Fraudulence abounds at some University of Iowa basketball programs, but not so with Caitlin Clark, who raises expectations sky-high and then rises improbably to them with every no-look assist and rude pull-up from the logo. Through three days of games, the freshman guard has been putting on the best show in the women’s tournament, and she was electric, must-watch TV in No. 5 Iowa’s 86–72 second-round win over No. 4 Kentucky yesterday, which featured Clark single-handedly outscoring Kentucky 24–22 in the first half. She finished with 35 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. The Hawkeyes play UConn on Saturday for a spot in the Elite Eight.
Clark’s six first-half threes were the highlight, but her teammates all played very well; Monika Czinano, the junior center, looked unstoppable inside, and Kentucky had no equivalent scoring bigs. Really, they had no scoring anything. Lest Kentucky’s 35 percent field-goal percentage give the impression of a lockdown Hawkeye defense, no, Kentucky was just shooting that badly. Rhyne Howard, the junior guard on whom Kentucky has been totally reliant in an altogether disappointing season for the team, was 1-for-7 in the first half. Coach Kyra Elzy’s puzzling approach to this game warrants some blame too. Clark can make tough shots, but the players Kentucky had guarding her made them all much easier.
Though the Wildcats looked alive in the fourth quarter, forcing turnovers and getting easy buckets in transition, everything started clicking for them too late. All in all, it was easy work for the Iowa defense, which is conveniently the kind of work they like best. Not unlike their men’s side counterparts, Iowa is one of the worst defensive teams in the country, allowing a D–I-high 79.9 points per game. To see just how fast the “we would rather DIE than rebound” style of basketball they sometimes play can all go south, look no further than their 104–84 loss to offensive powerhouse Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament title game.
But what they did this time worked. Oh man, did it work! Iowa looked very much not a five-seed. If it was the first time you’d caught a women’s basketball game all year, you’d be rightfully shocked to learn that Clark wasn’t a finalist for either national player of the year award, nor was she a first team AP All-American. It was at least the 10th game of hers I’d seen this season, and even I’m still left wondering why.
The Big Ten factor, maybe? Across the men’s tournament, there’s been grumbling about the overratedness (Big Ten) or underratedness (Pac-12) of various conferences, and a parallel story may be brewing on the women’s side. The SEC, which looked like it had its teams playing the toughest schedule of anyone, has underwhelmed at the tournament so far between the Arkansas-Wright State upset, the Texas A&M scare, Kentucky’s flameout, and Tennessee’s second-round loss to Michigan just afterward. The tournament selection committee gave some clue of how seriously (not very) it took the Big Ten back in February, when it put only two Big Ten teams among the top 16 in its initial bracket release. But if all goes as expected with Maryland’s and Indiana’s games today, the conference will have at least four in the Sweet 16. The Big Ten doesn’t have much of a reputation in women’s basketball—lots of solid teams every year, no title contender beyond Maryland of late—but their success this week speaks to the strength of the field this year, and to the welcome entrance of schools whose women’s basketball programs don’t usually get much shine.
On that subject, one other reason for Clark’s snubbing might be disbelief. You can call a talent like Clark “once in a generation” for Iowa, but you’d be forgetting that this is the same school that had double-double machine Megan Gustafson beating up on the whole conference every night just two years ago. Clark was a top prospect in high school, still, no Big Ten hoops watcher expected the post-Gustafson years at a school like Iowa to be this magnificent. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder admitted as much. “I knew she was going to be an impact player right away,” Bluder said after the Kentucky game. “To this extent? Probably not.” Maybe it’s time to get used to this being the team on which the sun never sets.
In the next round, the blog writes itself: It’s Clark against Paige Bueckers. Teen-on-teen violence. Two players who will haunt each other’s careers in what will hopefully be the first of many games between them. Iowa will have a tougher time with the UConn defense; this one is the Huskies’ to lose, and they’re well-equipped to neutralize Czinano in the paint. But don’t expect Caitlin Clark to go down without the world’s most fun fight.