Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Caitlin Clark's confidence matches Colorado's in Sweet 16 matchup

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

SEATTLE − For the Iowa women’s basketball team to reach its fifth Elite Eight and first since 2019, it’ll have to conquer an extremely confident opponent here at Climate Pledge Arena.

Sixth-seeded Colorado (25-8) has a swagger, and it’s not afraid of Caitlin Clark and the second-seeded Hawkeyes (28-6). The Buffaloes are defined by their defense, which limits opponents to 58.5 points per game.

“That’s our DNA. That’s just what we do,” Colorado’s Tayanna Jones said. “Defense is how we win ballgames.”

The Buffaloes have heard of Clark, the nation’s most dynamic player, on social media. But what was it like to break down the sensational Iowa star on film?

Caitlin Clark, the front-runner for national player of the year, says "go for it" to Colorado's plan to stop her.

“She’s a solid player,” Jones said.

Added top Colorado reserve Kindyll Vetta: “The more film we’ve watched, we’ve found little things we might be able to use to our advantage defensively to potentially limit her offensively.”

Colorado forced 21 turnovers in a 61-53 overtime upset of third-seeded Duke to reach this point. The Buffaloes made no bones about the fact they’ll look to pick up Clark at the half-court line and try to be physical with her.

“That’s our M.O.,” said guard Jaylyn Sherrod, who leads Colorado with 77 steals. “And that’s what we’ve done all season, without playing Caitlin Clark.

“Even though she’s going to get hers, it’s making her touches hard. Making her pass the ball, making other people on the floor become factors.”

Clark, who averages 27.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.5 assists a game and leads the nation in 3-pointers, embraces Colorado’s confidence. A fiery competitor herself, the Iowa junior loves the challenge that Friday’s 6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN-televised regional semifinal brings.

“I would always expect our opponent to be confident,” Clark said. “They’re going to bring their best shot. They’ve got nothing to lose. They’re going to be competitive. They’re going to be feisty.”

Clark showed up at Thursday’s open practice with bruises and scrapes on both knees. Floor burns from getting pushed around in Iowa’s 74-66 win against Georgia, she said.

More:Caitlin Clark's 5 best quotes of the Iowa women's basketball season

As for Colorado’s game plan?

Clark has seen just about every defense this season. She had 22 points and 12 assists against the Bulldogs, who deployed a lot of length in their zone defense. (Some Hawkeye players were aware of Vetta’s quote before Thursday's open-locker room interviews began.)

“A lot of people probably say that going into games playing me, whether that’s being physical, whether it’s denying me, whether it’s picking me up full court,” Clark said. “They’re going to try a lot of different things.

“If you’re going to sell out and take away me, go for it. My teammates are incredible. I might get the spotlight quite a bit, but my teammates are what make this thing go.

“I feel like I’ve seen just about everything at this point. So, I think I’m ready.”

More:The tone around Iowa's Final Four chances has changed. Hawkeyes are giving it little attention.

Hannah Stuelke’s return is much needed for Iowa

Colorado has two excellent post players in Quay Miller and Aaronette Vonleh. They are the Buffaloes’ top two scorers. That’ll be a challenge on Friday, but one that Iowa is more ready for than it was against Georgia (when it was outrebounded, 42-29).

That’s because freshman Hannah Stuelke is returning from a right-ankle injury that forced her to miss the Georgia game.

She has been working her way back all week and didn’t join the team for a hilly walk through the Seattle fish market Wednesday as a precaution. She said she’s “almost” back to 100%.

“I’ll be playing tomorrow, so that’s good,” Stuelke said. “There was no way I’m missing another game.”

The Colorado challenge is one the Big Ten’s Sixth Player of the Year is looking forward to. She's been told by coaches that her main objective Friday is defensive rebounding.

“I love games like that. I’ve always been a physical player,” Stuelke said. “And I like and-ones. If they’re going to hit me, they better hit me hard.”

Additionally, Iowa expects to have Molly Davis back from injury. A primary ballhandler off the bench, Davis rolled her ankle vs. Georgia and only played 1:45. She declared herself 100%.

“They have tough, physical guards,” Davis said. “So ball-handling is going to be really key this game.”

More:Leistikow: Iowa's Jan Jensen confronts life's highs, lows at NCAA Tournament

Iowa is a team of destiny, senior Kate Martin says

The Hawkeyes packed for the Final Four in Dallas, more so logistically because there would be little point in returning to Iowa City for one day. But it does underscore that this Hawkeye team expects to win two games in three days.

“We believe in ourselves. That’s what you want,” Martin said. “You’ve got to back yourselves, or nobody else will. … We know the potential of this team. We believe we can win.”

A video this week titled “Stronger Together” showed coach Lisa Bluder gathering players in a circle before the Georgia game. She then had them picture themselves alone before grabbing the hands next to them, to show what it’s like to have teammates.

“It’s just another Coach Bluder moment. She has like a billion of them,” Martin said. “I’m just so lucky to play for a coach who’s so passionate. And she’s not saying that for cameras; she’s the last person who would do that.”

What are the odds? McKenna Warnock's family is close to Seattle

McKenna Warnock’s parents moved from the Midwest to Redmond, Washington, about 1½ years ago. Her sister, Taylor, is an anesthesiologist resident out here and her parents moved in part to be closer to their grandchild (Warnock’s niece).

So imagine the Hawkeye senior’s excitement when the Hawkeyes not only were picked for the Seattle regional … but advanced here after two wins in Iowa City. She expects to have seven family members in attendance, with a short commute.

“It’s definitely much closer than flying (from) Iowa City,” Warnock said. “It’s only 15 minutes for them. It’s so weird that it kind of ended up working out.”

A future NCAA regional in Des Moines?

One topic that came up among all teams Thursday was that the closest program to this Seattle regional site is 1,300 miles away. There are eight teams playing here Friday and Saturday, most of them from the Midwest or Eastern footprint.

That led to one questioner asking whether Iowa coach Lisa Bluder thought Des Moines should bid for a women’s regional in the future. Wells Fargo Arena hosted first- and second-round men’s tournament games this year in downtown Des Moines.

“I would hope that Des Moines would bid for this because − you look at Iowa, Iowa State, and Drake, three of the four schools from Iowa, the Division I schools, were invited to the NCAA Tournament,” Bluder said. “They each won their (conference) tournaments

“And with how well Iowa State and us draw, it would just make sense that Des Moines should be trying for this. … I think it would sell out. I really do.”

There’s almost no doubt about that. But regionals are already set for the 2024 (Albany and Portland), 2025 (Birmingham and Spokane) and 2026 (Fort Worth and Sacramento) seasons.

More:Leistikow: What's ahead for Iowa women's basketball's matchup vs. Colorado, Final Four run?

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.