It’s all well and good to say last year’s results mean nothing and Caitlin Clark has nothing to prove.
But they do. And she does.
As dynamic and exciting as the Player of the Year front-runner is, Iowa has yet to make the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four, since Clark got to campus. Last year the Hawkeyes didn’t even get out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, falling in the second round.
But with Stanford, seeded ahead of the No. 2 Hawkeyes in the Seattle 4 region, out of the tournament along with Duke and Texas, this is Clark and Iowa’s chance to make a statement. The seeds left in their region? Fifth-seeded Louisville, sixth-seeded Colorado and eighth-seeded Ole Miss.
The Hawkeyes play Colorado on Friday night.
“We understand that really well. We lived that last year when we lost on our home court,” Clark said Thursday of the region’s upsets. “It’s sometimes hard to watch other teams go through that, but I think that’s what makes March Madness the best season or the best post-season tournament in all of sports.
“I think more than anything it gives us an understanding if you don’t come ready to play you’re going to go home.”
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Clark is as explosive a player as you’ll find in college basketball, racking up points as if she’s playing Pop-a-Shot. She’s averaging 26.8 points per game, third best in the country. She’s had eight 30-point games and two games when she’s gone over 40.
She made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Indiana in the regular-season finale, and she scored or assisted on 33 of Iowa’s last 35 points in the second round against Georgia.
Clark does more than score, however. She leads the nation in assists, and set a Big Ten tournament championship record with 17 on her way to the first triple-double in the conference title game’s history.
“It’s pretty innate. She is a fabulous passer, but has been most of her life,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “But I think when she came to college, it really opened up even more because she had people that could catch her passes.”
Between her points and assists, Clark is responsible for a whopping 52% of Iowa’s offense. She has 16 double-doubles in 34 games this year.
But the best players are not judged on individual accomplishments. Not primarily, at least. What they do to impact their teams matters more, especially at this time of year, and Clark is still looking for that signature moment.
She and Iowa lost to UConn in the Sweet 16 in 2021 in a highly anticipated battle between the country’s best freshmen. Clark had 21 points but was just 7 of 21, while Paige Bueckers came a rebound and two assists away from a triple-double in UConn’s win.
Last year, Iowa lost to 10th-seeded Creighton in the second round after former Hawkeyes player Lauren Jensen made a 3 with a little over 10 seconds left and Clark missed a go-ahead layup.
Iowa had a case to make this year for being a No. 1 seed over both Indiana and Stanford. Both schools lost their last regular-season game – Indiana to Iowa – and then went out in the semifinals of their conference tournaments.
Iowa, meanwhile, won the Big Ten tournament title.
Adding fuel to that argument is that Stanford and Indiana are both at home now, ousted in the second round by an eighth seed (Ole Miss) and No. 9 seed (Miami), respectively, while Iowa plays on.
“Any time you are one of 16 teams that get to keep playing basketball, it’s pretty special,” Clark said after Iowa held off Georgia to reach the Sweet 16. “(But) it wasn’t a huge party or celebration in the locker room. This wasn’t our goal. It’s one of the steps to reaching our goal, but it’s not the be-all, end-all to us.
“This is the first weekend and it’s done with. And now we have the second weekend. And we hope there’s a third weekend too.”
That will depend largely on Clark, of course. This is her moment to seize.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.