Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s savant of a point guard, is the biggest thrill in college basketball


HR King
May 29, 2001
Caitlin Clark, the greatest showstopper in college basketball, cannot be confined to any label. Bestow a superlative on her, and no matter how glowing, it proves inadequate.
It’s too limiting to call the Iowa sophomore an extraordinary scorer, even though she may rewrite several records, because her game is full of other jewels. It’s too customary to call her a generational talent because the description doesn’t fully explain the fusion of eras and skills that makes her seem both retro and futuristic. It’s too myopic to declare her the next great thing in women’s basketball because she plays with a style that transcends gender.
If you only have time to focus on one player during March Madness, here’s some advice: 1. Stop working so hard. 2. Don’t miss Clark.
On the men’s and women’s side, it has been an exceptional year for individual talent and team parity, which should make the next three weeks special. But Clark stands above all with the creative way she plays. A year ago, she became a national figure as a high-scoring, stat-stuffing freshman. This season, she leads the nation in scoring (27.4 points) and assists (7.9) while averaging a team-high 8.1 rebounds.
When she played at Oregon, Sabrina Ionescu was a triple-double waiting to happen, and she did it from the point guard position, which was something new for women’s basketball. Clark, also a point guard, is a 30-point triple-double waiting to happen every night. In January, she pulled that off in back-to-back games, becoming the only player, male or female, in Division I history to do so.
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Clark is a basketball savant. She possesses an eclectic bundle of gifts: pure jump shot, logo-deep range, savvy around the basket, touch in the midrange, quick release, solid handle, deft passing, nose for the ball, good size at 6 feet tall, commanding presence, exquisite feel for the game, court vision and flair beyond compare. And she holds those enviable skills together with a classic, pathological competitiveness we often see in superstars.
“It’s kind of hard to describe all that she is,” said Kristin Meyer, who was Clark’s coach at Dowling Catholic High in West Des Moines. “A lot of it comes from her confidence. You don’t see that kind of command a lot with female players. When she steps on the court, you know that she knows she’s the best player. She has the highest basketball IQ of any player I’ve ever been around.”
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Meyer took the job at Dowling Catholic just before Clark’s freshman year. The coach can remember walking into a gym and seeing a skinny girl, still in the eighth grade, welcoming every challenge. She can remember Clark pulling up from 35 feet when she really wasn’t strong enough to shoot from that distance. Now, there are 10-minute YouTube reels of Clark looking like Stephen Curry with a ponytail, and nearly all of the jumpers tickle the net without touching the rim.
Over the past few years, Clark has fascinated her coaches and great players such as Kevin Durant and Sue Bird with how quickly she processes what’s happening on the floor. Her mind is usually well ahead of the game’s pace. Then her imagination takes over and the highlights flow. As intoxicating as it can be when Clark starts scoring from all over the court, her passes lift the experience to another level. One second, Iowa is settling into its half-court offense against a set defense. Then all of a sudden, Clark is dancing into the middle of the defense and whipping a behind-the-back pass to the short corner for a layup. Rewind the video, and you realize how unruffled she is by the swarming opponent and the improbability of making that play in so little space.
“I wasn’t used to coaching anyone like Caitlin,” Meyer said. “I was used to calling an offensive set and expecting players to go from A to B to C to execute. She sees it and goes from A to C, but what she’s gotten better at is realizing her teammates may not be capable of seeing the game the same way.”
At Iowa, Lisa Bluder is a 60-year-old coach with more than 800 career victories, and she’s enjoying the chance to evolve while guiding Clark. The Hawkeyes have long been a consistent, top-25-caliber program. But they have taken another leap the past few years. In 2019, Iowa made it to the Elite Eight with center Megan Gustafson, the Naismith player of the year that season, dominating inside. Since Clark’s arrival, the Hawkeyes have won in a different fashion.
They advanced to the Sweet 16 last season before losing to Connecticut in a game that garnered attention for the celestial matchup between Clark and Paige Bueckers, who was the player of the year as a freshman in 2021. Iowa enters this tournament as a No. 2 seed that just won the Big Ten tourney title. South Carolina, the top overall seed, looms as a potential Elite Eight showdown.
Caitlin Clark (22) and Iowa won the Big Ten title. (Michael Conroy/AP)
Clark is a kind of fluid floor general who helps magnify the versatility of Bluder as a coach. Iowa has now had the Big Ten’s best player in four of the past five seasons. Gustafson held that spot during her junior and senior seasons. The next year, guard Kathleen Doyle won the honor. This season, Clark took the crown, and she’s probably not going to relinquish it until she leaves for the WNBA. But Iowa also has a great post player in Monika Czinano, who averages 21.1 points and shoots 67.8 percent from the field — the ideal, efficient complement to Clark.
“We’re not one-dimensional,” Bluder said. “I think we do a really good job of identifying our talent and putting them in a position to score and be successful.”
As a top star in a sport aspiring to receive more recognition, Clark carries an extra burden. She’s now a face of the movement, and though the college game still has Bueckers and South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston to share the spotlight, there’s a different kind of intrigue with Clark. She chose to stay home and play for Iowa, not Connecticut or South Carolina. There’s a novelty to her style, in women’s basketball and for everyone who dribbles.
Jackie Stiles, a high-scoring guard who played at Missouri State from 1998 to 2001, once thrilled the nation. As a senior, she led her team, then known as Southwest Missouri State, to the 2001 Final Four. The 5-8 guard averaged 30.3 points while shooting an absurd 56.6 percent that season. She became so popular that she needed a bodyguard because she, like Clark, hated to turn down autograph requests.
Stiles held an NCAA record with 3,393 career points until Washington’s Kelsey Plum broke it in 2017. She knows some of what Clark is going through.
“I did at times feel that pressure,” said Stiles, who was a college assistant who left coaching before the season to return to Springfield, Mo., and open a personal training studio. “I felt that people were coming to watch, so I have to always play my best. I loved it when people would say, ‘You made me a women’s basketball fan.’ I definitely felt a responsibility to the game.
“With Caitlin, who would not be captivated by her game? Men, women — it doesn’t matter. Her range is … jeez. And with a lightning-quick release. She is phenomenal, and I think she carries it all well.”
In less than two college seasons, Clark has 1,620 points, 447 assists and 418 rebounds. She probably won’t join Ionescu as the second player in the 2,000-1,000-1,000 club. But 3,000-800-800 is clearly within reach, and there would be singularity in such an accomplishment. In basketball, at all levels, the evolution of skill has made the sport positionless. The present and the future belong to do-it-all players whose talents help coaches build amorphous systems around them.
The men’s and women’s games are blessed with plenty of versatile stars now. No one checks every offensive box as distinctly as Clark. And while defense is not a strength, her rebounding is an important contribution. She’s as complete as it gets. And she just turned 20.
“I’m still learning,” Clark said. “Obviously, there’s still room for growth.”
What a warning for opponents.
What an absolute thrill for the rest of us.