UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark were once teammates playing for their country. On Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App) in the 2021 women’s basketball tournament, their teams will face off with the country watching. Bueckers’ No. 1 seed UConn Huskies meet Clark’s No. 5 Iowa Hawkeyes in the Sweet 16, a matchup that pits two of the most exciting freshman athletes in college sports.
Both point guards who lead their team in scoring and assists, Bueckers and Clark, who are friends, would be the first to say this is UConn vs. Iowa, not Paige vs. Caitlin. But it’s one of those convergences we relish in sports: Two budding superstars — who play the same position, no less — meeting for the first time on a national stage in a win-or-go-home game.
On Friday, UConn coach Geno Auriemma couldn’t recall so much hype ever surrounding a pair of freshmen.
“It’s been a while since you have two kids that have had this kind of an impact, both on their teams and on the game itself nationally,” said Auriemma, who joined the Huskies in San Antonio on Thursday after a 10-day COVID-19 quarantine. “To have one is kinda cool. But to have two. … It’s two really, really young kids, really good players that do a lot for their teams.”
Clark is the NCAA Division I scoring leader, while Bueckers is among the front-runners for 2021 national player of the year. Teammates on USA Basketball’s U19 team in 2019, they might one day be teammates going for gold or wind up as WNBA rivals. If so, we’ll look back on Saturday as the start of something special. ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Mechelle Voepel and Royce Young look at how 5-foot-11 Bueckers and UConn match up against 6-foot Clark and Iowa, and predict which team will win. And follow this link for a complete look at our Sweet 16 predictions.
What are the strengths of Caitlin Clark’s game?
Range and passing. Her scoring (a national-best 26.8 PPG) and shooting (47% from the field) speak for themselves. But having the ability to stretch the floor beyond 20 feet — and in some absurd cases, 25 — is what separates Clark from so many other good offensive players. Shooting from range puts immense pressure on a defense and spreads the floor dramatically. It forces defensive pickup points to be almost near halfcourt, which allows offenses to adjust with higher screens and more downhill space to drive.
Caitlin Clark’s behind-the-back pass finds Monika Czinano who lays it in for the and-1 score.
It’s no coincidence that Iowa forward Monika Czinano is one of the most efficient scorers in the country, shooting almost 67% from the field. There’s so much room to operate and so many opportunities to go 1-on-1 on the interior.
When you pair that kind of range with the instincts, selflessness, vision and passing ability Clark has, you have an elite offensive player. You double her, she passes to an open teammate. You go single coverage, she drives by you. You go zone, she bombs away from deep. She simplifies the game and attacks the vulnerabilities of a defense.
And the last thing: poise. It was so impressive to watch Clark put on a first-half lightshow against Kentucky, outscoring the Wildcats on her own while hitting six 3s, but she didn’t approach the second half like she wanted to go for 50. She played under control and maintained her team-first approach. Clark — who is averaging 7.2 assists, tied for first in Division I — looks to do what’s best for the Hawkeyes. The media guide says she’s a freshman, but if you parachuted in from outer space and watched her for the first time, you’d think she was a 10-year WNBA vet. — Young
What’s the biggest concern for UConn?
Nobody game-plans better to slow an opposing team’s biggest strength than Auriemma and UConn. But Clark played in a very good conference this season — there are four Big Ten teams in the Sweet 16 — and has gone against many defenses designed to stop her. She is not going to be rattled or intimidated, and the Hawkeyes are as confident now as they have been all season.
Plus, remember how Arkansas handed UConn its only loss of the season? That game was a 90-87 shootout, with the Huskies making 12 3-pointers at 52.2% behind the arc. But Arkansas hit 13 treys and was 56.5% from long range. The Razorbacks also took care of the ball well, with just nine turnovers to UConn’s 15. The Huskies have improved quite a bit defensively since that Jan. 28 loss. But Iowa is capable of shooting the ball just like Arkansas did, and if the Hawkeyes get on a roll that way, it could be interesting. — Voepel
What are the strengths of Paige Bueckers’ game?
