Freshmen Paige Bueckers (UConn Huskies) and Caitlin Clark (Iowa Hawkeyes) have dazzled us all season long.
Now, the two point guards will go head-to-head for the first time at the college level. And it will be in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament no less, at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Bueckers, the only freshman who is one of the four Naismith Trophy finalists for best player of the year, has gotten more attention and accolades than Clark this year, but Clark is underrated. Clark scores 6.8 more points per game than Bueckers and actually leads the entire nation in scoring. She is also ahead by 1.2 rebounds and 1.1 assists, all while playing in a Power 5 conference (the Big Ten). Bueckers plays in the less competitive Big East, which UConn dominated en route to its current spot atop the national scoring margin category.
Of course, UConn plays a much more difficult nonconference schedule than Iowa on a yearly basis and this year was no different with the Huskies facing No. 1 seed South Carolina, No. 3 seed Tennessee and No. 4 seed Arkansas. Iowa only faced one nonconference opponent of note: No. 7 seed Iowa State. However, UConn did have games against Baylor and Louisville cancelled, resulting in Clark playing in six more pre-tournament ranked matchups based on the final rankings than Bueckers (9-3). Now that Clark has also faced Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and scored 35 points, she is averaging 26.4 points in 10 ranked matchups.
Both Clark and Bueckers have just one single-digit scoring effort, with Bueckers’ coming against No. 13 Tennessee and Clark’s coming against an unranked but good Northwestern team. Bueckers’ 31-point effort against South Carolina stands as the most impressive performance between the two and included a dagger 3-pointer late, as did her performance against Tennessee.
Bueckers has been under the pressure of being the No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit and has admirably led UConn to the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament. She also has 2.4 steals per game compared to Clark’s 1.2 and shoots a blistering 46.7 percent from beyond the arc compared to the Clark, who shoots more threes at a still-great 40.6 percent clip. Bueckers’ field goal percentage of 53.9 percent is phenomenal for a guard and is higher than Clarks’ 47 percent. However, the gap between the two players’ accomplishments is razor thin, just like their heights (Clark has an inch on Bueckers at 6’0”).
UConn blew out No. 16 seed High Point 102-59 in the first round and similarly demolished a very talented and underachieving Syracuse team 83-47 in the second round. Iowa had to battle a bit against No. 12 seed Central Michigan in the first round, winning by 15 and then saw No. 4 seed Kentucky turn a blowout into just a 14 point win. But though the Hawkeyes haven’t dominated the way they Huskies have, they have plenty of momentum and positive energy entering the Sweet 16 and it all revolves around their star in Clark.
Bueckers has a better supporting cast than Clark with Christyn Williams (15.5 points per game), Olivia Nelson-Ododa (13), Aaliyah Edwards (10.8) and Evina Westbrook (9.1). The Huskies also have their head coach, Geno Auriemma, back now that he has finished quarantining following a positive COVID-19 test.
Monika Czinano, who averages 19.5 points per game, is a great co-star for Clark.
The winner of this game will advance to the Elite Eight and face the winner of No. 2 seed Baylor vs. No. 6 seed Michigan in the River Walk Region final. Getting to the Elite Eight by knocking off the storied Huskies would be huge for an Iowa program that was not ranked at all this season.
No. 5 seed Iowa Hawkeyes (20-9, 12-9 Big Ten) vs. No. 1 seed UConn Huskies (26-1, 18-0 Big East)
When: Saturday, March 27 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: The Alamodome in San Antonio, TX
How to watch/listen: ABC/Radio: 97-9 ESPN or TuneIn (UConn)
Key to the matchup: Iowa’s 3-point shooting vs. UConn’s 3-point defense. Iowa has been in a battle with fellow tournament teams Maryland and Oregon State for the nation’s No. 1 spot in 3-point percentage, with the Hawkeyes moving ahead most recently at 40.7 percent. Clark (40.6 percent) is a big part of that and she takes the most threes out of anyone on Iowa. However, Gabbie Marshall (51 makes) shoots even better (45.5 percent) and McKenna Warnock (45 makes) shoots 43.7 percent. So the Hawkeyes have some perimeter weapons besides Clark and the potential to gain some ground from beyond the arc because they take 4.6 more threes per game than the Huskies. However, UConn is 20th in the nation in 3-point percentage defense (26.3) so it will be strength against strength and UConn has huge advantages in overall defense and rebounding (albeit in the Big East) and also shoots a slightly better field goal percentage. Iowa needs to get hot from deep.