Paige Bueckers of UConn and Caitlin Clark of Iowa were once teammates who played for their country. On the Saturday (1:00 p.m. ET, ABC / ESPN app) of the 2021 women’s basketball tournament, their teams will compete against the country. Bueckers’ No. 1 Seed UConn Huskies faces Clarks # 5 Iowa Hawkeyes in Sweet 16, a matchup that pits two of the most exciting newcomers to college sports against each other.
The two point guards who lead their team on 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 that we enjoy in sport: two budding superstars – who play no less the same position – meet for the first time on a national stage in a win-or-go home game.
On Friday, UConn trainer Geno Auriemma couldn’t remember as much hype that ever surrounded a pair of newbies.
“It’s been a while since you have two kids who have had this impact on both their teams and the game itself nationally,” said Auriemma, who went to the Huskies in San on Thursday after a 10-day COVID Antonio came. 19 quarantine. “Having one is a bit cool. But having two. … They are two really, really young kids, really good players who do a lot for their teams.”
Clark is the top of the NCAA Division I standings while Bueckers is among the top runners for the National Player of the Year 2021. Teammates on the USA Basketball U19 team in 2019 could one day be teammates to go for gold or compete as WNBA rivals. If so, we will look back on Saturday as the start of something special. ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Mechelle Voepel and Royce Young watch 5-foot-11 Bucker and UConn battle 6-foot Clark and Iowa and predict which team will win. And follow this link for a full review of our Sweet 16 predictions.
What are the strengths of Caitlin Clark’s game?
Range and passing. Her rating (a national best of 26.8 PPG) and her shooting (47% of the field) speak for themselves. But the ability to stretch the floor past 20 feet – and in some absurd cases, 25 feet – sets Clark apart from so many other good offensive players. Shooting from a distance puts immense pressure on the defense and dramatically spreads the ground. It forces defensive pickup points to be almost close to half the square, which allows the offenses to adapt with taller screens and more departure space to drive.
Caitlin Clark’s passport behind her back finds Monika Czinano, who uses it for the 1: 1 score.
It is no accident that Iowa forward Monika Czinano is one of the most efficient goal scorers in the country, shooting almost 67% off the field. There is so much space to operate and so many possibilities to go one-to-one in the interior.
When you combine that reach with Clark’s instincts, selflessness, vision and passing skills, you have an elite offensive player. If you double it, it goes to an open teammate. You go single coverage, she drives past you. You go into the zone, it bombs from below. It simplifies the game and attacks the weak points of a defense.
And the last thing: balance. It was so impressive to see Clark put on a lightshow against Kentucky in the first half and defeat the Wildcats alone while hitting six 3s, but she didn’t approach the second half as if she wanted to go 50. She played under control and kept her team-oriented approach. Clark, who averages 7.2 assists and ranks first in Division I, is trying to do what he can for the Hawkeyes. The media guide says she’s a newbie, but if you jumped in from space and watched her for the first time, you’d think she was a 10 year old WNBA veterinarian. – – Young
What is the main concern for UConn?
Nobody plans better to slow down the greatest strength of an opposing team than Auriemma and UConn. But Clark has played a very good conference this season – there are four Big Ten teams in Sweet 16 – and has battled many defenses designed to hold them back. She won’t be unsettled or intimidated, and the Hawkeyes are as confident now as they have been all season.
Remember when Arkansas gave UConn the only loss of the season? This game was a 90-87 shootout in which the Huskies made 12 3-pointers behind the arc with 52.2%. But Arkansas hit 13 Treys and was 56.5% off. The Razorbacks took good care of the ball too, with only nine sales on UConns 15. The Huskies have improved quite a bit defensively since losing on January 28th. But Iowa is capable of shooting the ball just like Arkansas, and if the Hawkeyes are involved in that way, it might be interesting. – – Voepel
What are the strengths of Paige Bueckers’ game?
Paige Bueckers gets the nifty pass through the traffic to Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who scores the easy layup.
Trust. She didn’t get to number 1 in the country without having enough of it already, but as the season went on, Bueckers’ belief in herself grew. When Geno Auriemma pleaded Bueckers to shoot more earlier this season, it was also a call to to take over the reins of the huskies. That game-winning shot in Tennessee on Jan. 21 could have been the turning point, and Buecker’s 31-point attempt in an overtime win over South Carolina – Buecker’s third 30-point game in a row in UConn’s highest matchup of the season – cemented it was the team from Bueckers that took the lead.
Bueckers – with an average of 19.9 points and 6.0 assists – also plays with an increased sense of anticipation. Her 2.4 steals per game show how that manifests itself in defense. At the other end of the field, it’s important to know where teammates will be in order to get them the ball a second earlier, or to see where the place will be in a defense. Bueckers has an uncanny ability to find that space with her dribbling and taking the right angle to get there to launch a jump shot that can only be described smoothly. A freshman guard who does 53.9% of their shots is special. For comparison, Elena Delle Donne was a 47.9% shooter in her first season in Delaware when she averaged 26.7 points per game. Bueckers makes 46.7% of their 3-point attempts. That’s amazing efficiency for all ages. – – cream
What’s the biggest concern for Iowa? Defense. See, it’s a well-documented weakness. The Hawkeyes were the last to enter the tournament dead in Division I, allowing more than 80 points per game. And when you’re playing UConn, you can’t afford to play a one-way game because you screamed out loud.
Now the Hawkeyes have shown a shocking improvement in the tournament so far. Clark called her game against Kentucky the most complete game of the season. And even in the opener against Central Michigan, an offensive team with a high octane rating, they competed in the second half.
