April 5, 2024 

For Caitlin Clark and Iowa, there’s unfinished business and appreciation of the journey

Lisa Bluder: 'People should have been talking about women's basketball for a long time now'

CLEVELAND — No, a simple repeat of last season, a trip to the final without a title, won’t be satisfying to Caitlin Clark, Lisa Bluder and the Iowa Hawkeyes. But it is also clear to Clark that while it may not seem so long ago that she arrived on the scene, much has changed since she and Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers were freshmen guards matched up in the Sweet 16 in 2021.

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“Honestly, that game is super blurry,” Clark said Thursday afternoon of that matchup, which Connecticut won. “It feels like forever ago. I was looking back and I saw some old footage of that game and we both look really, really young. It’s cool to see how our careers have evolved, and a lot of different players on both teams.

“But … like Coach said, it’s not Paige versus Caitlin, and it takes the entire team to win a basketball game. Both of us are going to do everything we can.”

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In Bueckers’ case, that is true performance-wise but not as much in terms of raw numbers, with Connecticut playing just six players due to attrition. Iowa went nine deep in the win over LSU that got the Hawkeyes to Cleveland, and it will need to deploy the three-headed center combination of Hannah Stuelke, Addison O’Grady and AJ Ediger to neutralize Connecticut’s Aaliyah Edwards.

But in the same way that UConn must find a way to contend with Clark, something LSU failed to do, the Hawkeyes need to neutralize Bueckers.

“What’s always impressed me is [Bueckers’] ability to stop on a dime and elevate with her shot, and she’s already got such great size. But I would say, Caitlin, she’s grown in her team aspect,” Bluder, Iowa’s head coach, said on Thursday. “You know, just having really good players around them and relying on those other really great players and not having to do everything yourself.

“Like, she had a good high school team, right, but now she’s got great players all around her. So she’s been able to incorporate — the last five games she’s averaging almost five assists a game. So she’s giving up the ball as well as her scoring has increased. I think just her ability to play alongside other people is what probably has changed the most.”

Bluder pointed out that neither team has an interest in slowing things down, and the numbers bear that out. Per Synergy, Iowa is best in the country in points per possession in transition at 1.172, but UConn is not far behind, 13th overall at 1.090. A high-flying signature game to follow South Carolina-NC State, which features another two elite programs (including, in the Gamecocks, the prohibitive favorite to take home the title), just feels like another instance this season in which the circumstances lay out perfectly for women’s basketball’s long-overdue ascension into the public discourse.

“I think people should have been talking about women’s basketball for a long time now,” Bluder said. “And they finally are. And maybe it just took some superstars like Paige and [LSU’s] Angel [Reese] and Caitlin in order for everybody else to understand how good our game was. I think they should have been talking about it for a long time.”

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If the large viewing audiences to date are any indication, what happens Friday night will be the talk of the nation on Saturday as well. It’s a steep climb from when Clark arrived in Iowa. Whatever happens next, Clark and Bluder have reached consecutive Final Fours, something that is taken as a given for UConn’s fan base but is new for the Hawkeyes.

It was a marathon day of media for Clark. After the standard Final Four availabilities, Clark took home the AP Player of the Year Award, then the Wade Trophy.

Clark provided her standard ability to contextualize her rise even as she’s living it, holding the AP trophy later Thursday afternoon.

“I feel like I’m so focused and locked in a lot of times I don’t see a lot of it. And I think obviously women’s basketball is at a place maybe it’s never been before. But I think the game has always been just as good. There’s been so much talent and so many amazing players I grew [up] wanting to be like. … They definitely laid the foundation for us to have these opportunities and for us to really thrive on this stage.

“It was just a short while ago we weren’t able to use the March Madness branding and ESPN was still doing whip-around coverage of our games. I think now that we’re really having the opportunity, you’re seeing how good it is and how much people just want to watch. People can’t get enough of it. And I think that’s the coolest thing.”

Taking in all of Clark’s hardware was her coach, the one who built around her, the one who has managed to coach three national scoring leaders, each dramatically different from one another. There was Jan Jensen at Drake, now Bluder’s longtime assistant; center Megan Gustafson; and now the do-it-all guard Clark.

“I could sit up here and talk all day about Coach Bluder,” Clark said. “I think the biggest thing for myself is she believed we would be here and be in this moment. That was the greatest thing for me going throughout the recruiting process is I wanted to play for a coach that had the same vision that I did. And we were probably about the only two people that believed we would be at a Final Four. And now we’re at back-to-back Final Fours.”

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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