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Perspective | When Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers collide, we all become stargazers

Perspective | When Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers collide, we all become stargazers

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

CLEVELAND — When it comes to the big shot, the breath snatcher, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark reigns, and there’s no competition. To borrow a phrase, Clark’s the Grand Canyon, while Paige Bueckers is a very large ditch. Twelve million viewers aren’t wrong: There is something expansive and monumental about Clark’s game that invites new audiences and renders other great players — even a fellow generational talent such as Bueckers — almost ordinary-seeming. That’s not an insult, it’s just a description.

The Final Four meeting between Iowa and U-Conn. is a stylistic matchup for the ages, and go on and luxuriate in all the arguments that come with it. Iowa is the nation’s top scoring offense, but U-Conn. is the dynastic blue blood with a ferocious defense. Then there are the coaches: the masterly, underrated Lisa Bluder against Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, who may have done his finest job at the age of 70, which left him pausing in a back hallway at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to call it also his hardest ever.

“Like working in a steel mill,” he said.

Still, no question is more intriguing than who has the preeminent X-factor, the player who can elevate everyone around her to a ring. Is it Clark or Bueckers?

Yes, yes, it’s a team game. “I don’t think there’s just like one thing that’s like, you do this, you win the game,” Clark said. “I think it’s — you have to play a complete basketball game.”

Understood. And good luck with that. Because what these two women do best is score — and lead — and the ball is likely to find its way into their hands more often than the hands of others. It seems inevitable that some sort of duel must take shape.

“Who says it won’t?” Auriemma said. “Kids are competitive. They want the win. They know what’s going on out there. They know who’s who. They know what’s what. And Caitlin comes down and makes a huge three, don’t think that Paige is going to pass the next one up and pass it to somebody. So I think there will be a little bit of that.”

Choose your pleasure: Do you believe more in the hot-pan sizzle of Clark, crackling up the floor off the dribble to launch one of those arches from the logo that vaporizes the net? Or the more tranquil poise of Bueckers, gliding in circles around the court like an osprey, so pretty but predatory? Their career tracks are remarkably similar, save for Bueckers’s unfortunate interruptions with knee injuries. Both have swept every individual award in the game; neither has been able to capture the ultimate ratification of greatness, a championship ring — yet.

They’ve known and competed since middle school: Bueckers was the top recruit in the country who committed early to U-Conn., while Clark was rated No. 4. Bueckers was the earlier star, who swept player of the year awards in 2021. “I know freshman year I was like the media darling,” she says. They met once, back in that 2021 season, when U-Conn. decisively defeated Iowa in the Sweet 16. Bueckers had 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, while the still-nascent Clark had 21, three rebounds and five assists.

“Honestly, that game is super blurry,” Clark said. “It feels like forever ago. I was looking back at some old footage of that game, and we both look really, really young.”

Now they’re in their full prime, and for all that their teams have surely gotten here with some beautiful collaboration, there’s no mistaking the fact that a talent collision is coming. A statistical comparison doesn’t come close to capturing how transfixing both are to watch, though in different ways — Clark is averaging 32.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 1.8 steals with those shots that seem like curves of the sky. Bueckers: 22.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.4 blocks, with a jabbing footed, pogo-like ability to stop and flutter the net.

Auriemma has been plain that he believes Bueckers is the best player in the game, arguing for her completeness and efficiency. “In this world of analytics, the numbers say that she is,” Auriemma remarked last month. He also believes she doesn’t get enough credit because of injuries and because she has been asked to defend at power forward and to blend in with a strong cast that includes fellow all-American Aaliyah Edwards. Auriemma wonders “what if” Bueckers had been able to play last year? Would Clark have swept the player of the year awards, or would Bueckers have stolen some sun?

“She comes back this year, and we’re in the Final Four,” he said. “So it’s no coincidence that, when you have someone like that on the court, it changes everything about what you can do and things become possible that weren’t possible before that. … But she does it in a way that doesn’t make everybody jump up and down, and she’s old news.”

But even Auriemma found himself backpedaling after Clark’s epic Elite Eight performance against LSU, with 41 points and 12 assists. “I don’t need her dropping 50 on us,” he said, laughing. “Forget I ever said Paige is the best player in the country. … I don’t know whoever said Paige is the best player.”

Her nine three-pointers against LSU included an array of 30-footers that forced the air from your chest in sheer amazement and provoked the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic to remark, “She shoots it better than me.”

If there is a vulnerability for Clark and Iowa, it’s the load she’s asked to carry. Clark doesn’t have those all-Americans and blue-chip freshmen around her like U-Conn. She does have a closely bonded group of fellow upperclassmen whom she will count on heavily to supply some balance against U-Conn.’s defense, led by Big East defensive player of the year Nika Mühl. Clark and the Hawkeyes prosper best when Clark walks a fine line of scorer and facilitator for others.

She is a historic passer, ranking third on the NCAA’s all-time assists list, and that is what has really elevated her team into a repeat Final Four squad — her ability to freeze opponents and make them guess whether she will keep it or give it up.

It’s not a great sign if Clark has to score 40 points or more to get a victory. In the 13 career games in which Clark has scored at least 40, the Hawkeyes are just 9-4. “At that point the focus is all on her, and she’s trying to do too much,” Bluder observed.

A statistician warned Bluder earlier this season that the Hawkeyes aren’t quite as good when Clark takes more than 25 shots. Clark was beside herself at the discovery. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said to Bluder. “Tell me to stop at 24!” Bluder wants Clark to be aware that there is a delicate balance. But she refuses to track Clark’s shots — she wants her to let it go freely.

Because here’s what separates Clark from absolutely every other player: her explosiveness in the biggest moment. Never mind that she is the all-time NCAA scoring leader, passing Pete Maravich. It’s her timeliness that gives her game such grand, startling scale. In 15 career NCAA tournament games, Clark has scored an all but unstoppable 441 points — that’s a 29.4 average.Never has a player seemed so impervious to pressure, so infectiously fearless when it matters most.

“That’s when she thrives. That’s when she loves it. This is when she loves to play basketball the most,” Bluder said. “In March, in the Final Four, when the spotlight is the brightest. That’s when Caitlin Clark is going to shine the brightest.”

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