Iowa is much more than just the Caitlin Clark Show. Any player on the team would tell you that, including Clark. But UConn is deeper and has more options across the board, one of which will lock you down. With Clark off, what’s the Iowa backup plan? – – Young
How will UConn defend Clark?
Rebecca Lobo is looking forward to UConn’s matchup against Iowa and star newcomer Caitlin Clark in Sweet 16.
The best way to limit Clark is to get the ball out of her hands early. This usually requires expanding defense with a double-team look early on. However, there is a certain risk involved. Rutgers used some of that strategy in the Big Ten tournament, but Iowa second security 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 in the game, many of which resulted in open Marshall shots. UConn has the ability to limit this type of secondary player breakout through better rotations, but it requires discipline.
The Huskies could go with a zone that aggressively suits Clark if she has the ball. The danger is to be responsible for her when she doesn’t have the ball in her hand. Clark’s range is so great that she can go well beyond any zone to get away from her shot.
As effortless and accurate as Clark’s 3-point shooting is (40.9%), her penetration can pose an even greater threat to the Iowa crime. UConn’s full-backs, especially Junior Christyn Williams, will be instrumental in removing Clark’s angle to the basket. If she can’t get in and pull the defense to the help side, her teammates aren’t as open. Limit the number of times it takes a second defender to slow Clark’s dribble drive and she won’t be as dangerous. Her death makes her a double threat. As strange as it sounds because of her skills from the depths, if UConn can only turn Clark into a jump shooter, she’s less effective.
Ultimately, defense will be key to UConn victory, and it’s a Huskies strength that is often overlooked. According to Her Hoop Stats, they are nationwide leaders in points allowed per attempted goal, third in percentage defense of field goals, and the # 1 defensive team. In many ways, this is a classic offense versus defense matchup. – – cream
How will Iowa defend Bueckers?
The Hawkeyes approach will likely be different from UConn’s approach to Clark. The huskies can use traps and try to push the ball out of Clark’s hands and see if someone else can hit them. If Iowa does that to Bueckers, four other highly skilled and talented offensive players will be ready to take the charge.
Aaliyah Edwards played two strong games in the tournament. Olivia Nelson-Ododa dominated against Syracuse. And while Bueckers is obviously a great goalscorer, he is a very willing passer-by who can set the table as well as anyone else.
What are the Hawkeyes doing? The options aren’t great, but expect them to mix up the covers and try to confuse Buckers. As talented as UConn is, everyone knows the Huskies are young (no seniors, seven newbies). Try to rattle her off with physicality – although deputy head coach Chris Dailey said the harder you play against Bückers, the tougher she gets. – – Young
What other Iowa players will be X-factors?
Czinano (19.4 PPG) leads Division I in the field goal percentage (66.9), and she and Clark are sometimes like a quarterback and tight end who can read each other on routes. They look like they’ve been playing together for years, and not just this season.
McKenna Warnock is the leading rebounder of the Hawkeyes and, like Czinano, brings a tenacity factor to Iowa. Warnock can also hit from a great distance: it has 48 3-pointers. Kate Martin has 115 assists and gives Iowa another great playmaker alongside Clark. As mentioned earlier, Marshall can fill the tire like she did at the Big Ten tournament. She is second after Clark in 3-pointers with 53. Voepel
What other UConn players will be X-factors?
Edwards growth begins to be reflected in production. After an average Big East tournament in which she was below her regular season average of 10.7 points per game, Edwards scored two NCAA tournament wins 18.0 PPG at UConns, with only two field goal attempts being missed. With the 6-3 Edwards on the grid instead of the injured newcomer Nika Mühl, the huskies are bigger and Bueckers takes on 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. When Czinano is just a step or two from the basket, a lot changes from what Iowa is trying offensively. – – cream
UConn wins if …:
The Huskies will win if they are able to establish and maintain offensive dominance. Iowa is not going to win this game on its defense. The Hawkeyes have to be brilliant offensively to stand a chance of surprise. But even a really good Iowa offense might not be enough if the huskies own that end of court too.
“We like transition basketball and that’s what we’re going to try,” said Auriemma. “And Iowa likes transitional basketball, they enjoy doing it. So how do you help yourself against teams like that?
“If you take a lot of shots it shortens the transition. You have to limit your sales … so you can do things to minimize the transitional crime that both teams have. But it’s easier said than done.” “”
If UConn clicks on both ends, the huskies probably just have too much firepower. Iowa relies heavily on its starters too. They all play for almost 30 minutes, if not more. – – Voepel
Iowa will win if …:
Clark had big games before Iowa lost, like 35 points in a loss to Michigan State and 30 points in a loss to Ohio State. It is not necessarily how much she gets that determines 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 if Clark scores fewer points and involves others, especially early in the game. This third goalscorer like Marshall (9.0 PPG), Martin (7.1 PPG) or Warnock (11.8 PPG) will contribute significantly to a surprise for Hawkeyes. – – cream
Which team will win?
Cream: UConn. The Huskies are better defensively and with Edwards playing well, UConn has five legitimate goalscorers.
Voepel: UConn. It’s really hard to decide against UConn considering how big the job it will be for Iowa’s defense to keep the huskies at bay so they’re within striking distance. For what it’s worth, one of UConn’s few NCAA Sweet 16 losses came to a team from the Hawkeyes’ home state: Iowa State defeated UConn in the 1999 regional semifinals thanks to great 3-point shots.
Young: UConn. I got Caitlin Clark, but this is UConn, and with so many more guns down the line, it’s going to be too much for Iowa to overcome.