Reusse: Caitlin Clark hype has been percolating for years - and I saw it coming

Welcome to Target Center, you bandwagon jumpers.

The Caitlin Clark crowd already was making its presence felt in the skyways and corridors outside the arena on Friday five hours before the scheduled 5:30 p.m. tipoff for her Iowa Hawkeyes and improved Penn State.

Inside, Brenda Frese's Maryland Terrapins were demonstrating the danger that can surface when playing a tournament game as favorites against a team that's been getting better late in the season.

Ohio State, the Big Ten champions and headed for a top regional seed, was in the process of being dismantled 82-61 in the quarterfinals by Frese's Maryland club.

Minnesotans with a memory could recall Frese's remarkable one-season stay with the Gophers — taking them from 8-20 to 22-8 in 2001-02, and then taking her National Coach of the Year plaque to the recruiting grounds that surround College Park, Md.

The huge early upset and Frese's history here were meaningless to the extra-early arrivers who were lined up in the skyway by the thousands by the time the day's first game ended.

Which brought up the question:

Where were you Caitlin-come-lately admirers on Feb. 9, 2022, three days after Clark's awe-inspiring attempt to bring back the Hawkeyes as road underdogs at Michigan?

They didn't get that — Michigan won 98-90 — but Clark finished with 46.

And I know where I was three days later: In Iowa City, having driven the 260 miles from the Twin Cities to Clark's alma mater, Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines, to interview her athletic director and coach, then 130 more miles to the Iowa campus to watch Clark take on the Gophers.

OK, it could be an exaggeration when claiming on X (Twitter) that I should be credited with "discovering" Caitlin Clark's immense talent, but guaranteed — no other septuagenarian sports writer with bad knees went to such lengths to acquire in-person confirmation.

My case of Caitlin fever had broken out watching that aforementioned game at Michigan. Scanning channels on a Sunday, landing on Iowa at Michigan for a moment and immediately seeing Clark fire in a 30-plus footer.

We now say "from the logo'' when Clark makes those. Back then, I saw that first one go in, and then three or four more, and there was this thought:

"This young woman is making 'em from Steph Curry-land. I must travel to laud here in print."

She wasn't at her best three nights later in an 88-78 victory over Lindsay Whalen's Gophers, and Carver-Hawkeye Arena was only half full.

No matter. I drove the 310 miles back home from Iowa City that night — only two stops for a Diet Coke — and said this:

"Two years from now, this feisty, relentless, dynamic player will be selling out every arena in which she appears."

How do you know that's a mistruth? I was the only one in the car.

Clark was here to win the Big Ten tournament with her teammates last March, when much of the upper deck was closed and attendance was capped at 9,500.

The Caitlin phenomenon had increased to the point since last season's run to the national championship game that 18,000-plus tickets went on sale for the 2024 tournament and sold out — for all five days, since that guaranteed a seat for when Clark arrived for the quarterfinals.

The Iowa gold was all the way to the top row of the arena, leading to resounding renditions of the insufferable (to Minnesota fans), "Let's go Hawks."

There didn't seem to be much angst over the fact Clark had an 0-fer from the field in the first quarter, since Iowa was leading 31-13.

When she continued to miss threes (0-for-11 to start, 2-for-14 for the game), the anxiety increased. She wound up with 24 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and six turnovers.

It was as much an off night as you're going to see in these waning days of Clark's records-breaking college career, yet the final looked good:

Iowa 95, Penn State 62.

Still, the Iowa fans didn't get to see Clark at anywhere near her best, and they also were prevented from participating in their second favorite activity:

Hollering venom at the refs.

Their Hawkeyes went 26-for-30 on free throws and were called for 12 fouls. Penn State went 7-for-9 on free throws and was called for 23 fouls.

The refs were so generous that all the Hawkeyes faithful had left to grouse about on the first day of this visit to the new home of Floyd of Rosedale was their ongoing belief Cooper DeJean did not make a motion for a fair catch.