Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers in Final Four: Iowa, UConn clashing again with spotlight on stars reversed

Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers were two of the country’s top freshmen during the 2020-21 season, and now they are standing in the path of each other’s first national title. 

Iowa and UConn are facing each other in a must-watch Final Four battle on Friday. This will be Clark’s last chance to win a ring at the college level because she has declared for the 2024 WNBA Draft. Meanwhile, Bueckers will stick around for one more year, but she is just as hungry to win it all after sitting out all of last season with a torn ACL. 

The star guards faced each other as freshmen in the Sweet 16 and gave us a little taste of what we could expect from them later on. Bueckers registered 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a 92-72 victory. Although the Hawkeyes suffered a 20-point loss, Clark showed promise with 21 points, three rebounds and five assists.

While Clark had a standout freshman season, Bueckers became the top player in the country while collecting most of the major awards, including Player of the Year. Although UConn lost in the 2021 Final Four, Huskies fans were confident the best was yet to come for Bueckers.

Fast forward three years, and here the two are meeting each other again — albeit under much different circumstances. Bueckers’ career has been disrupted by injuries, while Clark skyrocketed into the spotlight while becoming NCAA Division I basketball’s all-time leading scorer

Here are three things to consider ahead of the Clark vs. Bueckers II. 

UConn a rare underdog

Yes, that sounds crazy to say about a Geno Auriemma team, but realistically the Huskies’ journey to Cleveland was more improbable than Iowa’s.

Injuries and inexperience across the roster have forced the Huskies to use a seven-player rotation. Yet here they are, competing in their 15th Final Four in the last 16 NCAA Tournaments. The one Final Four they did miss over that incredible stretch was last year, when Bueckers was out with a torn ACL. 

The Huskies’ lack of depth is what could potentially hurt them. UConn only used six players against Duke, and the Huskies enjoyed a 20-point lead in the third quarter. However, they eventually needed to take a “breather,” leading to Duke getting within five points with two minutes left in the game. 

Iowa is not going to be a walk in the park. The Hawkeyes will require the Huskies to sprint all night because they like to play at a fast pace.

Being considered an underdog, however, is not necessarily a bad thing.

“The players at UConn today have a unique opportunity,” Auriemma said ahead of the tournament. ” … When no one’s expecting you to win it, that’s a little bit of a motivator in itself.”

Bueckers quietly returning to elite form 

Clark put the world on notice during last year’s NCAA Tournament as the Hawkeyes made it to the title game for the first time in program history. She carried that momentum into this season as she once again led the nation in scoring and assists. 

However, Bueckers is also an outstanding offensive player as she’s the country’s 11th-leading scorer at 22 points per game. And while Bueckers isn’t scoring at the same volume as Clark, the UConn star is doing so more efficiently. Bueckers has gone 310-for-561 (53.3%) from the field this season while Clark has shot 386-for-840 (45.9%). 

The danger with Clark is she will definitely take shots — lots of them — and it’s hard for teams to limit her because she has a high basketball IQ and knows how to create offense for others as well. She also makes insane baskets, including her signature ones from the logo. 

Bueckers has great court vision and can also make some highlight-worthy shots. But her team could benefit from her taking more shots. 

While offense is Bueckers’ calling card, she’s one of the most well-rounded players in the nation as her defense has taken a big jump this season. Bueckers has 86 steals this season, placing her in the top 25 nationally. Her style of play might not be as flashy as Clark’s, but her skill level is as special as ever despite sitting out all last season.

The battle goes beyond Clark vs. Bueckers

As talented as Clark and Bueckers are, the truth is neither can win without the help of their team. UConn getting past USC in the Elite Eight required 28 points and 10 rebounds from Bueckers, but also 24 points from Aaliyah Edwards and contributions among the other rotation players. 

Edwards is a Wooden Award All-American just like Bueckers, averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest. Nika Muhl, meanwhile, is a tough defender and is second in the nation with 246 assists.

Freshman KK Arnold is also developing nicely with 8.8 points per game and has just one less steal than Bueckers this season (85). Her energetic personality also gives her team a spark of energy.

As for the Hawkeyes, Hannah Stuelke and Kate Martin are the team’s other double-digit scorers with 13.8 and 13.1 points per game, respectively. However, Sydney Affolter — who’s had an increased role since Molly Davis’ knee injury — seems to be peaking at the right time as she has registered double-figure scoring efforts in six of her last seven games. 

Iowa had an upset scare in the second round against West Virginia, when Clark went 8-for-22 from the field. But the team as a whole responded well in the Sweet 16 with a 21-point win over Colorado. Clark “only” had to register 29 points in that game because all the other starters scored in double figures. 

Against LSU, Clark put together an impressive stat line of 41 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. But it is important to remember that for the 12 assists to count, her teammates had to make buckets. Iowa will need that to happen again to defeat UConn and advance to its second consecutive national championship. 

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