With Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers next, Hawkeyes have earned national attention with overachieving season
With the women's basketball world and beyond flocking to Saturday's freshmen showdown, it's allowed another overachieving Iowa season to be properly acknowledged.
Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers have split the adoration evenly in the buildup to their Sweet 16 collision in San Antonio, Texas. For mighty Connecticut and its 11 national championships, having someone garner Bueckers' level of attention is another day at the office. Not for Clark and the Hawkeyes, which rightfully deserve this spotlight time after sidestepping doubters and modest season expectations.
"Coming in here and doing this as such a young team speaks volumes to the coaches and this program and the culture we have here," Clark said. "This year has been special, but this is only the beginning for this team."
With top-seeded UConn likely owning the love once Saturday's noon affair gets rolling, it was important for the Hawkeyes to maximize this week's window of recognition. Several sportsbooks have the Huskies (26-1) as a 15.5-point favorite, making fifth-seeded Iowa (20-9) the second-biggest Sweet 16 underdog behind Missouri State. No. 1 seeds at the women's NCAA Tournament haven't lost in this round since 2016.
Bueckers and UConn are supposed to be here. Clark and Iowa — at least for this season — are not. At least not yet — as was the popular opinion weeks ago. That fact should override whatever happens Saturday inside the Alamodome.
"You look at our team at the beginning of the year," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said this week, "nobody even had us receiving votes in the top 25. We just kept believing in ourselves. I'm so happy for my team. We're a young team, but we're going to build on this."
Of course, don't tell Clark or Beuckers how cemented Saturday's outcome may seem. These former teammates from the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup and 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championships know how potent the other is when buckets are needed. After several days of comparisons, analysis and headlines linking the two together, the two are highly respectful of the other.
Both Clark and Bueckers have openly discussed their basketball overlap, which includes winning gold medals together, experiencing life as nationally coveted Midwest recruits and handling immediate expectations as college newcomers. Still, Clark has been quick to clarify this freshmen duel isn't all Saturday has. She's dropped an "it's Iowa versus UConn" line in multiple interviews, offering up coach speak like a seasoned media veteran.
Clark is correct, even if zooming out creates more concerns for the Hawkeyes. Guard Christyn Williams is a first-team all-Big East selection. Olivia Nelson-Ododa is the conference's co-defensive player of the year. Aaliyah Edwards averages double figures off the bench. Evina Westbrook has settled in nicely after transferring from Tennessee. Not to mention all that firepower comes as starting guard Nika Muhl remains questionable with an ankle injury.
Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas are the Huskies' only opponents that stayed within single digits this season — the Razorbacks handed UConn its only loss on Jan. 28. The women's basketball machine Geno Auriemma has constructed is humming along as well as ever.
"I'm not going to be star-struck," Clark said. "Obviously, UConn is a team you grow up watching. It's a cool opportunity more than anything. That's what the coaches have been telling us, 'You have a chance to do something special here.' And we're going to believe we can win. That's what we come into every game thinking. We believe in each other. We believe in this team.
"When we step on the court, we’re not scared.”
Like many teams, Iowa hasn't fared well against the sport's giants. Since the women’s NCAA Tournament began in 1982, the Hawkeyes are 6-25 when facing a No. 1 seed or a team that became a No. 1 seed later that season. That stretch includes 17 straight such losses. Iowa’s only March Madness win over a No. 1 seed came against Tennessee amid the Hawkeyes' 1993 Final Four run.
Adding a second Saturday would send the women's basketball world spinning, but it's not needed to validate another ahead-of-schedule Iowa season. For a second consecutive year, the Hawkeyes weren't included in any preseason NCAA Tournament chatter — polls, bracketologies, all that — and had significant pieces graduate. All Bluder has done is ready an undervalued squad for March success once again.
More eyes are seeing that through Clark's postseason ascension and Saturday's freshmen hype.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.