IOWA HAWKEYES vs.
|TIME||12:00 pm CT|
|WHERE||Alamodome (San Antonio, TX)|
|HER HOOP STATS||UConn -14.8|
TALE OF THE TAPE
|(5) IOWA||(1) UCONN|
|115.1 (2nd)||OFF. RTG.*||114.0 (3rd)|
|105.4 (337th)||DEF. RTG.*||70.4 (1st)|
|74.9 (28)||POSS.*||72.3 (104)|
|59.3 (1st)||eFG%*||57.0 (2nd)|
Welcome to the fireworks factory.
Iowa is set for its second consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16 and the biggest game the program has had since a 2nd-seeded Iowa team by senior Megan Gustafson took on top-seeded Baylor in the Elite 8 in 2019. Standing in the way of a return trip to the Elite 8 this year? Oh, just Geno Auriemma's UConn, one of the greatest college sports dynasties of all time. UConn also happens to be the top seed in the River Walk region (and in the tournament as a whole) and is the favorite to reclaim their spot atop the women's basketball world this season.
That's daunting, obviously. And looking at the stats (the Huskies boast the third-best offensive rating in women's college basketball and the best defensive rating, a truly beastly combination) or the fleet of 5* recruits that fill out their roster only makes Iowa's task look even more challenging. But here's the silver lining to that: the pressure is all on UConn. They're the (heavy) favorites to win this game, as well as this region and this tournament.
But Iowa? Iowa's playing with house money at this point. Two months ago it wasn't even a certainty that they would be in the NCAA Tournament. A month ago it looked like they would likely be an 8- or 9-seed. Then they went on a late season surge (winning seven of their last 10; two of the three losses were to eventual Big Ten champion Maryland), made the Big Ten Tournament championship game, and earned themselves a 5-seed. They didn't let up when they got to San Antonio, either, blitzing Central Michigan and Kentucky (the latter in a mild upset) to reach this point. Iowa's playing their best basketball at the best time of the year to do so; might as well just let it ride and see what happens.
This game has been highlighted as the game of the weekend for the women's NCAA Tournament and it's easily the most-hyped game of the Sweet 16 round. ESPN has been doing a full-court press on hype for the game since Iowa and UConn clinched spots in this round with wins on Tuesday. Part of that is because they're two of the most exciting teams in college basketball, with two of the most dynamic and highest-scoring offenses in the game; the Hawkeyes rank first in eFG% (59.3) and second in offensive rating (115.1) and points per game (86.6), while the Huskies rank second in eFG% (57.0), third in in offensive rating (114.0), and fourth in points per game (82.8). These are two teams that have no problem lighting up the scoreboard and putting on a show offensively.
But the bigger reason that this game is getting the marquee treatment is because it features two of the brightest and youngest superstars in the sport: do-everything freshmen sensations Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers. Clark and Bueckers took the world by storm this year and they're poised to be two of the faces of the sport for the next 3-4 seasons. It doesn't hurt that they're not just linked by their prodigious production on the court, but by their backstories as well; they're longtime friends who grew up in neighboring states (Clark in Iowa, Beuckers in Minnesota) and have been teammates and rivals over the years on various AAU and U18 teams. Clark and Bueckers are the reason this game is getting spotlighted on SportsCenter:
They're why the game is getting written up in The Wall Street Journal:
But if you watch one sporting event this weekend, this might have to be the one:
UConn vs. Iowa. Huskies vs. Hawkeyes. The national No. 1 vs. a No. 5 seed. Saturday, March 27 at 1 p.m. ET on ABC.
Paige Bueckers. Caitlin Clark.
First-year Sensation vs. First-year Sensation. Arguably the best player in the country vs. the leading scorer in the country. A pair of USA Basketball teammates, playing against each other in college for the first time, in the tournament’s Sweet 16.
As destination events go, this is a pretty great one, and borderline un-skippable.
We can only hope this is the first of a few high-profile meetings between Clark and Bueckers during their collegiate careers.
As for the game itself... well, ESPN has a pretty in-depth preview on the important match-ups and the keys to the game. I'd certainly encourage you to read that. But there's a reason UConn is such a heavy favorite (the second-biggest betting favorite among the Sweet 16 teams, second only to Stanford, a 15.5-point favorite over Missouri State) in this game. And you can probably discern that just by looking at the stats at the beginning of this preview. Both Iowa and UConn are outstanding offensive teams. Only one of them is also an elite defensive team, though -- and it's not the Hawkeyes.
Iowa's gameplan all season has generally been to play at a super-fast pace, rely on their offense to score a ton of points, and hope they can outscore the opposition. In fairness, their defense has been better in recent weeks, particularly in their two NCAA Tournament wins over Central Michigan and Kentucky earlier this week. But those teams ain't UConn. We don't have to look very far to see how Iowa has fared against a team with the elite offensive profile of UConn -- the only team that's had a better offense than Iowa and UConn this season is Maryland.
The Terps went 2-0 against Iowa this season and in both games their offense went supernova against the Hawkeye defense; they scored 111 in the first meeting and 104 in the rematch. Maryland used a deep, versatile scoring attack and some lights-out three-point shooting to blitz Iowa in their wins. Like the Terps, the Huskies also have a deep, versatile scoring attack: four players average over 10 ppg and a fifth is at 9.1 ppg. UConn isn't quite the three-point threat that Maryland was (Maryland is second in the nation in 3FG% at 40.6%, while UConn is "only" 50th at 34.7%), but they're still proficient from deep and they're facing an Iowa defense that's allowed opponents to take (and make) plenty of 3s all season long.
The key to Iowa's win over Kentucky in the Round of 32 was their fast start -- they jumped out to an 11-0 run and never looked back. Likewise, one of the keys in both of their losses to Maryland was the fast starts the Terps had; they buried Iowa in the first quarter and made it difficult for the Hawkeyes to get back into the game. Iowa can't afford a slow start against UConn. Deficits can balloon in a hurry against UConn, so Iowa has to keep them within striking distance to have any shot at pulling the upset. They're also going to need to be firing from 3-point range (and not just Clark -- Iowa's probably going to need at least two of McKenna Warnock, Gabbie Marshall, Tomi Taiwo, and Kate Martin to be clicking from deep) and they're going to need to protect the ball. Turnovers have been a problem at times for Iowa all season and they're going to need to practice excellent ball security against a UConn team that's been racking up steals on over 13% of opponent possessions. Turnovers can turn into transition points the other way in a hurry and Iowa can ill-afford to give UConn many easy buckets in this game.
Toppling UConn is going to be an incredibly tall task for the Hawkeyes. To do so they'll need to play their best game of the season -- and they'll need UConn to have an off night. Iowa's elite offense gives them a puncher's chance if their shots are falling, but their defense is going to make it hard to slow down UConn's own attack. More than anything, though, this is a measuring stick game for this young Iowa team -- so many of the key players on this squad are freshmen or sophomores and figure to be around for another 2-3 years beyond this one. A game like this is another opportunity to see how they compare to the very best in the sport and what they need to do to improve in the future. Win or lose, this season has already been a success for the Hawkeyes and the future is gotta-wear-shades bright with a superstar like Clark in place. Let's see what she and the rest of this very fun Iowa team have left in their bag of tricks as they play in the biggest game of their careers so far.
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