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Before elevating to the level of national fame they’ve reached today, Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark were the top two point guards in the Class of 2020. They were gold-medal-winning teammates on USA Basketball and Midwest stars, Clark from West Des Moines, Iowa and Bueckers from Hopkins, Minnesota.
“People would email my high school coach non-stop to try to get us to play each other,” Clark said on a phone call prior to Iowa’s departure for the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio. “It’s the only thing people wanted.”
A few years later, it’s still the one thing anyone who’s paid attention to women’s college basketball this season wants.
UConn’s Bueckers and Iowa’s Clark — this season’s freshmen phenoms — were placed in the same region on Selection Monday, generating a potential Sweet 16 showdown. No. 1 seed UConn must beat No. 8 Syracuse, and No. 5 Iowa must take down No. 4 Kentucky, both games on Tuesday, for that to happen.
“I think that’s kind of the talk right now,” Clark said. “But that’d be a pretty special game for sure.”
A special season at home
As the No. 4 player in the 2020 class (and the No. 2 guard behind Bueckers), Clark initially looked all over the country during the recruiting process, but Lisa Bluder’s program at Iowa offered her everything she wanted. Staying close to home was an important factor. She didn’t want to be too far away from her family, including her two brothers, and hoped her parents would be able to make her games.
Growing up watching and supporting the Hawkeyes, Clark was familiar with the Iowa women’s basketball fandom. With no pro sports in the state, Iowa is truly the Hawkeye state, Bluder explained. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa was in the top 10 in fan attendance the previous two seasons, averaging 7,000 fans a game. After she signed, Clark went to the jersey retirement for Megan Gustafson, Iowa’s all-time scoring leader, in front of a sellout Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd and fell in love — “It was one of the coolest things,” Clark said.
After watching Gustafson, who won multiple national player of the year awards in 2019, Clark knew she had a chanceto build something special at home. Not that Iowa was starting from scratch: Behind Gustafson, the Hawkeyes advanced to the Elite Eight in 2019, falling to eventual national champion Baylor.
They are still seeking the the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1993. Clark wants to change that.
“I just think everything aligned correctly for me,” Clark said. “I want to do something different and taking them back to the Final Four is pretty much our overall goal. I think we’re slowly putting that together, but obviously we’re super young this year so we have so many ways to improve. I think the next few years are going to be super special.”
Clark knew when she chose Iowa she’d assume an immediate role but achieving the numbers she has put up across her first 28 games? “We didn’t know how much of an impact she was going to make,” Bluder said.
The numbers are impressive: a nation-best 26.5 points per game on 47.1 percent shooting (40.5 percent on 3s), 6.0 rebounds per game and 7.2 assists. She’s a volume shooter with a penchant for taking (and making) NBA 3s. She’ll also breeze by you off the bounce and dish it out to a teammate, perhaps with a no-look, behind-the-back pass like the one she pulled out for her NCAA Tournament debut.
Iowa made some noise in the Big Ten Tournament before falling to Maryland in the finals and is 19-9 heading into the Kentucky game. Clark, the conference freshman of the year and AP Second Team All-American, has everything to do with that.
“It’s been special,” Clark said of her season, “and I think I’ve exceeded quite a few expectations from some people.”
Competitors and friends
Clark first saw Bueckers play in the seventh grade when the future UConn guard was in Iowa for some tournaments in Ames.
“I remember watching her and I was like, ‘dang, that kid’s good,’” Clark said.
Clark describes Bueckers as more “swaggy,” herself as more competitive. Bueckers is usually even-keeled, Clark is more likely to show emotion. Although a high school showdown never happened, the two crossed paths as teammates through USA Basketball, winning gold medals together at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup and 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championship.
“We talk quite a bit,” said Bueckers in January. “She’s doing really great things. She’s leading the country in scoring as a freshman. But I’ve known her for a very long time, and that’s what she does. She’s a playmaker, she’s a scorer. She’s just a really great player, so just to see her continue to do that at the college so it was pretty cool to see.”
The Paige-versus-Caitlin talk was in full swing well before Selection Monday in conversations over the freshman-of-the-year race. Some would say they’re two of the best players in the country right now: They are the only two players to average at least 19 points and six assists per game.
Bueckers has headlined a freshman class full of stars and is an AP First Team All-American and Naismith Trophy finalist. Clark’s been right there with her, taking the Big Ten and the country by storm with her 11 30-point games.
“As a fan, come on now. Who has been more exciting with the ball in her hands [than Bueckers], besides Caitlin Clark?” analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “When she has the ball in her hands, she’s exciting. Dana Evans, when she has the ball in her hands, she’s exciting. But they’re not many.”
When it comes to the Paige-versus-Caitlin discussion, Clark says she’s tried to stay off social media.
“I think people think we hate each other for some reason, which is literally the total opposite,” Clark said. “I love her. She’s a good friend of mine, and she was a great teammate. I want nothing but the best for her.”
This season’s freshman class is stacked with talent, and so many of them became friends well before they put on their college uniforms. They root for each other to succeed.
“I’ve been really happy for others finding success at their schools,” Bueckers said.
“I could have told you we were going to be one of the best freshman classes even when we were younger,” Clark said. “There was always that great competition, whether it was that Nike EYBL or USA tryouts. It was just loaded with great players. I think more than anything, that’s just great for the game. Down the road, as we get older, it’s just going to bring more and more attention. More people will want to watch.”
“They’re both great in their own right,” Bluder added. “It doesn’t have to be a contest, in my opinion.”
Don’t get it twisted, though: If they face off against each other , it’ll be less buddy-buddy for those 40 minutes. Especially with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.
“At the end of the day, if we’re competing against each other in a game, obviously I’m going to want us to come out on top,” Bueckers said.
Alexa Philippou can be reached at email@example.com