Sports

Caitlin Clark And Iowa Are Building On Last Season’s Sweet Success

By any measure, 2020-21 was a successful season for the Iowa women’s basketball team. The Hawkeyes finished 20-10 and advanced to the Sweet 16 on the backs of some truly elite individual performances. 

Caitlin Clark, whom you have read about here and no doubt will again, averaged 26.6 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting from the field, sinking 40.6 percent of her threes and topping 40 percent in her assist rate as well. This being the uber-competitive Clark, though, she looks at her freshman season and sees opportunities to get better.

“I think there’s always room for improvement,” Clark told me in an interview last month. “I can definitely increase my percentages, even from the 3-point line — I can even shoot it better. And I think that just goes back to shot selection, weeding out a few shots that I didn’t need to take, or were too soon, I could have substituted with an easier look.”

Meanwhile, Monika Czinano, Iowa’s 6-foot-3 senior center, led the nation last season in field-goal percentage, at 66.8 percent. Her points per possession, per Synergy Sports, were 1.213 — also best in the nation. Surely, there’s not another level for her, right?

“I don’t think there’s a specific metric that I’m aiming for,” Czinano said. “But there’s always room for improvement.”

She’s right: So far in 2021-22, her points per possession are at 1.233.

What’s been fascinating about the first six games of the Iowa season is how both Clark and Czinano turned out to be correct across a variety of measurements. The results have the Hawkeyes positioned to play deep into March, and maybe April as well.

Let’s start with the ways Clark vowed to improve over her standout freshman season. Clark’s 3-point percentage is down so far, just 24.6 percent on the same number of attempts per game (9.5) as in 2020-21. However, there’s likely not a person in basketball who thinks that reflects her real talent — so expect that number to rise quite a bit as the year goes on.

One reason to think so is reflected in her other statistical goals for the 2021-22 season.

“I think my free-throw percentage is pretty good,” Clark said. “But I don’t think there’s any reason I couldn’t be in the 90s. So just kind of refining those. And I think looking at my assists, they were off the charts, but at the same time, my turnovers were not very good. So that’s definitely something I can work on, to improve that assist-to-turnover ratio.”

Let’s take each of these in turn. Clark’s free-throw percentage was excellent last season, 85.8 percent. This year? She’s meeting her goal so far — 91.4 percent, to be exact. Studies have shown that free-throw percentage today can help predict 3-point accuracy tomorrow. Again, do not worry about Clark’s long-range accuracy.

But in the other areas too, she was only half-right. She spoke about her assist percentage being off the charts, and that was true — yet she’s raised it significantly somehow, from 40.1 percent last year to an even 50 percent this year. We’ve written here about the only women’s college basketball player since 2016 to top 50 percent — Tiana Mangakahia — and that’s the territory Clark is in distributing the ball. 

As for her turnovers, a recent Clark masterpiece provides an example of her growth. 

That’s her second triple-double in six games and third of her career. The first two, however, included four turnovers and five turnovers, respectively. This time, she had just two turnovers, and it reflects a season-long improvement, from a turnover rate of 18.3 percent last year to just 14.6 percent this year. By her preferred stat, assist-to-turnover ratio, she has jumped from 1.49 last year to 2.24 this year.

Then there’s the question of Clark’s defense, something her head coach, Lisa Bluder, pointed out as an area of emphasis coming into Clark’s sophomore year.

“I think it’s more of a mentality than anything,” Bluder said. “I don’t think Caitlin’s ever really been expected to play a lot of defense, when you’re in high school and you score that many points. And you don’t really have to work that hard in defense when you’re in high school. I think that’s typical of most freshmen when they come into a Division I program.”

Last season’s results reflected this lack of emphasis — a steal percentage (1.7) and block percentage (1.3) that spoke to an overall defensive win share of -1.0. She exceeded both those percentages early on this year, at 2.4 percent steals and 1.6 percent blocks, lifting her defensive win shares into positive territory, with 0.7. Most encouraging of all, she’s posting an incredible-for-a-guard 24.5 defensive rebounding percentage, reflecting both an ability to end opposing offensive possessions and start Iowa’s offense with the ball in the hands of its primary playmaker.

This kind of marginal improvement on the boards — Iowa grabs 53.4 percent of available rebounds so far this season, up from 50 last season — was part of Czinano’s plan as well.

“I think, for sure, one thing we can do better is rebounding, boxing out, crashing, which I kind of loop into defense as a whole,” Czinano said. “That’s an area that we can definitely get better at. I don’t know the exact number, but we were at the bottom of Division I for defense. So, progress is good progress.”

Czinano’s theory has held. Iowa — depending on whether you go by opponent points per game (343rd of 343 teams) or, my preference, opponent points per 100 possessions (338th of 343) — finished at or right near the bottom. That a team so limited defensively reached the Sweet 16 suggests that even those marginal gains will make an enormous difference in where they end up. And early on, though this is before much of the Big Ten season is played, Iowa is now up to 138th in opponent points per game allowed — and even better, 58th, in opponent points per 100 possessions. 

Even that gap reflects another improvement by the Hawkeyes: They’re getting into transition more often — 21 percent last year but 27.2 percent this year, and their points per possession in transition are up, too. 

It’s why Bluder said that while she plans to keep her elite offense humming, “We’re not going to move from an F defense or D-minus defense to an A, that’s not us.” Bluder’s goal is, as she put it, “a C defense,” and that may undersell what Iowa’s done at that end so far.

The 12th-ranked Hawkeyes have a big test Wednesday against No. 15, Iowa State. But regardless of how this one game turns out, Clark and the Hawkeyes are well-positioned for big things this season. Because they aren’t just talking about getting better; they’re doing it.

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