Leistikow: With an eye on the Final Four, Caitlin Clark's Iowa story is just beginning

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

This seems hard to believe: It’s been less than nine months since Caitlin Clark played her first basketball game for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Turns out, that opening performance against Northern Iowa — 27 points, eight rebounds, four assists — just scratched the surface of what was to come. 

Clark would end up leading all Division I basketball (men or women) in scoring at 26.6 points per game and was named co-freshman of the year nationally. She led a young Iowa team to an improbable Sweet 16. On Sunday, she earned a gold medal with Team USA at the FIBA U19 Women’s World Cup in Hungary and was crowned tournament MVP. By Wednesday, she was announcing the launch of merchandise, her first official business transaction in college sports' name, image and likeness (NIL) era.

And, now, this seems harder to believe: The fan favorite and one of the country’s top women’s stars has yet to play in front of a crowd Hawkeye fans. The pride of Dowling Catholic High School cracks that many of her supporters “have never seen me in real life” and she can’t wait for that moment after months of show-stopping performances in near-empty arenas amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If anybody watched me in high school, they know that I live for a packed gym,” Clark said in an interview Friday morning with the Des Moines Register, three days after returning to U.S. soil. “And honestly that’s one of the reasons I came to Iowa, because the support of the women’s basketball team is so good. I just thrive off of crazy crowds.”

Put another way: When it comes to Caitlin Clark, you ain't seen nothing yet.

More:Iowa women's basketball's Caitlin Clark's first NIL venture with women-owned brand

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, left, and coach Lisa Bluder celebrate after the Hawkeyes advanced to the Sweet 16 of last year's NCAA women's basketball tournament.

'All I want to do is win'

These last nine months have disproven some knocks that swirled around Clark coming out of high school. She heard them, too, and can laugh about them now. Clark plays with a confident edge that can be misunderstood as being selfish or a bad teammate.

“I’m definitely a volume shooter, so I get the 'selfish' thing. But my teammates would tell you completely different,” Clark said. “They know all I want to do is win, and I care about them so much.”

She correctly added with a laugh, “I think I had the most assists in the country, so I’m not sure they can make that knock on me.”

Her on-court generosity was prevalent in Hungary. Clark had three eight-assist games (including in the title win vs. Australia) on the way to putting a third gold medal around her neck before age 20. She won gold in U16 with Team USA four years ago in Argentina, then again in 2019 as a 17-year-old role player for the U19 team. But this was the first time she was a starting star.

She averaged 14.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists in Team USA's seven games while helping bring younger players on the team along. (The nation’s No. 1 Class of 2021 recruit, Connecticut’s Azzi Fudd, was among them.) What was most impressive about Clark’s assist numbers: She was playing as an off-ball guard, a departure from her usual point-guard role.

She is still Iowa's only true point guard, so that role is securely hers this winter.

But it was good practice.

“Learning to play without the ball was something we were really going to focus on this summer (at Iowa),” Clark said. “… Just moving without the ball, screening, being able to get the ball without it being in your hands. Obviously next year, people are going to know who I am.”

They already do.

Previously:Caitlin Clark's FIBA U19 gold medal and tournament MVP highlight her basketball dominance

Caitlin Clark, right, led the Hawkeyes as a No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament to the conference championship game in March.

NIL business begins for a national star

Clark on Thursday was listed No. 16 among ESPN’s “25 Most Marketable College Basketball Players,” men or women. Social-media following plus the ability to be a regional or national star was evaluated.

Though college athletes were green-lit to make green off their name on July 1, Clark was clear from the beginning that she wanted to be choosy with any endorsement or merchandise deals. Plus, she’s been busy. Counting pre-World Cup stops in Washington, D.C., and Spain, she was gone from July 20 to Aug. 17.

Clark this week announced her partnership with The Vinyl Studio in West Des Moines’ historic Valley Junction neighborhood — just five minutes from her family’s home — and the launch of “Back in Gold” T-shirts with her initials and jersey number (CC 22). Clark herself designed the packaging for orders.

Clark said working with a female-owned, local business was important to her. One of the plans with this venture is to have limited-quantity, limited-time offerings. The first shirts will be available only for four weeks, if supplies last. (Former Hawkeye and NFL linebacker Chad Greenway tweeted his purchase of five $29 T-shirts almost immediately.)

Clark was a top-five national prospect out of Dowling but bypassed women's powerhouses by picking Iowa, with the hopes of leading the Hawkeyes (eventually) to their first Final Four since 1993.

"I didn’t want to do something that everyone else was doing,” Clark said. “That’s kind of part of my story, that’s one of the reasons I came to Iowa. It just kind of aligns with who I am.

“Through this whole NIL thing, I don’t want to be just, ‘yes, yes, yes’ to every opportunity.”

Nine months down, three years to go

Clark’s rising national prominence already has some Hawkeye fans worried that she’ll leave early for another school or a pro career. But Clark has been on the record multiple times that she plans to play another three years in Iowa City. She reiterated Friday that her No. 1 goal is taking the Hawkeyes to a Final Four.

After last year’s Sweet 16 run and with the Hawkeyes bringing back 99% of their scoring plus adding transfer Kylie Feuerbach from Iowa State and a top-20 recruiting class, the Hawkeyes are pegged as a “way-too-early” preseason top-10 team by ESPN and Sports Illustrated.

But Clark is adamant that the Hawkeyes won’t get where they want to go without playing better defense. She said that’s been a summer-long focus that was accentuated for her in the U19 World Cup, where she described international play being a lot more physical than the U.S. college game. The high-scoring Hawkeyes ranked 336th (last) in Division I in scoring defense, at 80.3 points per game, last season.

“We really haven’t worked on our offense much,” Clark said. “We know if we want to get far in the tournament, it’ll be our defense that leads us there.”

Clark was looking forward to a low-key week West Des Moines with her parents, Brent and Anne, before returning to in-person classes in Iowa City on Thursday.

It’s a reminder that she’s exactly where she wants to be.

A close-to-home Hawkeye with much more to come.

“Out of high school, I could have gone really wherever I wanted to. I love the University of Iowa, I love the people, I love my team,” Clark said. “Just being so close to home, I can see my family all the time. Honestly, there isn’t any place better for me and I truly believe that. My first year was great, but I think our second year is going to be so much better.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.