For all that has been made of the Iowa men’s lack of postseason success the last few decades, this generation of Hawkeye fans has been remarkably lucky in a totally different way. Despite the men not making a Sweet Sixteen in 24 years, the women have done so in four of the last six tournaments. For good measure, they added an Elite Eight run in 2019 and now the Hawkeyes are set to play in their second Final Four in program history on Friday night.
The remarkable run of success has been fueled by a combination of excellent coaching and generational talent. That run to the Elite Eight was fueled by what was at the time expected to be the greatest Iowa women’s player to ever walk the earth. Megan Gustafson left Iowa City in 2019 the all-time leader in points and rebounds and fresh off AP and Naismith National Player of the Year honors. She had her number retired just a year later to commemorate what was expected to be a career that was never topped.
Now, just four years after Gustafson wowed Hawkeye Nation and set herself apart from everyone else, she has been outdone by yet another generational talent: Caitlin Clark.
On Wednesday, Clark became Iowa’s second ever female Naismith National Player of the Year after setting fresh school records for assists (311) and three-pointers made (127) during a season. With 18 points on Friday night, Clark will also take the top spot for points in a season from Gustafson, who scored 1,001 in 2018-2019.
— Naismith Awards (@NaismithTrophy) March 29, 2023
Caitlin Clark is the @jerseymikes Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year pic.twitter.com/zaqXlOgGfR
It was what would otherwise be a capstone to an incredible career - a record-breaking season topped with a Final Four trip for what is already perhaps the greatest career in Hawkeye history. Clark has a pair of Big Ten Player of the Year honors under her belt and sits second all-time at Iowa in scoring, three-pointers made and assists.
She’s now the Naismith National Player of the year, and as with Gustafson, the AP National Player of the year after officially earning those honors on Thursday morning.
BREAKING: Iowa star Caitlin Clark is the AP women's Player of the Year!— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) March 30, 2023
Clark was surprised with the news during a recent visit to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital.https://t.co/39skzDpFAT pic.twitter.com/Uo1Vr4jB7e
But this is not a capstone achievement for a remarkable career. This is instead the midpoint of a career arch headed for previously unthought of heights. Clark still has one year of traditional eligibility remaining and if she chooses, could play two more seasons in Iowa City thanks to the COVID year. The question is not whether Clark will leave town as the all-time leader in the three aforementioned categories, but rather just how absurdly high she will set the bar for the next generation of talent and where she will land on the national lists.
As it stands, Clark is on pace to blow past the NCAA all-time scoring record next season. That mark is currently at 3,527 points and held by Washington great Kelsey Plum (2013-2017). Clark is sitting at 2,646 points as of today and will certainly finish higher than that after Friday night, meaning she is likely to need somewhere around 850 points next season to put her name atop the record books. That would the lowest point total for Clark since her freshman season.
Beyond the incredible statistics, what makes Clark so special is how she plays. Unlike Gustafson before her, Clark is not a post player dependent on an offense being built around her with post entry passes and floor spacing. Clark is a point guard who touches the ball every possession and is in complete control of the offense in its entirety for 40 minutes a game (or more precisely, the 34.7 minutes per game she is on the floor). In Iowa’s Elite Eight win, Clark scored or assisted on 72% of Iowa’s points - more than any player in an NCAA Tournament game in 20 years.
She is capable of taking over a game in ways a post player simply can’t because there is no way to prevent her from getting the ball. You can double team Clark and she will gladly find an open Monika Czinano for an easy two or kick it across court to Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall or McKenna Warnock for an open three. Her passing ability is unparalleled in the nation and she is perfectly happy to stack up 12, 13, 14 assists and watch the team’s lead balloon until to decide to go back to one defender. Then she’s going to thrust a dagger through your heart. From the logo.
Logo threes, triple-doubles - There’s nothing @CaitlinClark22 can’t do. ⚡️— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 29, 2023
The @IowaWBB junior averaged 27.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.8 assists in route to the Final Four and now she’s POTY.@NaismithTrophy pic.twitter.com/jC3RC1zzIo
Clark plays with the confidence and swagger of a person who knows they’re the best one on the court. For fans of opposing teams, that can be off-putting much in the way fans of, say, the Bad Boy Pistons didn’t like Michael Jordan. But much like His Airness, the dislike comes with respect, in some cases fear and always the attention.
And that is what makes what Caitlin Clark is doing so spectacular. She is having the season of a lifetime in the midst of an all-time career and doing it in the face of immense pressure. With each logo three and each no-look pass across the court, more eyeballs are finding their way to Clark and the Hawkeyes. More people are talking about her game, scrutinizing her play and waiting for a reason to be wowed or disappointed.
It has, without fail, ALWAYS been the former. Under all that pressure, Clark has lived up to the hype time and again. As broadcast networks set new records with each passing round Iowa plays in, Clark continues to dazzle the millions of new fans who have joined the party to watch the Hawkeyes and women’s college basketball.
She’s helped to grow the Iowa brand in ways that money could never have done. There are young fans across the country watching Hawkeye games who likely couldn’t pick out Iowa on a map 2-3 years ago. They’re doing it in their newfound Clark and Hawkeye apparel. They’re following along on social media and they’re invested in a way we have never seen before in the women’s game.
.@IowaWBB leads the women’s Final Four teams in social media value #WFinalFour pic.twitter.com/h4Nv5AuEot— Sports Business Journal (@SBJ) March 29, 2023
Perhaps more than the scoring and the highlight reels, that is what makes Caitlin Clark more special than any player before her. She has helped to grow not only her own brand or that of Iowa’s, but she has truly grown the women’s game. There will be a generation of young people - boy and girl - who have grown up watching women’s basketball because of Caitlin Clark.
When ESPN’s TV contract comes due in 2024, they’re expected to be forced to pay more than triple what they’ve been paying for the women’s package. That’s a remarkable accomplish for the women’s game and the exposure brought in by Clark has no doubt plaid a meaningful role in that.
She has paved the way for an entire generation through hard work, hustle, confidence and swagger. She’s brought in casual fans from within Hawkeye Nation and lured non-fans from around the country. She has celebrities from professional wrestling to the NFL to the NBA to hall of famers themselves considered transcendent greats all talking about her, the Hawkeyes and women’s college basketball.
And she’s not done yet.