IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)Caitlin Clark put up the best offensive numbers in the country as a freshman, was a consensus All-American and led Iowa deep into the NCAA Tournament. She followed that up by winning a gold medal with Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Cup and was the tournament’s MVP.
Asked what she could do for an encore for the Hawkeyes, Clark smiled and said, ”I think just come back and be myself again.”
Clark set a high bar.
The point guard started every game and led the nation in scoring, assists and made 3-point field goals in addition to several other categories. She was Big Ten freshman of the week 12 times and, naturally, was conference freshman of the year.
”Caitlin is definitely worth the price of admission,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
Clark is an Associated Press preseason All-American and the centerpiece of an Iowa team that, at No. 9, has its highest preseason ranking in 25 years. The Hawkeyes reached the NCAA Sweet 16 last season and bring back all five starters.
Clark averaged 26.6 points per game and scored at least 30 in 12 games, including a stretch of five consecutive games in Big Ten play.
”The thing that really separates her as an athlete is sort of her moxie,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, who has spent two summers coaching Clark on Team USA. ”She’s got sort of a confidence about her, a belief that really nobody can guard her. If she’s missed six in a row, it’s not going to matter. She’s going to make the next six in a row. It’s one of those things you can’t teach.”
Clark is more than just a scorer, though. She had four double-digit rebounding games and six games with 10 or more assists for the Hawkeyes. She also had nine double-doubles and one triple-double.
”I think sometimes people forget about that, that not only did Caitlin lead the country in points but led the country in assists,” Bluder said. ”That’s an incredible statistic and, quite honestly, I don’t know that it’s ever been done before.”
Clark’s unselfishness is one of her best attributes, teammate Monika Czinano said.
”We always talk about passing up a good shot for a great shot,” Czinano said. ”Any shot Caitlin takes is going to be a good shot, or a great shot. But she’s willing to sacrifice her good shot – which might be better than all of our good shots – for a great shot. She’s very willing to do that and, for someone of her caliber, that’s a great skill to have.”
Clark and Czinano, the Hawkeyes’ 6-foot-3 senior center, finished 1-2 nationally in field goals made. Czinano shot 66.8% to rank first.
”I believe that she and Monika are probably one of the best point guard-center duos in the country,” Bluder said. ”When you look at the number of assists that Caitlin gets from feeding the ball to Monika, it’s pretty amazing. We need her to get that confidence in some other players, as well.”
Clark is one of the most accomplished players in Iowa high school history. She was a five-star recruit out of West Des Moines Dowling and ranked the No. 4 overall player and No. 2 guard by ESPN in 2020.
Her reputation is growing nationally.
”How is she handling it? Not a bit differently than what she came in as a freshman,” Bluder said. ”You would not know there’s any more pressure on her by the way she acts in practice or around the team.”
There is room for improvement among all the jaw-dropping performances. She had 144 turnovers last season – by far the most in the Big Ten – and her 1.49-to-1 assist-turnover ratio was 150th nationally. Iowa ranked last in the country in scoring defense, and in eight games against ranked opponents Clark was minus-73 in point differential between the teams when she was on the court.
Close said Clark must cut back on the turnovers and polish her defensive play to elevate her game.
”You can score 25 but if you give up 25 it really doesn’t matter,” Close said, ”or if you’re bringing the ball up the floor and you can’t handle the pressure, well, then you can’t be in scoring positions or passing positions.”
Still, Close said Clark is so driven and has such a high basketball IQ that she will shore up those holes in her game. In fact, Close said, Clark played her two best defensive games in the World Cup semifinals and gold-medal game, and that might have played a role in her being named MVP.
”I know she’s going to continue to score and light people up and have explosive nights,” Close said. ”But for her to become a longtime pro or an Olympian, that defense, taking care of the ball, all those little details, that’s what is going to take you from good player to great player.”
AP Sports Writer Eric Olson contributed to this report.
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