Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark get ready for a tough Final Four matchup between Iowa and UConn.

Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark, two of the best college basketball players, will play in the women’s Final Four on Friday night. Top-tier college basketball players Clark of Iowa and Bueckers of UConn are likely to make for an extremely exciting and intensely competitive March Madness Final Four.

When you ask Clark and Bueckers about each other’s early impressions, you’ll hear generalizations that are high on respect but weak on specifics. Their recollections are hazy. Of Team USA training and AAU competitions. Of deep threes and gold medals. Of the blonde who never let the ball in her hands rattle, either from opponents or the sea of eyes locked on her all the time, and the girl with the brown ponytail and limitless range who always appeared to know what was coming next.

Perhaps because it seems like a long time ago when they were shadowing each other on the Midwest travel circuit or collaborating for the occasional international tournament. Perhaps because they are, at least in the most significant of ways.

There is no longer an NCAA Tournament like the one Bueckers watched from the fringes of Minneapolis and Clark grew up watching in Iowa. The disparities between the men’s and women’s March Madness competitions were enormous back then; they included differences in facilities, merchandise, TV ratings, and branding.


Things have changed since then.


Not when Iowa and Clark are always selling out. Especially since Bueckers, who was the first freshman to earn the AP Player of the Year title, had been rehabilitating from knee issues for the greater part of two years, she was afraid her generational skills would never come back.

They alone have. Just in time for the two players to take center stage after helping to drive interest in the women’s competition to an unprecedented level.


On Friday night in the Final Four, Clark and the top-seeded Hawkeyes won’t play against Bueckers and the third-seeded UConn team in an unidentified gym in front of just parents, scouts, and college coaches.


Millions of people will be watching on television and on social media, and the crowd will be jam-packed with ambitious ballers from all over the world, including LeBron James, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, and others.

It’s not like there have never been stars in women’s basketball. Indeed, it has. Just never as many people who play quite like this as this.


Although Lisa Bluder, the coach of Iowa, made it clear on Thursday that she did not want “Caitlin vs. Paige” to be the matchup for the national semifinal, all parties concerned appear to be fine with the arrangement given the implications for not only their particular teams but also the women’s game as a whole.


“We live in a star-driven society,” Geno Auriemma, the coach at UConn, remarked. “It’s a celebrity-driven, star-driven, influencer-driven world that’s been created.”

This is a world that both Clark and Bueckers feel at ease in, possibly because it’s all they’ve ever known.

There is no denying the similarities to the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, which started when Johnson and Michigan State played Indiana State and Bird for the 1979 NCAA championship.


“All of a sudden those two particular players came on and it just lit everything up, and it just took off from there,” Auriemma explained. Thus, a few stars are needed. People with the appropriate personalities and games are needed. And now we have that.”


The problem is, neither Bueckers nor Clark saw themselves as competitors. Not in the conventional meaning. If anything, they think of themselves as only riding the tip of a wave that began years ago—long before they became well-known by their first name alone.

When you ask Clark why there’s been a surge in interest in women’s basketball, she doesn’t cite her record-breaking career, her “did she really shoot that” range, or even the success of her team—she just points to exposure.


Clark has always thought the women’s game is fantastic. All it has taken is a long, long time for the rest of the world to catch up.


“It’s the platforms that (we’re able to have now) that should have been there for a really long time,” Clark stated. “We’ve had some amazing talents come through our game, over the last 10, 20 years.”

gifted people who haven’t quite bonded like Clark and Bueckers have. They are now able to market their game and themselves in previously unthinkable ways thanks to the relaxation of the regulations governing name, image, and likeness payments.


Neither of them has forgotten their shared past. Knowing that they were previously on the opposite end of the spectrum and looked up to people like Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore, WNBA stars and collegiate athletes, they recognize and embrace the responsibility of being role models.

I wanted to be like them, they were everything,” Bueckers remarked. “And they won.”


a characteristic that seems to have accompanied Bueckers ever since she picked up a ball. It’s interesting that when Bueckers was questioned about her performance, Clark cited the scoreboard following almost all of her games rather than her superb court vision or accurate midrange jumper.


Clark remarked, “She’s always been dominant.” “She has led every team she has ever been on to tremendous success. She just does it that way. She’s triumphant.

Though over the past three years, the circumstances surrounding how people view Clark and Bueckers have altered, that hasn’t changed.


The best recruit in the Class of 2020 was Bueckers, not Clark. The Huskies recruited Bueckers rather than Clark, though Auriemma did note this week that “if Caitlin really wanted to come to UConn, she would have called me.” That initial meeting in 2021 was won by Bueckers, not Clark, who went on to become the “media darling,” as Bueckers described it on Friday.

Right now, Clark is in that role. That will come from breaking the NCAA Division I scoring record and playing with a boldness that is both thrilling and approachable.


To ensure that she could move from one media opportunity to the next on Friday, security personnel had to make a way clear deep into Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. An hour later, the crowd had shrunk to half its size when UConn and Bueckers arrived.


It’s been a lot, even for a player who claims to be able to see things on the court before they happen. The 22-year-old Clark is happy with the publicity as she knows it has attracted new fans to her sport. However, despite how much others would like her to wear that title, she is not here to be The Star.

It had been Bueckers three years prior. It has been her for the past two years. Bueckers for her redshirt senior season next spring. This year’s sensational freshman class, which features players like Hannah Hidalgo of Notre Dame and JuJu Watkins of USC, is what Bueckers is leaning toward. Ten years from now, it might be some young lady who never picked up a ball until she saw Bueckers swerving through traffic in the lane and Clark hoisting it from deep.


In this sense, Clark views neither herself nor Bueckers as the product of anything, but rather as the most recent links in a chain that gets stronger and stronger with every season that goes by.

“It doesn’t need to be one end-all, be-all (star) just like I think there doesn’t need to be one end-all, be-all team,” Clark stated. “The young talent, it’s only going to get better.”

Written by schooleiwa

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