Caitlin Clark mania in full swing as Iowa readies for Sweet 16 showdown with Colorado

Caitlin Clark mania in full swing as Iowa readies for Sweet 16 showdown with Colorado

ALBANY, N.Y. — The TV reporters raised their cameras high and at a sharp 45-degree angle. Print reporters stuffed their phones through openings around dozens of bodies. Those hanging back gave each other a look.

“That? I’m glad I don’t have that,” Iowa sophomore Hannah Stuelke said, gesturing toward the scrum of more than a dozen reporters packed around their subject, a March Madness logo perfectly peeking above them.

Caitlin Clark stood in the center of the half-circle answering two more minutes of questions after spending 15 minutes on the dais with senior starters Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall. She talked about the game with No. 5 Colorado on Saturday, a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 the Hawkeyes won by 10. She reflected on the growth of the women’s game within her four years of college. She smiled when a local reporter told her an AAU middle school team here, nearly 1,000 miles from Iowa City, was almost all in Clark No. 22 jerseys and T-shirts.

Over a four-year collegiate career that is coming to an end within a month, Clark spoke millions of words over thousands of minutes about dozens of big-picture topics. Dr. Lindsey Darvin, assistant professor of sport management at Syracuse University, credits Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder for giving Clark room to do that when stars in the past haven’t been given such metaphorical space.

“In sports settings coaches don’t always provide their players with that ability to be very vocal and to be kind of out on their own and be the name of something, because they kind of feel like it’s theirs,” Darvin told Yahoo Sports earlier in March. “It seems like she’s really given Clark this space to be the name of Iowa basketball at, again, a time when it’s right for her to kind of come in and take over and be that player that draws in such large viewership crowds.”

Darvin compared her to USWNT superstar Megan Rapinoe, two players whose “skill matches [their] ability to connect with media folks.” In women’s basketball, four-time NCAA champion Breanna Stewart is a comp who grew to become more vocal in the space.

“But coming from the UConn model, I don’t know that during her time as an athlete she was afforded the same ability to be as outspoken or be as much of a face,” Darvin said. “Iowa basketball is also unique. They haven’t had as many of those star athletes come through.”

Clark, the only five-star recruit on any of Bluder's Iowa rosters, led the team to its second Final Four and its first national championship game last year. The Hawkeyes program has had stars, including former Naismith winner Megan Gustafson, but not to the level of a UConn, South Carolina or Notre Dame. And the moment has never been as ripe as now for a women’s player to step up.

“I completely trust her maturity,” Bluder said. “She is extremely mature, has handled every situation that's been thrown at her, and she's had a lot of different situations thrown at her. She's handled them all beautifully. I think [it’s] both of those things, trust and maturity, that she can handle it.”

Stuelke, who leans more toward the shy side, said she appreciates how Clark is able to answer most of the questions levied at the team and handles the public leadership role well.

“She has a gift of talking and she has a very analytical mind,” Stuelke said. “She's seeing things that most people don't see.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) signs autographs for fans following their 91-65 victory over Holy Cross in a first-round NCAA tournament game Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

Clark and the team recognize they’re always observed and watched. Cameras are everywhere, from the documentary crew that followed them for an ESPN special that includes Clark, to media recorders and fan’s phones. Clark drew attention last week for her clear frustration in the first-round game that included a shot of her bouncing a basketball off her head.

“Our team has always talked about it,” Clark said. “There's always people watching. There's always young girls with eyeballs on you, so you always want to always be on your best behavior, but also play with that competitive fire and passion that you always had that has brought our team so much success, and I think that's exactly what we do.”

Clark, Marshall and Martin got a laugh at the fact they couldn’t casually watch TV as an escape from the reality of their stardom and national attention.

“We were sitting in the hotel last night and the State Farm ad pops up and we just look at each other and started laughing,” Martin said.

Cameras follow Iowa women’s basketball everywhere. At least 30 media members clumped up outside the tunnel to the MVP Arena court waiting to watch 10 minutes of Iowa’s practice. A few facility employees discussed how different it was for Iowa’s practice versus anyone else.

Iowa fans began descending on Upstate New York on Thursday night, carrying on their proud title as one of the best traveling fan bases over the last two years. Albany officials expect sold-out crowds on Saturday to lift one of the best NCAA events, women’s or men’s, they’ve ever held.

Addison O'Grady, a junior forward at Iowa, noted in the locker room watching the frenzy around Clark that it was only going to get bigger the farther along Iowa made it in the NCAA tournament.

“We're just really excited for what's to come,” Martin said. “The season has been really cool with all the spotlight and everything. I think it's just you have to be in this position to grow the game, and with all the attention Caitlin gets, it shines a light on all of us.”


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