When the NCAA Women’s Tournament bracket was released, outside of potential Final Four and national championship matchups, the one potential game that loomed the largest was in the top right corner of the bracket in the River Walk Region.

UConn, the 11-time national champions and AP No. 1 team heading into the tournament, was the No. 1 seed in that region. Then the No. 5 seed popped up: the Iowa Hawkeyes. That  potential game in the regional semifinals between UConn and Iowa would pit two of the best players in the country, who also happen to be freshmen, against each other in UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

With the Huskies and Hawkeyes advancing out of the second round, the highly-anticipated matchup is set to take place Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ABC.

Bueckers and Clark are certainly not strangers, as they have seen each other on the AAU circuit since middle school. They are also not strangers to winning.

Bueckers, a native of Hopkins, Minnesota, attended Hopkins High School, where she played five years on the varsity basketball team and was also named the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. She was the No. 1 ranked recruit in the country, according to ESPN and helped lead her team to a perfect 30-0 record and a state championship game that was ultimately  canceled due to COVID-19. Bueckers is also accustomed to winning on the world stage, where she won multiple gold medals as a member of Team USA.

While Bueckers was the top-ranked recruit in the country in the 2020 class, Clark was not far behind. The No. 4 ranked recruit in her class, hails from West Des Moines, Iowa, and played at Dowling Catholic High School. Clark also had a laundry list of accolades of her own coming out of high school. She was named the Gatorade Iowa Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year following her junior season in addition to earning multiple all-conference and state recognitions, and Clark was also a teammate of Bueckers winning gold for Team USA in both the 2017 FIBA U16 Americas Tournament and the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup Tournament.

These two decorated basketball stars entered their freshmen seasons with high expectations. Bueckers entered as the do-it-all point guard, whose ability to score, rebound, distribute, handle the ball, and dictate tempo was only matched by her leadership skills and winning mentality.

Clark arrived at Iowa known for her ability to score. She once scored 60 points in a high school game while also averaging just over 32 ppg as a junior. Her ability to shoot from anywhere on the court was virtually unmatched on the AAU circuit.

Would these two otherworldly young players live up to the hype?

In short, the answer is yes. They are now at the center of the women’s college basketball universe.

Sue Bird, a UConn legend and current member of the reigning WNBA champion Seattle Storm, is extremely impressed with both of these young players.

“Paige Bueckers is the best player in college, but Caitlin Clark is the most exciting player in college,” Bird said on the ESPN Daily podcast.

Clark has averaged 26.7 ppg this season, while making 103 3-pointers and is shooting 41% from beyond the 3-point line. She is also virtually automatic from the free-throw line, shooting 86%. Clark has truly surprised many with her versatility offensively and her ability to create for others and distribute as a passer, as she is averaging 7.1 apg, with an assist/turnover ratio of 1.48. Clark has developed into a triple-double threat every time she takes the court.

Bueckers has always been a triple-double threat, which is one thing that made her so uniquely special as a high school prospect. Bueckers, who is averaging 19.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, and 6.0 apg, is also shooting 47% from the 3-point line, has 62 steals on the season and has an assist/turnover ratio of 2.37. 

The awards and recognition continue to pile in for both players, with Bueckers being named a first-team AP All-American, the Big East Freshman and Player of the Year while also being named a finalist for the Naismith Award. While Bueckers has actually beat Clark for some awards, there has been no shortage of recognition for Iowa’s sharpshooter. 

While these two terrific players will go head-to-head Saturday, this is about way more than just two players. UConn is in search of yet another Final Four, while Iowa is looking to get to their first. It also isn’t about personal accolades.

The importance of this game is not lost on Clark and it has nothing to do with individual honors

“I don’t think me and Paige really care who wins Freshman of the Year,” Clark said.

For these two great players, it’s about winning.

For the opposing coaches in this game, it’s not really going to come down to stopping the opponent’s best player, it is going to come down to containing them, so which team has the advantage?

On paper, it seems like this game may be very difficult for the Hawkeyes to win and the reason is simple: their defense. While they are No. 2 in the country in scoring offense, much thanks to Clark, they rank last in the country in scoring defense at 336th. The Huskies are elite on both ends of the floor, as they are No. 4 in scoring offense and No. 2  in scoring defense this season. Some may point to the conferences for the disparity, but both teams have played five games against opponents in the top 25 in scoring offense this season. 

While Iowa’s defensive numbers haven’t been good this season, they are playing better as of late. They have held their opponents to under 75 points in six of their past seven games, and the one team that surpassed 75 points boasts the best scoring offense in the country in Maryland. 

In contrast, UConn has only given up over 75 points one time this season and that was in a close loss at Arkansas on Jan. 28.

For UConn to win this game, they don’t have to do anything different defensively. The Huskies have some really terrific perimeter defenders led by Christyn Williams, who will likely draw the assignment of guarding Clark, while Bueckers may see some time on her as well. If UConn can control the paint and the glass with Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards and limit Iowa’s role players, who, led by Monika Czinano (19.5 ppg) and McKenna Warnock (11.8 ppg), are very talented, it may take a 40 or 50-point performance from Clark for the Hawkeyes to advance. UConn has been terrific on both ends of the floor all season and that is likely to continue Saturday.

For Iowa, Clark will need to have a huge day. Big enough to draw more focus on her than will already exist, allowing players like Warnock, Czinano and Gabbie Marshall to have big games too. Clark can’t win this game on her own, but she can certainly put her team in position to win. Iowa is similar to Arkansas, which gave UConn fits. They play at a fast pace, shoot a lot of 3-pointers and can score.  Despite being poor defensively, they can and will outscore you. 

If Iowa scores 75 points or less, UConn should win. If the Hawkeyes surpass 75, they put UConn into territory that they rarely find themselves in, and while the sample size is minute, the Huskies are 0-1 when giving up 75 points or more, so that’s the benchmark in this one.

While both teams are really good and have multiple pros, it will be Bueckers and Clark headlining a game that is in the national spotlight. What once was a dream matchup for basketball fans is now a reality, 

Do. Not. Miss. It.

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