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Why I'm Looking Forward to Iowa-LSU (And Why I'm Not)

Hey look, there were more pictures of Caitlin Clark at last year's game than the Angel Reese taunt. You'd never know!
Hey look, there were more pictures of Caitlin Clark at last year's game than the Angel Reese taunt. You'd never know! (© Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

ALBANY — The college basketball world is abuzz for Monday night's Elite 8 matchups, and for good reason: 1-seed Iowa and 3-seed LSU will meet in Albany in a rematch of last season's national championship game, with a trip to the 2024 Final Four on the line.

When USC and JuJu Watkins face UConn and Paige Bueckers and that's the "other game," there's some elite hoops on tap.

First and foremost, please read Braydon's excellent preview for what to expect from a basketball standpoint. This game will be a tough challenge for Iowa, especially with LSU's size and athleticism on the interior, but it's hardly unwinnable; Iowa's a 1.5-point favorite.

This game represents an opportunity for Iowa to right the wrongs of last year's game, when LSU — a sub-35% three-point shooting team for the season — caught fire from behind the arc, hitting a preposterous 11-of-17 three-pointers in the 102-85 rout.

Was LSU lucky to shoot like that? Obviously yes. Is luck an integral part of winning or losing in basketball? Also obviously yes.

The Hawkeyes certainly put forth a gallant offensive effort of their own, making 14 of 30 threes in the loss, but Clark — who finished with 30 points and eight assists in the loss — was hampered in the second half by a mystifying technical foul that doubled as her fourth of the game, inescapably affecting her ability to be aggressive down the stretch.

This rematch, then, is a new opportunity for a properly competitive game. LSU may yet win again, and will once again deserve to win if it makes 65% of its three-pointers, but until tipoff, everyone's slates are clean once again.

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Buoyed by the stakes of the game and Caitlin Clark's sensational rise in fame, that 2023 title game averaged a jaw-dropping 9.9 million viewers, peaking around 12 million. Those numbers are virtually unheard of in this generation of men's college sports, to say nothing of their historically nickel-and-dimed female counterparts.

This year's game, which is "only" in the Elite Eight, still might surpass those ratings.

That's great news for women's basketball, obviously. The national respect is long overdue, but that doesn't make it any less welcome. NIL has played a significant role in this rise — few organizations are more talented at mythmaking than Nike, and the shoemakers' PR arm has absolutely sunk its teeth into Clark as a singular force in the mold of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

It'll sell a whole bunch of Caitlin 1s, that's for sure.

That visibility doubles as a bullseye, though, and that came to a head last April.

Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese.
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. (Tony Gutierrez)

You know the photo by now. It's inescapable.

As the game drew to a close, LSU forward Angel Reese gestured at her ring finger near Clark, celebrating the Tigers' upcoming championship jewelry.

As Reese's on-court antics go, it wasn't particularly incendiary. She's a provocateur, and proudly so, but she doesn't share her coach's offcourt bellicosity. Both Clark and Reese were past the moment shortly thereafter.

But for media outlets who thrive on conflict, it was a perfect opportunity to twist the knife in America's back: a Black woman taunting a white woman on the biggest stage the sport has had to offer in decades. What ensued was, to put it politely, an absolute shitshow.

Here's an excerpt from Wright Thompson's tremendous profile of Clark, which included her experience of that game and the aftermath:

When Iowa got home from the Final Four, Turner, the sports information director, arranged an interview for Caitlin with ESPN. Caitlin thought the questions would focus on the Wooden Award, which she had just won, but they were mostly about the end of the championship game.

"Angel is a tremendous, tremendous player," she said. "I have nothing but respect for her. I love her game.

"I think everybody knew there was going to be a little trash talk the entire tournament. It's not just me and Angel. I don't think she should be criticized."

The stakes of playing on the stage Caitlin and Angel play on are high, and they know it. "Facts," Caitlin told me later.

When the TV interview ended, she started shaking uncontrollably.

"I'm doing this in my apartment bedroom," she said.

She texted her mom and Bluder and asked how she'd done. Both told her she'd done great.

"If you do one wrong thing your life can really end," she said.

READ MORE: The Hyball: Carry That Weight

Quite simply, the sport's best interests aren't served with that sort of drama. As the face of the sport, Clark shouldn't be put in that position again, regardless of the outcome. She doesn't need that, Iowa doesn't need that, and college basketball doesn't need that.

If Iowa wins tonight, one of the program's biggest sore spots of the Caitlin Clark Era can start to heal. And though Iowa players have been noncommittal about the emotional impact of getting a win back against LSU, any Iowa fan can tell you it would be deeply, unequivocally satisfying to see Iowa triumph in Clark's final season in black and gold.

And — let's be honest here, it's a plausible outcome — if LSU wins and it's officiated fairly, that'll at least be easier to accept than last season's debacle. Let's also hope it doesn't turn into another referendum on American race relations at the first sign of celebration from the largely Black LSU roster.

I'll just keep my fingers crossed that my optimism on that last front doesn't make me the biggest April Fool of them all.

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