IOWA CITY, Ia. - The Iowa women’s basketball season is just eight games old, but there’s one thing set in stone.
Freshman point guard Caitlin Clark is the straw that stirs the Hawkeyes’ drink.
She came to Iowa with a lofty national reputation, part of a deep national recruiting class heavy on guards, and has lived up to her billing.
Asked if she thought Clark was the best freshman in the nation, Coach Lisa Bluder chose her words carefully. “I think you could give an argument for that,” said Bluder, whose team is 7-1 overall and 3-1 in Big Ten play heading into Wednesday’s 6 p.m. game against Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“She is certainly producing as one of the best freshmen in the country.”
Bluder said her focus has been on the next opponent, and her team, not rating the freshman class. “I’m really not in tune with what’s going on with the rest of the country,” she said.
But the coach knows she’s got a special talent in Clark, who has introduced herself to the college game by averaging 26.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists and dealing the clutch card on several occasions.
Clark is the catalyst, but Iowa is more than a one-player show.
This is a team averaging a robust 92.1 points a game, with an inside-out threat that makes them hard to guard. Center Monika Czinano is averaging 19.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. Forward McKenna Warnock is averaging 15 points, a team-best 8.6 rebounds and coming off a week that saw her make nine of 13 3-point attempts in victories against Rutgers and at Illinois.
“We like to play up tempo, we like to get out and run and to take that first open shot,” Bluder said. “We’re shooting the ball extremely well (51.2 percent from the field). We’re knocking down threes (38.9 percent) and getting everyone involved.”
But it starts with the 6-foot Clark, the state’s best prep player last season at Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines.
It can be a challenge for a coach, putting the ball in the hands of a newcomer. It can challenge team chemistry, and create jealousy from returning players.
“Something that we really stress, something that’s important to us, is to have really good team chemistry,” Bluder said. “We work at it.”
Camaraderie is a strength of this Hawkeye team.
“Caitlin doesn’t act like a prima donna off the court,” Bluder said. “And she could, right? She’s a goof. She’s one of the goofiest kids we have. She likes to give a lot of talk, and it’s fun to give it back to her because she can take it. She’s not scared to laugh at herself. She’s like a jokester. I think that makes it easier to handle the attention that she’s getting.”
She also works at refining her game. Many times, when Bluder walks past the practice gym, Clark is in there getting shots up.
“When somebody works hard for something, it’s hard to be jealous of them when they’re putting in all those hours,” Bluder said.
Clark’s teammates have given her the key and put her in the driver’s seat.
“I think this really started in the summer,” Warnock said. “Right off the bat we really knew how good she was. I think we all just embraced her and we trusted her, and she’s trusting us as well.”
Clark will tell you that establishing relationships with her teammates is as important as any basket she makes in a game.
“You need to know your teammates off the court if you want to be a great team, and you want them to trust you,” Clark said.
Already named Big Ten freshman of the week five times, Clark had impressive shoes to fill. Point guard Kathleen Doyle was the Big Ten’s player of the year last season after averaging 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists. She scored 1,537 career points.
“We definitely needed a point guard and a leader to step up right away after Doyle left,” Warnock said “I think she’s doing an amazing job with that. She gets those extra baskets that we need. And whenever we need her when the shot clock is winding down, she always makes those crazy stepback shots. I have no idea how she does that. It’s awesome to have someone who can do that for you.”
Czinano, who is shooting 68.8 percent from the field (64 for 93), said that Clark has been a perfect fit.
“With this team at this time, Caitlin is what we needed and things are moving and flowing really well,” Czinano said.
Like Doyle, Clark plays the game with an edge.
“That is something this team is used to, having a point guard with that edge,” Czinano said. “Accepting her in the summer and getting to know her, that’s when the real teamwork and cohesion come in.”
Told that her coach called her a jokester, Clark said you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself now and then. “Maybe on the court sometimes I seem a little serious, and a little intense,” she said. “But off the court, I like to have fun.”
Winning is fun, too, and Iowa’s done that seven times in eight tries so far.
Clark’s numbers are off the charts when you consider the fact that she’s marked on opposition scouting reports.
“I think they definitely have me marked,” Clark said. “But I think the biggest thing is that we just have so many weapons. There’s not much you can do when you have four or five players in double figures every game. It’s not like you can bring a triple team on me, like they were able to do in high school. We’re a hard matchup, and I think we need to use that to our advantage moving forward.”
The best freshman in the nation? Clark said her focus is elsewhere.
“I’m just focused on us winning, more than anything,” she said. “I don’t really care if I’m the best freshman, whatnot. If I just keep producing like I do and help this team win, that’s really all that matters to me.”