Why Caitlin Clark is the most exciting player in March Madness
- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
Looking for the most electrifying player in the women’s NCAA tournament? The most exciting player in March Madness? Caitlin Clark is a 6-foot junior point guard for Iowa, where Hawkeyes fans have come to expect something special whenever she plays. And she loves to produce.
One of two front-runners for national player of the year, Clark has four triple-doubles this season and 10 in her Iowa career. She’s averaging 27.0 points, 8.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds for the No. 2 seed Hawkeyes.
“She’s fearless,” said Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, one of several basketball greats to weigh in on Clark’s game for ESPN. “We know everything kind of centers around her, but she does a great job of scoring at a high level but also being a playmaker and distributor.”
When the ball is in her hands — which is much of the time — Clark will confound defenders in many ways. Their nightmares begin as soon as she grabs a rebound.
She might dribble full speed straight to the rim. Or sling a long pass — a la Patrick Mahomes, her favorite quarterback — over opponents’ heads for a teammate’s layup. Lob, bullet pass, bounce pass, behind-the-back pass, she has so many ways to find an open teammate.
Or perhaps she’ll launch a 3-pointer from a distance considered a desperation shot by most. And if a defender tries to shut down that logo 3, she can leave them in the dust for a pull-up jump shot.
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder says one of the things she enjoys most about practice is seeing what Clark might come up with that day. Clark is the on-court maestro for an Iowa starting five — along with Monika Czinano, Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock — which has played almost every game of the past three years together. Iowa advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2021, but was upset in the second round last season.
Thirty years have passed since Iowa’s only appearance in the women’s Final Four, and the Hawkeyes — who open the NCAA tournament Friday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) against SE Louisiana at a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena — hope a return trip is at last in the cards. With Clark dealing, the odds might be in their favor.
What makes her so good and so mesmerizing to watch? We asked Sue Bird, Curry, Sabrina Ionescu and Ticha Penicheiro to help analyze Clark’s game.
Steph Curry on Clark’s range: ‘She’s always in balance’
It’s not just that Clark is tied for the Division I lead with 108 3-pointers this season, or that she’s shooting 37.9% from behind the arc. It’s that she can hit the “logo 3” — a shot where her foot is touching the giant Hawkeye head on her home court — and it’s not a novelty shot for her.
“No shot is a bad shot when you can shoot it as well as she can,” said Curry, who became the NBA’s all-time leader in career 3-pointers in 2021. “When you watch them play, she just adds the element of surprise that you can’t really game-plan for. Because it’s so unseen in the sense of when she crosses half court, she’s in her range.”
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That is the challenge Curry presents to NBA defenses: He consistently makes shots from places no one is supposed to shoot from. He makes the miraculous seem mundane. For Clark, the long 3-pointers do many things: excite the crowd and her teammates, demoralize the defense and open up the court even more for her other options.
“Logo 3s deflate the opponent because there’s no real defense for it,” Curry said. “You either have to sell out and try to take it away, and she’s capable enough to blow right by you and drive. Especially at home, and even on the road, it gets the crowd into it because it’s something they don’t see that often.”
Clark has hit 10 3s from 30 feet or more in her career, including six this season (the longest was from 33 feet), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Clark’s average 3-pointer made comes from 26 feet, 1 inch, the longest in Division I this season, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Curry points out that Clark keeps her shooting form even on the longest 3-pointers.
“That’s definitely the key: that your mechanics don’t change no matter what distance you’re shooting from,” he said. “It all starts with your balance, the ability to have the same release consistently, no matter where you’re shooting from on the floor. And everything has to be in rhythm. I think that’s the biggest thing that Caitlin shows. It doesn’t matter if she’s going right or left, catch and shoot, or off the dribble. She’s always in balance.
“To anybody else, it might look like a Hail Mary-type shot, but you can see the fundamentals and the mechanics in every time she releases it.”
Sue Bird on Clark’s passing: ‘You have to anticipate’
Bird set the standard for her position. As the premiere point guard in women’s basketball, she led the UConn Huskies, Seattle Storm and USA Basketball over a two decade period. She retired last year as the WNBA’s career leader in assists (3,234) and averaged 11.7 points and 5.6 assists over 19 seasons.
Bird said Clark’s scoring and playmaking are her ticket to a lengthy pro career.
“What’s really impressed me about Caitlin Clark’s court vision is a combination of things,” Bird said. “Sometimes people think it’s just about having your head up, but it goes way beyond that. You have to anticipate, which she does really well. Some of the passes she makes, you have to have the strength to make. That’s not always easy, and it’s also been impressive.
“The relationship between her passing and her scoring is what will take her a long way. You obviously can’t leave her open. So the closer you are to her gives her more opportunity to create for herself and use that space to create for others. Because she can be such a good passer, it’s actually going to make it easier for her to score as well. The relationship between those two things is really probably going to be one of the best attributes of her game.”
Ticha Penicheiro on Clark’s leadership: ‘Best decision-maker on the court’
Penicheiro is second to Bird in WNBA assists with 2,600 in 15 seasons, and she led the league in assists seven times. An Old Dominion college star, she played most of her WNBA career with the Sacramento Monarchs, winning a title in 2005.
Penicheiro was not just among the best passers in WNBA history, she had the most flare. At least once a game, Penicheiro would find an open teammate with a “Did you just see that?” assist.
Penicheiro admires the leadership Clark shows on court.
“One of the best qualities any point guard can have is the ability to make his/her teammates better. And Caitlin absolutely does that,” Penicheiro said. “She is able to elevate all of her teammates’ strengths. Also her unshakable confidence rubs off on the whole team — it’s pretty obvious!
“She is a true floor general that controls the tempo and pace of the game. Knows when to take over and when to get her teammates more involved.”
At 5-11, Penicheiro, like Clark, used her size to an advantage as a passer. And she is just as impressed with Clark’s scoring and rebounding, because they’re also at such an elite level.
“Being able to score from 3, from midrange and in the paint is also a lost art,” Penicheiro said. “She can score on all three levels, which makes guarding her a very hard task.
“I also love a guard that can rebound. It helps with the transition game because the ball is already in her hands and she’s the best decision-maker on the court.”
Sabrina Ionescu on Clark’s triple threat: ‘She’s changing the game’
Ionescu is the authority on triple-doubles. She had an NCAA-record 26 while playing for Oregon from 2016 to 2020. The WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2020 by the New York Liberty, Ionescu averaged 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists in her college career and became the first player — women’s or men’s — to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists.
Clark is on a path to potentially join the 2K/1K/1K club: She has 2,526 points, 673 rebounds and 738 assists entering the NCAA tournament.
This season, Clark had triple-doubles against Wisconsin (22 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists), Ohio State (28, 10, 15), Penn State (23, 10, 14) and Ohio State again (30, 10, 17). She also had five games in which she finished either one assist or one rebound shy of a triple-double.
“Caitlin is having a great season, and she’s changing the game one triple-double at a time,” Ionescu said.
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