The next chapter in great athlete duels begins on Saturday.
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark leads the nation in scoring at 26.8 points per game. Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers — a freshman, like Clark — became one of the most recognizable faces in the sport as she led a young team to a 26-1 season.
For all the hype around the two players, though, Clark will have a comparatively low profile when No. 5-seeded Iowa meets No. 1 Connecticut on Saturday in the round of 16 of the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament.
The Hawkeyes feel they’ve been overlooked, and they play with a chip on their shoulder. Clark, for example, wasn’t a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award for the best player of the year, even though she was the first freshman to lead the country in scoring since Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell in 2014-15. She was on the second team All-America squad.
Bueckers was named to the first team. She’s averaging 19.9 points per game, 6 assists, 4.7 rebounds and plays over 35 minutes a game, drawing comparisons to former Huskies greats like Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.
Clark doesn’t view any of it as a snub. She has enjoyed watching Bueckers grow and said facing her is a measuring stick for her own game.
“It’s great competition and that’s what I love, I love playing against the best,” she said. “She’s such a tremendous player.”
Saturday will be the first time they’ll play against each other at the college level. It’s the start of what promises to be a memorable rivalry.
“She plays with so much passion and joy and that’s kind of like who I am,” Clark said of Bueckers. “I like to see people who love to play basketball so much, even you can just tell their love being out there.”
The two have a long history on the court. They played against each other in middle school in A.A.U. tournaments and were teammates on U.S.A. Basketball development squads in their teens.
Clark says she watches Bueckers play often. She quite likely has a better feel for Bueckers than for any other opposing player, and the same is true for Bueckers’s knowledge of Clark.
Both players enter Saturday on a roll.
Clark’s 35-point performance against Kentucky to get the Hawkeyes to their second consecutive round of 16 tied her with Texas A&M’s Jordan Nixon for the highest single-game point total in the tournament.
Bueckers has dominated in similar fashion, breaking a UConn record with 24 points in her tournament debut. The Huskies have been short-handed, with Geno Auriemma, their Hall of Fame coach, out for the first two games because of Covid-19 protocols and freshman guard Nika Muhl injured in the opener against High Point. Auriemma arrived in Texas on Wednesday.
The young team, guided by Bueckers, has responded.
“We play such team basketball, we get a lot of assists because of that,” Bueckers told The New York Times in January. “Most of the points I get come from screens for my teammates so I give all credit to them because they make it happen. We really take things game by game and don’t let pressure get to us.”
Clark stressed that Saturday’s game isn’t about Clark against Bueckers, but Iowa against UConn. But as Clark goes, so go the Hawkeyes. She shoots 47.7 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range. She single-handedly outscored Kentucky in the first half, 24-22, on Tuesday, helping the Hawkeyes upset a No. 4 seed. The game wasn’t close early, and that was all Clark.
Like Bueckers, Clark is quick to defer to her teammates, and she has good ones. Monika Czinano averages 19.4 points per game and Gabbie Marshall shoots 45.7 percent from three.
“We always say all we need is each other every time we step on the floor,” Clark said.
Inevitably, how Clark performs against UConn, ranked No. 1 in the nation at times this season, will help determine how she ranks not only against Bueckers, but as a superstar in the game. Part of her legacy will be written on Saturday.
“We’re playing each other, but it’s still Iowa vs. UConn,” Clark said. “It’s going to come down to who is the better team, it’s not going to be who is better, me or her.”