Paige Bueckers gets the skillful pass through traffic to Olivia Nelson-Ododa who scores the easy layup.
Confidence. She didn’t get to be the No. 1 recruit in the country without plenty of it already, but as the season progressed, Bueckers’ belief in herself grew. When Geno Auriemma implored Bueckers to shoot more earlier this season, it was also a call to take the Huskies’ reins. That game-deciding shot at Tennessee on Jan. 21 might have been the turning point, and the 31-point effort in an overtime victory against South Carolina — Bueckers’ third straight 30-point game in UConn’s highest-profile matchup of the season — cemented that it was now Bueckers’ team to lead.
Bueckers — who is averaging 19.9 points and 6.0 assists — also plays with a heightened sense of anticipation. Her 2.4 steals per game is how that manifests itself on defense. At the other end of the court, It’s knowing where teammates will be to get them the ball a second sooner, or seeing where the space in a defense is going to be. Bueckers has an uncanny ability to find that space with her dribble and take the proper angle to get there in order to launch a jump shot that can’t be described any other way than smooth. A freshman guard who makes 53.9% of her shots is something special. For comparison, Elena Delle Donne was a 47.9% shooter in her first season at Delaware when she averaged 26.7 points per game. Bueckers makes 46.7% of her 3-point attempts. That’s stunning efficiency for any age. — Creme
What’s the biggest concern for Iowa? Defense. Look, it’s a well-documented weakness. The Hawkeyes entered the tournament dead last in scoring defense in Division I, allowing more than 80 points per game. And when you’re playing UConn, for crying out loud, you can’t afford to play a one-way game.
Now, the Hawkeyes have shown shocking improvement so far in the tournament. Clark called their game against Kentucky their most complete game of the season. And even in their opener against Central Michigan, a high-octane offensive team, they stepped up with second-half stops.
Iowa is a lot more than just the Caitlin Clark show. Every player on the team would tell you that, including Clark. But UConn is deeper and has more options across the board, one of which is locking you down. If Clark is off, what’s the backup plan for Iowa? — Young
How will UConn defend Clark?
Rebecca Lobo looks ahead to UConn’s matchup vs. Iowa and star freshman Caitlin Clark in the Sweet 16.
The best way to limit Clark is to get the ball out of her hands early. That typically requires extending the defense with a double-team look early in the possession. That includes some risk, though. Rutgers employed some of that strategy in the Big Ten tournament, but Iowa sophomore guard Gabbie Marshall was left open to hit 7 of 11 3-pointers and score 27 points in a convincing win over the Scarlet Knights. Clark had 10 assists that game, many of which led to open Marshall shots. UConn has the ability to limit that kind of secondary-player breakout with better rotations, but it takes discipline.
The Huskies might go with some zone that matches up aggressively on Clark when she has the ball. The danger there is having accountability for her when she doesn’t have the ball in her hands. Clark’s range is so substantial that she can step far beyond any zone to get off her shot.
As effortless and accurate as Clark’s 3-point shooting is (40.9%), her penetration can be even more of a threat for the Iowa offense. UConn’s perimeter defenders, especially junior Christyn Williams, will be critical in taking away Clark’s angles to the basket. If she can’t penetrate and draw help-side defense, then her teammates aren’t as open. Limit how many times it takes a second defender to slow Clark’s dribble-drive and she’s not as dangerous. Her passing makes her a double threat. As strange as it sounds because of her skills from deep, if UConn can make Clark solely a jump shooter, she’s less impactful.
Ultimately, defense will be the key to UConn winning, and it’s a Huskies strength that’s often overlooked. They are tops in the country in points allowed per scoring attempt, third in field goal percentage defense and the No. 1-rated defensive team, according to Her Hoop Stats. In many ways, this is a classic offense vs. defense matchup. — Creme
How will Iowa defend Bueckers?
The Hawkeyes’ approach will probably be different than UConn’s is with Clark. The Huskies can use traps and try to force the ball out of Clark’s hands and see if someone else can beat them. If Iowa does that with Bueckers, four other highly skilled and talented offensive players are ready to pick up the load.
