Iowa. LSU.— ESPN (@espn) April 1, 2023
The National Championship is set for Sunday pic.twitter.com/1cK5qcf3fQ
It’s not the matchup we expected, but it has much history-making intrigue.
Driven by last season’s second-round upset, the Hawkeyes advanced to the program’s first Final Four since 1993 behind a core group that has started more than 90 games together. Their cohesion is amplified by the singular offensive brilliance of Caitlin Clark, who will shoot for a third-straight 40-plus-point game in the national championship. It also would not be surprising if Clark threatened Sheryl Swoopes’ record 47-point performance in a national title game or surpassed Swoopes’ all-time mark of 177 total points scored in an NCAA Tournament, both of which were achieved in 1993, the same year the Hawkeyes last reached the Final Four stage.
LSU introduces an alternative model of excellence. In her second season in Baton Rouge, Kim Mulkey has microwaved a championship contender, expertly navigating the modern culture of college basketball to mold a roster featuring nine new players, highlighted by transfer Angel Reese, into a potential title winner. In the national championship game, Reese will have the opportunity to earn her 34th double-double of the season — she already has the new NCAA record. A win for the Lady Tigers would give Mulkey four national championships, a total that would trail only Geno Auriemma (11) and Pat Summitt (eight). She would also remain a perfect 4-0 in national title games.
So, what happens on Sunday? Which team will deliver a historic first national championship for its program?
On both ends of the floor, expect Lisa Bluder to implement advantageous schemes for her Hawkeyes, optimizing Clark’s talents on offense while compensating for Iowa’s weaknesses on defense. Mulkey, in contrast, will demand that her Lady Tigers do what they do — overwhelm in the paint and on the boards — but just do it better and harder.
Here’s what else might happen when the Hawkeyes and Lady Tigers face off on Sunday afternoon:
What might happen when Iowa is on offense and LSU is on defense?
The Hawkeyes present opponents with unenviable options.
Do you force the ball out of Clark’s hands? Well, that approach risks allowing Clark to slice and dice defenses with her passing, resulting in open avenues to the basket for Monika Czinano or setting up Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall or McKenna Warnock for 3-pointers. Additionally, keeping the ball away from Clark’s clutches is easier said than done, as she careens around the half court when off the ball. Alternatively, simply letting Clark get hers and shutting down everyone else seems ill-advised. And then, there’s the two-woman game between Clark and Czinano that has proven unstoppable. Iowa also feasts in transition, with Clark pinging her teammates with long passes after misses and makes.
South Carolina opted to stick to Iowa’s 3-point shooters, a strategy that Clark exploited in isolation, speeding past perimeter defenders to the basket, or via pick and rolls with Czinano, drawing the attention of Czinano’s defender before hitting her teammate on the roll.
While LSU does not have the elite defensive depth of South Carolina, their success similarly derives from a combination of strength, length and smarts, with perimeter aggression anchored by the versatility of Reese. The Lady Tigers’ response to the tape of the Iowa-South Carolina showdown will be interesting. Will Mulkey deploy size or speed on Clark? Will LSU risk abandoning Iowa’s shooters to give more help on Clark’s drives? How will Reese’s positioning be tweaked and toggled?
What might happen when LSU is on offense and Iowa is on defense?
Iowa packed the paint against South Carolina, surrounding Aliyah Boston and daring the Gamecocks to beat them with jump shots. The bet, while it looked shaky at some points, paid off.
At Saturday’s press conference, Bluder suggested Iowa would scheme up an alternative strategy against LSU, which, while also thriving off dominant interior scoring, has more capable outside shooters. If the Hawkeyes do help off the Lady Tigers, they intend to make them pay. On Saturday, Alexis Morris, echoed by several teammates, called Iowa’s approach “disrespectful.”
Based on her play throughout the tournament, it seems unwise to doubt Morris, the Texas native who is writing a story of redemption as a fearless shot taker and maker. LaDazhia Williams also has stepped up offensively during LSU’s tourney run, while Flau’jae Johnson has the potential to introduce some off-the-bounce juice for the Lady Tigers in the half court.
Even if LSU’s jump shots do not fall, the Lady Tigers will have the opportunity to grab the advantage from the Hawkeyes on the glass. On Friday night, Iowa was, as expected, dominated on the boards, almost doubled up. Yet, they survived. But can they do so a second-straight time? Reese arguably is the nation’s best rebounder, capable of repeatedly cashing in on second-chance points.
South Carolina bent Iowa’s defense, but could not break it. If LSU can cause the Iowa defense to crack, how will the Hawkeyes respond?