BUFFS

Why the CU Buffs think they’re ready for Caitlin Clark and Iowa

Mar 26, 2024, 5:42 PM | Updated: Mar 27, 2024, 12:42 pm

BOULDER—The Colorado Buffaloes record might look the same as last year, their matchup in the Sweet 16 may look the same too but head coach JR Payne will tell you her group is leaps and bounds better than they were at this time a season ago.

That will be essential for the Buffs who seek a trip to the Elite Eight for just the fourth time in program history and have the familiar task of getting past Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. A year ago, CU’s season was ended by Clark and the Hawkeyes in the Sweet 16. Iowa would go on to play LSU in the national title game, all the while Colorado returned just above everyone and added some transfers to get better.

The Buffaloes began the season with a win over the reigning national champion Tigers. It was proof that Payne’s team had leaped, so much so that they earned a No. 3 AP Poll ranking. But the second half of the Pac-12 slate beat up on the Buffs and the team sits with a nearly identical 24-9 record, though the highs were higher.

“We do feel like in the Pac-12 conference, we’re very fortunate that we played up against a lot of really good teams, collectively great teams individually great talent,” Payne said. “We have seen great players and great teams all season long. And it kind of feels the same going against Iowa… the gameplan might look different but we do feel prepared.”

In fact, Colorado’s schedule has been so tough they’ve played six games against teams that are in the Sweet 16 alongside them, going 3-3—scoring wins over LSU, Stanford and USC. The Buffaloes have played some of the very best players in the country and impressed in doings so. Now the Buffs have the 31-4 Hawkeyes and a matchup with the very best player in college basketball.

“She’s a great player, has the all-time scoring record for a reason,” Buffs wing Maddie Nolan who transferred into the program from Michigan this summer said. “I think not only that, but they surround her with really good players. So I think just trying to contain everyone else, Caitlin probably gonna get hers can try to container but there’s no really telling how many points she’s gonna have, it’s gonna be a really fun matchup for us.”

Clark is the soon-to-be No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft and reigning Player of the Year. She’s the favorite for that honor again and set the all-time college basketball scoring record earlier this season. At 31.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists a game, she has captivated the nation with her play and has earned off-court deals with State Farm and more. Last year Clark scored 31 points in Iowa’s 87-77 win over Colorado in the Sweet 16.

“It’s really cool, they returned almost everybody, we returned almost everybody. So in a lot of ways, it’s very similar teams,” Payne said. “I think it was one of the best team games of the tournament last year. And so I think just I think everybody would go back and re-watch the film and figure out what works, what didn’t work.”

One thing Colorado guard Kindyll Wetta already noticed is something from Iowa’s tight win against West Virginia on Monday to even advance.

“I thought West Virginia did a really good job on Caitlin in defending her,” Wetta said. “They (Iowa) had lots of turnovers. And so that’s good for us because we like to generate lots of turnovers. So just seeing that matchup, I think we can take some of what West Virginia did and apply it. So what we’re going to do.”

The Mountaineers had the best turnover margin in the country this season, the Buffaloes aren’t quite as good but that’s a stronger aspect of their game. Maybe the best aspects of the team though relate similarly. The Buffaloes have been the 38th-best three-point shooting team this season, hitting the most valuable shot. Seemingly part of the recipe to beating the country’s best scorer is to score more points per trip than she does. Another strong suit for Payne’s team is spreading the ball, with the country’s 12th-best team at dishing assists. This shows that, unlike Iowa’s game plan which will be reliant on one-star player, Colorado will spread these tasks across the team.

“I think we saw it we had what, four or five kids in double figures both nights (of the tournament so far,) and I think that’s our strength,” Nolan, the lone Buff to beat Clark at the college level said. “It’s definitely hard to stop when you could have six kids that scored 9 or 10 points.”

This is the Buffaloes third-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament under Payne and this is her oldest group yet. They have been led by Pac-12 first-teamers Jaylyn Sherrod and Aaronette Vonleh. Sherrod throws a team-high five assists a game to go with a team-leading 2.2 steals a night and 13 points a contest, while Vonleh scores a team-best 14 a game on 56% shooting. Knockdown shooter Frida Formann and rebounder Quay Miller round out Payne’s top options. Altogether, it’s leaps and bounds better than last year—a 10-point loss at this very stage to this exact team, but bookmakers are bullish—putting the Buffaloes as 8.5-point underdogs.

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