Aaliyah Edwards has played two strong games in the tournament. Olivia Nelson-Ododa was dominant against Syracuse. And Bueckers, while obviously an amazing scorer, is a super willing passer who can set the table as well as anyone.
So what do the Hawkeyes do? The options aren’t great, but expect them to mix coverages and try to confuse Bueckers. As talented as UConn is, everyone knows the Huskies are young (no seniors, seven freshmen). Try to rattle them with physicality — even though associate head coach Chris Dailey said the rougher you play Bueckers, the tougher she gets. — Young
Which other Iowa players will be X factors?
Czinano (19.4 PPG) leads Division I in field goal percentage (66.9), and she and Clark sometimes resemble a quarterback and a tight end who can read each other’s minds on routes. They look like they’ve been playing together for years, not just this season.
McKenna Warnock is the Hawkeyes’ leading rebounder, and, like Czinano, brings a toughness factor inside for Iowa. But Warnock also can hit from long range: She has 48 3-pointers. Kate Martin has 115 assists and gives Iowa another excellent playmaker besides Clark. As mentioned earlier, Marshall can fill the hoop, as she did in the Big Ten tournament. She is second to Clark in 3-pointers with 53. Voepel
Which other UConn players will be X factors?
Edwards’ growth is starting to translate into production. After an average Big East tournament in which she scored below her regular-season average of 10.7 points per game, Edwards scored 18.0 PPG in UConn’s two NCAA tournament wins, with just two missed field goal attempts. With the 6-3 Edwards in the starting lineup instead of injured freshman guard Nika Mühl, the Huskies are bigger and Bueckers absorbs even more ball-handling responsibility. Neither is a bad thing.
How physical Edwards and 6-5 junior Nelson-Ododa can be with Iowa’s 6-3 Czinano will be important. Getting Czinano just another step or two away from the basket changes much of what Iowa tries to do offensively. — Creme
UConn will win if …:
The Huskies will win if they are able to establish offensive dominance and keep it. Iowa isn’t going to win this game with its defense; the Hawkeyes have to be brilliant offensively to have a chance at the upset. But even a really good Iowa offense might not be enough if the Huskies own that end of the court, too.
“We like transition basketball, and that’s what we’re going to try and do,” Auriemma said. “And Iowa likes transition basketball, that’s what they like to do. So how do you help yourself against teams like that?
“If you make a lot of shots, that cuts down on the transition. You gotta limit your turnovers … So there’s things you can do to keep that transition offense that both teams have at a minimum. But it’s easier said than done.”
If UConn is clicking on both ends, the Huskies likely just have too much firepower. Iowa also relies a great deal on its starters. They all play close to 30 minutes, if not more. — Voepel
Iowa will win if …:
Clark has had big games before that Iowa has lost, such as 35 points in a loss against Michigan State and 30 in a loss to Ohio State. It isn’t necessarily how much she scores that will dictate the outcome. Czinano also had 24 points in the loss to the Spartans.
Iowa’s best chance against an opponent as good as UConn is to have Clark score fewer points and get others involved, especially early in the game. Having that third scorer, like Marshall (9.0 PPG), Martin (7.1 PPG) or Warnock (11.8 PPG), will be instrumental in a Hawkeyes upset. — Creme
Which team will win?
Creme: UConn. The Huskies are better defensively, and with Edwards playing well, UConn has five legitimate scorers.
Voepel: UConn. It’s really hard to pick against UConn when you consider how big a task it will be for Iowa’s defense to keep the Huskies in check enough to be in striking distance. For what it’s worth, one of UConn’s few NCAA Sweet 16 losses came against a team from the Hawkeyes’ home state: Iowa State beat UConn in the 1999 regional semifinals thanks to great 3-point shooting.
Young: UConn. I stan Caitlin Clark, but this is UConn, and with so many more weapons across the board, it’s going to be too much for Iowa to overcome.