The whole world will be watching tomorrow as the nation’s top two freshman – Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers – lead their teams into a highly-anticipated Sweet 16 showdown.
Clark leads Iowa – and all of Division I – in scoring and assists. Bueckers leads UConn in scoring, assists, steals, three-point percentage and free throw percentage. Both have been in the national spotlight all season long, and both have been the topic of hot debate as to who is better.
But what truly matters in this game is which team advances to the Elite Eight, not which newcomer puts up better statistics.
The seeding, the No. 1 Huskies vs the No. 5 Hawkeyes, would seem to predict the outcome. But like everything in the NCAA Tournament, as well as this season, it is certainly not that simple.
Without doubt, Iowa plays in a much tougher conference than UConn. The Hawkeyes went 12-9 in conference, losing to every ranked team they played except a Big 10 Tournament victory over No. 21/23 Rutgers.
The Huskies stomped over all their Big East opponents, including two trouncings of then-No. 17 DePaul. They upset then-No. 1 South Carolina in overtime, then lost to No. 18 Arkansas by three.
Both teams have soundly defeated their first two opponents i the tourney – Iowa by 15 and 14 points, UConn by 43 and 36 points.
Offensively, both teams like a fast pace, and they average similar points per game. The Hawkeyes rely mostly on Clark, who scores at will from everywhere on the court, and on the low-post efficiency of Monika Czinano, the nation’s field goal percentage leader at .669. Those two take over half of the team’s shots.
Bueckers drives the Huskies, but the scoring is shared among more players. Christyn Williams has been relatively quiet during the tourney, but was a dynamic scoring force during the Big East Tournament, and will have to be similarly aggressive as the team attempts to advance. Overall their scoring threats go seven deep, while their opponents look mostly to just two or three players.
Czinano is a strong, substantial player who is hard to displace once she establishes herself on the block. The 6-3 center is not particularly mobile, however, and rarely shoots beyond eight feet from the hoop. Czinano’s defense relies on positioning, not athleticism, and she has just 17 blocks in 29 games.
UConn’s 6-5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa is much more mobile, and has a reliable 15-foot shot. As the Big East’s blocks leader, she had 46 in 27 games. Although Nelson-Ododa probably cannot battle for the post with Czinano, she can out-maneuver her. It is also likely that 6-3 freshman Aaliyah Edwards will get lots of time guarding Czinano, who will have to set up early to get an advantage over the physical and athletic Edwards. The newcomer has scored 36 points and grabbed 15 boards in the two tournament games, and is shooting just under 70 percent for the season.
The Nelson-Ododa – Edwards combination has grown in effectiveness throughout the season, and Iowa has no inside duo to rival them playing together.
Defense is likely to dictate the outcome of this game. Nobody can stop Clark, whose offensive range and versatility are unrivalled. But the Huskies’ defense is ranked second in the nation for a reason. They have limited opponents to 50 points on average, and their on-ball pressure, superb communication, and overall athleticism forces even great players to take difficult shots. Among remaining tournament teams, they are second only to Baylor in steals.
Iowa also lost twice to Northwestern, an outstanding defensive team, and to Ohio State, an above-average one. The ability of teams to keep the not-Clark players from performing well is a key to defeating the Hawkeyes. And UConn’s defense is better than any Iowa has seen.
The Hawkeyes have not been a sterling defensive force. The gave up 92 points to the Buckeyes, and their overall scoring margin is 6.7 points. The Huskies’ is 30.1.
There is good reason to watch the two freshman stars do their thing in Tournament round three. But keeping an eye on the other players will be what determines the outcome. As with most early-round games between No. 1 and No. 5, the Iowa will have to play their A-plus game, while the Huskies play a B-minus game for us to see an upset.