The AP Second Team All-American is the focal point of the Hawkeyes’ offense and the toughest individual matchup UConn has seen this season.
Clark, who leads the nation with 26.8 points per game, has the kind of range that makes your jaw hit the floor. You have to guard her virtually everywhere on the floor. She can create her own shots, drive in the lane, knock it down from deep and even pull up from the logo.
Caitlin Clark pulling from the logo with ease!— espnW (@espnW) March 7, 2021
(via @IowaWBB) pic.twitter.com/StBfGzIR2C
Considering the volume of Clark’s scoring, her efficiency is elite. She knocks down shots at the clip of just shy of 48 percent from the floor and hits over 40 percent from deep. Per Her Hoop Stats, her 1.25 points per scoring attempt on the season is the highest among the nearly 100 players with a usage rate over 30 percent — a category in which Clark leads the nation, finishing a whopping 37 percent of the Hawkeyes’ possessions.
According to Synergy, over 30 percent of Clark’s offensive possessions on the season have come in transition, where she — and Iowa’s offense, for that matter — thrives. Clark is still lethal in the half court, especially with her ability to create opportunities. She has scored 77 points on isolation plays this season in 86 attempts. The only players that have that efficiency with comparable volume are Arkansas’ Chelsea Dungee (who dropped 37 points on UConn in its only loss of the season) and Louisville’s Dana Evans.
Clark not only creates for herself but for her team with 7.1 assists per game. While on the floor, she assisted on over 40 percent of her teammates’ field goals this season. The only Power Five player who has her beat in that regard is Tiana Mangakahia, UConn shut down in its second round win over Syracuse.
While Dungee is probably the best comparison for players UConn has already faced this season, Clark is in a league of her own in terms of her offensive presence. In Iowa’s second round matchup, she single-handedly outscored Kentucky in the first half. The Wildcats allowed her to get out in transition early and often and Clark made them pay seemingly every time.
Kentucky also tried to disrupt Clark’s game with a full court press throughout much of the first half and Clark responded with poise not typically seen in freshmen — much like that of Bueckers — breaking the press with ease. That in turn left her with plenty of space to create which sealed the Wildcats’ fate in the first 20 minutes.
UConn will need to limit those transition opportunities and minimize the space she has to work with in the half court. While shutting down Clark is a nearly impossible task, containing her will be critical to UConn’s chances of advancing to the Elite Eight.