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Stop Caitlin Clark? Good luck. Coaches share their (often failed) strategies


Stop Caitlin Clark? Good luck. Coaches share their (often failed) strategies

ALBANY, N.Y. — Here are some universal truths about college basketball: A game will start and eventually end. Shots will be taken. One team will win; another will lose. Want one more? It’s impossible to fully stop Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

A coach who has played Clark multiple times throughout her career has set the following definition for success against Iowa’s star guard. Even if she scores 35 points, records five assists and takes five free throws, the coach considers it a positive. “You’re in the game,” the coach said. “I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. We were smart enough to know we weren’t gonna keep her from scoring.”

The conundrum of stopping Caitlin Clark is a reality coaches around the country have confronted for almost four seasons. Clark’s career average of 28.4 points per game on 20 shot attempts reflects her consistent dominance. This season, she averages national bests of 31.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, hitting a career-high of 49 points the night she set the NCAA Division I women’s all-time scoring record.

There is no singular approach to stopping the player the vast majority of coaches view as the hardest to game plan for. But different approaches to slow Clark down have emerged among coaches.

The Athletic talked to four head coaches, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly about their strategies to try to stop Clark this season. Their plans have often been dashed, but Colorado — Iowa’s Sweet 16 opponent — might try to employ some of these tactics.

An initial choice must be made. “You’ve gotta pick your poison,” one head coach said. Do you clamp down on the best scorer women’s college basketball has ever seen and allow her teammates opportunities? That didn’t work for Penn State. Iowa forward Hannah Stuelke scored 47 points on the Nittany Lions. Or do you limit her teammates and know Clark’s going to get hers? “Honestly I think you gotta figure out a way to keep Kate Martin under wraps,” another coach said. “I think Caitlin’s gonna get what she gets.”

Whatever coaches strategize, it often turns out futile. And there is seemingly no look opponents haven’t tried.

Opponents have thrown out 2-3 and box-and-1 zone sets. (Nebraska had the most success doing the latter, holding Clark scoreless in the fourth quarter of its Feb. 11 upset over the Hawkeyes.) Others, like West Virginia on Monday night, have pressed her full-court. (She had six turnovers, but still ended up with 32 points, 12 free-throw attempts and eight rebounds.) Clark has seen double- and triple-teams. She’s been shaded left and right.

“We forced her left,” a coach said. “A lot of people don’t like to force her left because she shoots the jump shot with the side-step to her left so well, but to me, that’s what you give up, and if you have enough pressure, that’s a really tough shot. I understand people going a different way with it.”

Another said: “You’ve gotta be ready to adjust if you’ve picked wrong on that night. I just think you better have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and you better have an emergency plan after that.”

A major theme coaches hit on: Make Clark work for everything. “Don’t do something silly and give her the easy stuff,” a coach said. Added another: “You got to eliminate her easy points.” That means defend without fouling (Clark averages seven free-throw attempts per game) and limit her chances at the rim, where she shoots 66.3 percent. Don’t let her throw a 70-foot baseball pass to a teammate for an easy layup either.

Putting defensive stress on Clark is another recommendation. “Expose Caitlin on defense or make her have to work just a little bit harder,” another coach said.

“We tried to make her guard a lot,” said a coach. “We ran every play we could at her. Do something other than let her just stand there and let her play offense.”

The issue for the few remaining college opponents Clark will face is that nothing will fully work. “If you go into it like you’re gonna shut her down, you’re out of your mind. You’re wasting your time,” the first head coach said. “Thinking you’re going into the game and you’re going to create a game plan that no one else has ever done, you’re thinking too much of yourself.”

Colorado may have the advantage of familiarity unlike other tournament foes. The Buffaloes and Hawkeyes met in last season’s Sweet 16, a game that Colorado led by a point at halftime before Clark and the Hawkeyes played a convincing final 20 minutes for an 87-77 victory.

But Colorado knows there’s another factor at play in addition to Clark’s skills. The crowd will be decidedly pro-Iowa in Albany.

“We definitely are anticipating that type of crowd,” Buffaloes coach JR Payne said Friday. “It felt like that in Seattle last year, and that was on the other side of the country.”

First-hand experience with Clark-mania can be instructive. Knowing how Clark handles the basketball, rises for jumpers, and how it sounds in a sellout arena when she sinks a logo 3-pointer can be valuable, too. One of the coaches stressed to players not to worry about the crowd noise after a Clark jumper or the crescendo after a logo 3. This season, Clark has made more 3-pointers from 25-to-30 feet than 3s within 25 feet, according to CBB Analytics.

“When everybody freaks out, so what?” the coach said. “It’s only 3. It’s coming. Don’t panic.”

The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach and Sabreena Merchant contributed to this report.

(Photo: Matthew Holst / Getty Images)

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