Asked earlier this week about her next game, Caitlin Clark politely reframed the terms of the question.
“It’s not Caitlin Clark versus Paige Bueckers,” the freshman guard said. “It’s Iowa versus UConn.”
She’s correct: The bracket does, in fact, read No. 5 seed Iowa versus No. 1 seed UConn. It’s not “Big Ten Freshman of the Year and national scoring leader Caitlin Clark versus Big East Freshman of the Year and national win shares leader Paige Bueckers.” But you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The hype for Saturday’s game is at a rare level for the Sweet 16, and all of it is focused on Clark and Bueckers, the two most dynamic freshmen in the game.
For much of the year, the national discourse has coalesced around Bueckers, and justifiably so. She entered this year as one of the most hyped recruits in years. She came on campus with talk of restoring a dynasty at UConn—four years without a title might not sound like much, but in Storrs, that’s a veritable drought—and with more than half a million followers on Instagram. (She also graced a flip-cover of SI as the Gatorade high school female athlete of the year back in August.)
The expectations were high, but she met them every step of the way, putting together a stellar regular season filled with highlights and accolades—First-Team All-America, a finalist for Naismith College Player of the Year, all of it. ESPN compiled a package on Bueckers that ran frequently during the first round of the tournament (even during halftime of Clark’s first-round game with Iowa). If you hadn’t watched much of the women’s game, Bueckers might have seemed to you like not just the best freshman in the country, but the only freshman in the country.
Which would be a monumental disservice to Clark. She entered college with a résumé comparable to Bueckers’s—the two won gold medals as teammates at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup and 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championships—and put up a roughly equal freshman season. She led the nation in scoring with 26.8 ppg. She was third in assists with 7.1 apg. Yet she ended up Second-Team All-America to Bueckers’s First-Team, and a bit of narrative seemed to develop, particularly in a national media environment that still tends to focus on just one women's basketball storyline at a time, that there was Bueckers, and then there was Clark.
But that’s wrong, and so far in March, there’s been plenty from Clark to disprove that idea. In No. 5 seed Iowa’s second-round win over No. 4 Kentucky—a tough matchup that was by no means supposed to be a smooth win—Clark outscored the Wildcats all by herself in the first half. (She eased up in the second half and still finished with 35 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.) In Iowa’s first-round win over Central Michigan, WNBA legend Sue Bird came onto the ESPN broadcast to call Clark “the most exciting player in college basketball right now,” and the freshman made the compliment look completely deserved.
To get a matchup of Bueckers and Clark in the Sweet 16, then, is to be almost spoiled by such a tantalizing contest so early in the tournament. It’s not just a matchup of two players at the top of the game, but of two players who stand to be in that position for a long, long time—for the next few years in college and, ideally, far beyond that as pros. UConn, unsurprisingly, is favored on Saturday. Bueckers has a stronger supporting cast than Clark—though don’t sleep on her teammate Monika Czinano—and UConn is a much better defensive team than Iowa. But when it looks like we might be asking “Bueckers or Clark?” for years to come, be glad that, at least for one day, we can watch Bueckers and Clark.
Time for a re-do: With the men's Sweet 16 set, eight writers make fresh bracket predictions. (By SI Staff)
Roundtable: Which double-digit seed has the best chance at reaching the men's Final Four? Can Loyola win it all? (By SI Staff)
Best Thing We Saw
C’mon. Was there any contest here? It’s Texas A&M guard Jordan Nixon—who made a layup to tie the game and send it to overtime—with the buzzer-beating floater in OT to defeat Iowa State. She finished with 35 points and seven assists in a game that saw the Aggies come back from being down by 12.
Pick 'Em: Sweet 16
SI's Molly Geary makes her picks for four of Saturday's Sweet 16 games:
(Men's) No. 8 Loyola Chicago over No. 12 Oregon State: The Beavers are peaking right now, but Porter Moser's Ramblers are experienced on the big stage and won't be fazed in this spot.
(Men's) No. 1 Baylor over No. 5 Villanova: Jay Wright has done a very admirable job to get this far without Collin Gillespie, but the Bears' defense is on another level.
(Women's) No. 1 UConn over No. 5 Iowa: This is an electrifying matchup with Bueckers and Clark squaring off. The Hawkeyes are playing inspired basketball of late, but the Huskies are an extremely tall order.
(Women's) No. 2 Baylor over No. 6 Michigan: The Wolverines are another Big Ten team that has impressed, but the Bears are playing like a No. 1 seed masquerading as a 2.
In the non-Clueckers category, No. 6 seed Oregon vs. No. 2 seed Louisville might be one of the most entertaining games in the women’s Sweet 16. The Ducks seem to have finally hit their stride after a rough patch to end the regular season, and they shone in a second-round upset of No. 3 seed Georgia, thanks in large part to the combined power in the post of Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally. Louisville is fresh off an 18-point comeback win over Northwestern and boasts National Player of the Year finalist Dana Evans. These two teams are well-matched—Oregon is No. 7 in the country in Her Hoops Stats Rating, Louisville is No. 6—and this should be a fun one.
At the Buzzer
The scene after Nixon's buzzer beater was March at its finest.