Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers? Not quite, as Iowa, UConn emphasize team game ahead of Final Four

CLEVELAND — Yes, Paige, that was indeed the game you slapped Geno Auriemma’s butt.

Since Paige Bueckers and UConn faced Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the 2021 Sweet 16, not much is the same except maybe Auriemma’s somewhat incredulous side look at the player he believes is the best in the country. Actually, he corrected, she’s not this weekend, because he doesn’t want any vendetta fueling Clark, the two-time Naismith Player of the Year, to drop 50 against them.

Bueckers and Clark, the two best players in the country, will meet for only the second time in their collegiate careers when Iowa and UConn play in the Final Four on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Though Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder doesn’t want it to be about Bueckers vs. Clark, they are the latest headline clash in an NCAA tournament full of them. This one has the juice to become a WNBA rivalry in the vein of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, or A’ja Wilson vs. Breanna Stewart.

The two go back to AAU and were teammates on stacked junior Team USA squads. Bueckers, the No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class, came out of high school with the magazines and social media attention headed for the most well-known and successful program in the country. Clark, the No. 4 recruit who dreamed of going to UConn, was somewhat overlooked, opting to stay at home at Iowa, who reached the Final Four only once in 1993.

“People weren't even mentioning Caitlin Clark when Paige was a freshman,” Auriemma said Thursday. “It was all Paige, Paige, Paige. Now it's all Caitlin, Caitlin, Caitlin.”

Clark is in magazines and TV commercials, on billboards and T-shirts. An apparel store near Rocket Mortgage Field House is advertising Iowa gear because of how much attention the star brings the program and how well fans travel to see her. It's a sharp change for a UConn program that sat atop the world in the 2010s.

The NCAA’s all-time leading scorer clinched back-to-back Final Four berths for the Hawkeyes, the first of which came while Bueckers was sidelined for the season after ACL surgery. Now, each is a personable superstar in an era completely different from when they met in a tournament played in a bubble.

“I was looking back and I saw some old footage of that game and we both look really, really young,” Clark said. “It's cool to see how our careers have evolved, and [there are] a lot of different players on both teams.”

Arguably the most stunning difference from their freshmen years is that Bueckers’ UConn team, and not Clark’s Iowa one, is the surprise Final Four participant.

Iowa had never reached a title game until Clark’s prolific scoring and assists brought the Hawkeyes there last year. After losing center Monika Czinano, the Hawkeyes’ hopes were questioned. But Clark scored even more points as a senior en route to the NCAA all-time scoring crown and the team backed up its No. 1 seed in a difficult Albany 2 regional.

UConn guard Paige Bueckers reacts as time runs down during an Elite Eight college basketball game against Southern California in the women's NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
UConn guard Paige Bueckers reacts as UConn beat USC in the Elite 8. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

UConn’s projections dropped as player after player sustained season-ending knee injuries. Six in all will be on the bench in sweats, including guard Azzi Fudd. The Huskies were a No. 3 seed in the Portland 3 regional and upset No. 1 USC to start a new Final Four streak that ended at 14 last year.

“If you would have talked to me in June this year, I would tell you, yeah, it was going to be us and South Carolina playing for the national championship,” Auriemma said. “Then as things started to happen, I started to believe something different. You have to be realistic, and we live in a world at UConn where the expectations are unrealistic. But you have to be realistic.”

The nation will tune in to see the two point guards go shot-for-shot, and Auriemma is enough of a realist to expect it.

“Caitlin comes down and makes a huge 3, don't think that Paige is going to pass the next one up and pass it to somebody,” Auriemma said. “So I think there will be a little bit of that. But it won't be, ‘If I score more points than Caitlin, Connecticut's going to win.’ It won't be that at all. And it won't be, 'I have to match everything that she does.'”

It is Clark’s last chance to win a national championship, and many believe she needs to before she can be considered the best college player of all time. She is expected to go No. 1 in the 2024 WNBA Draft on April 15 to the Indiana Fever. Bueckers said she is staying another year at UConn, but her opportunities to join the group of UConn icons are dwindling. Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird all won at least one title.

If either is going to lift the trophy, they'll need their teammates' help, to Bluder's point.

“Like Coach said, it's not Paige versus Caitlin, and it takes the entire team to win a basketball game,” Clark said. “Both of us are going to do everything we can.”

Each side’s players realize they can slow the other star guard, but they can’t stop her. And they’re focused on their own team more. It’s Iowa basketball vs. UConn basketball, as Bluder wants it.

Clark and Bueckers will each likely face different defensive looks. UConn senior Nika Mühl will see time on Clark as she did on USC’s JuJu Watkins, though she got in early foul trouble that UConn can’t afford against the high-pace Iowa offense. Iowa fifth-year senior Gabbie Marshall played a solid game against LSU and will likely see time on Bueckers.

Offensively, Sydney Affolter has played big minutes for Iowa in the starting lineup for the injured Molly Davis, and UConn freshmen KK Arnold and Ashlynn Shade are strong.

Clark and Bueckers’ growth as leaders and teammates is what Bluder notices about them now versus the first time they met in college. In Bueckers, she sees a player who doesn’t have to create, but instead takes what is given and relies on her teammates so she isn’t doing everything herself.

“Her leadership is unmatched,” Arnold said of Bueckers. “It brings us a long way, but it brings our freshman class a long way just in terms of our confidence level."

In Clark, Bluder saw firsthand how she became a great leader who builds up her teammates and allows them to play free.

“She instills so much confidence in me,” Iowa sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke said of Clark. “It feels good. The best player in the country thinks I’m doing good.”