Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers both know how heavy the crown can be; will one of them finally hoist the trophy?

When Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers faced each other as freshmen three years ago in an ultra-hyped Sweet 16 matchup, it was Bueckers with a heavy crown on her head. The No. 1 overall recruit in the class was a national darling on magazine covers out of high school with expectations to not only lead powerhouse Connecticut to its 12th title, but potentially pull a Breanna Stewart and sweep all four.

Uneasy is the head that wears the crown, and in the ensuing years, the accessory moved west.

Clark, the No. 4 overall recruit in the class and second-ranked point guard behind Bueckers, took the handoff with prolific scoring, shocking passes and the same charge to the ultimate goal. The year after Bueckers carried UConn to the title game in 2022, Clark delivered Iowa’s first NCAA championship game berth while Bueckers remained sidelined and out of the spotlight with an ACL injury.

Each has secured a Naismith Player of the Year award and are two of four finalists to win a second. Neither won the title. That might change in this tournament, and there’s a chance they have to go through each other to do it. The potential flame of that game was stoked Monday by UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, who called Bueckers a “forgotten entity in the country.”

UConn's Paige Bueckers and Iowa's Caitlin Clark have only met once on the court in their college careers. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
UConn's Paige Bueckers and Iowa's Caitlin Clark have only met once on the court in their college careers. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

“We have the best player in America,” Auriemma said. “And, you know, just saying that because the numbers in this world of analytics, the numbers say that she is.

“And the whole stat sheet says that she is. And everybody that watched knows it, and we’re fortunate. And we get to go back to where it ended for us last year, and I think we’re a different team, different mindset, and we’re hoping for a different outcome.

"We have the best player in America. And everyone that watched knows it."

The two names will forever be linked from playing together for Team USA’s U-19 squad, to that freshman matchup and now finally seeing the two shine simultaneously in one of the most star-studded NCAA tournaments ever. Their Sweet 16 meeting was supposed to be a teaser for three years of battles and tournament performances. Instead, Iowa was upset by Creighton in the 2022 Sweet 16 and Bueckers missed the entire 2023 season, which included a non-conference date on a neutral site against Iowa.

They are each at the apex with two final weeks to live it up before taking their athletic duel to the WNBA. Clark announced she is entering the 2024 draft as a true senior and is expected to go No. 1 to the Indiana Fever. Bueckers said she will return for her redshirt senior season and is a projected lottery pick whether she comes out in 2025 or 2026. (Bueckers has an extra year of eligibility under the COVID-19 waiver that is extended because of her redshirt year.)

They played back-to-back to a national audience on ABC in the first round and again on ESPN prime time in the second round. Bueckers totaled 60 points, 21 rebounds, 13 assists, seven steals, two blocks and four turnovers. She shot 56.8% overall and went 3-of-10 from 3-point range with a 7-of-9 showing at the free-throw line. Clark totaled 59 points, 16 rebounds, 13 assists, five steals, one block and 12 turnovers. She shot 39% overall, went 8-of-23 from 3 and 19-of-21 from the free-throw line.

The pure tournament numbers lean toward Bueckers. The context is up for discussion.

Caitlin Clark and the Hawks will meet Colorado in the Sweet 16. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
Caitlin Clark and the Hawks will meet Colorado in the Sweet 16. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

Bueckers lit up the scoreboard against Syracuse, which ranks 71st in Her Hoop Stats’ defensive ratings, in the second round with many easy looks off screens against the Orange zone, although she also hit on tough drives into the paint.

“The really conscientious players, the great players that have so much confidence in themselves, understand the difference between what I want and what our team needs,” Auriemma said. “This is the most shots this year probably that she's taken and rightly so. She's doing what we need her to do to win games and she doesn't just indiscriminately come down here and chuck stuff up to get points. She passes up shots that she would easily make.”

She has senior Aaliyah Edwards to help in the post, though Edwards wasn’t as productive against Syracuse. But Bueckers also has to lead a team decimated by injuries, forcing it to start two freshmen the majority of the year. Her defensive effort has improved and she’s been a shot-blocking problem playing more of a forward position.

Clark had to score more this season without high-efficiency center Monika Czinano, who played in all of Clark’s starts until graduating last spring. Hannah Stuelke, a sophomore forward, is a different style of player who can run in transition with Clark, but isn’t as experienced. Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall, two standout seniors, are still with the squad, but Iowa has played without fifth-year transfer guard Molly Davis since the regular-season finale.

In the second round, Iowa and Clark faced a hungry (and potentially underseeded) West Virginia squad that ranks 11th in HHS defensive ratings, feasts on turnovers (23.6 per game rank second) and largely succeeded in gumming up Iowa’s top-ranked offense. The Hawkeyes posted near season lows in points, 3-pointers and assists. But the 15 turnovers by Iowa was a season low forced by the Mountaineers, who also faced late foul trouble.

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said she was proud of the team’s composure in finding a way to win without playing their style of ball and with the weight Clark has carried all season as she topples practically every all-time scoring record.

Paige Bueckers and UConn will meet Duke in the Sweet 16. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Paige Bueckers and UConn will meet Duke in the Sweet 16. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

“Her crown is heavy. She has been the face of women's basketball — and you could even say men's basketball — all year long,” Bluder said. “For her to do that every single night and really never have a bad night, to do that with seeing the best defense that she can get every single night, everybody doing different things to her, pulling off being a great teammate, not having people be jealous of her on this team, filming a commercial one day, being in practice fully ready to go the next day, that has impressed me.”

Women’s college basketball isn’t an absolute monarchy. Bueckers and Clark are the veteran standouts among a new crowd of crown-worthy freshmen, many of whom stand in the two point guards’ way to Cleveland. Iowa is in a gauntlet of a region with No. 5 Colorado waiting in the Sweet 16 and either No. 2 UCLA or No. 3 LSU, the reigning champions, in the Albany 2 regional title game. UConn faces No. 7 Duke before either No. 5 Baylor or No. 1 USC, led by freshman JuJu Watkins, a Naismith finalist and the nation’s second-leading scorer behind Clark.

Should both keep winning, Clark and Bueckers could meet for the second and final time in their collegiate careers. Iowa and UConn would need to make it out of their regionals to meet in the Final Four in Cleveland on April 5. Iowa has never won a national title. UConn hasn’t won since Stewart completed her four-in-four in 2016. Neither player has shied away from her ultimate goal of a national championship.

It would be a matchup for the ages after three years of building suspense. No wonder the crowns are heavy.