Stop Caitlin Clarke? good luck Coaches share their (often failed) strategies

ALBANY, NY — Here are some universal truths about college basketball: A game has a beginning and an end. Scenes will be taken. One team wins; The other will lose. Want one more? Iowa's Kaitlyn Clark is unlikely to be completely stopped.

The coach, who played for Clark several times, has the following definition of success against Iowa's star guard. Even though she scored 35 points, recorded five assists and made five free throws, the coach sees that as 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 going to stop her from scoring.

The conundrum of stopping Kaitlin Clark is a reality coaches across the country have faced for nearly four seasons. Clark's career average of 28.4 points per game on 20 shot attempts reflects his consistent dominance. This season, she averaged a nationally high 31.8 points and 8.8 assists per game, setting the NCAA Division I women's all-time scoring record with 49 points on the same night.

Most coaches find that game planning is difficult because there is no single approach to stopping a player. But different approaches to slowing down Clark have emerged among coaches.

Athletic He spoke to four head coaches on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about their strategies for stopping Clark this season. Their plans have largely been thwarted, but Colorado — Iowa's Sweet 16 opponent — may try to employ some of these tactics.

An initial selection must be made. “You have to pick your poison,” said one head coach. Do you control the greatest scorer women's college basketball has ever seen and allow her teammates opportunities? It didn't work for Penn State. Iowa forward Hannah Stulke scored 47 points for the Nittany Lions. Or control her teammates and you know Clark is going to get her? “Honestly, I think you've got to find a way to cover Kate Martin,” another coach said. “I think Caitlin will get what she gets.”

No matter what strategy the coaches use, it often turns out to be ineffective. And there's no appearance that opponents haven't tried.

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Opponents are 2-3 and out box and 1 zone sets. (Nebraska held Clark scoreless in the fourth quarter on Feb. 11 in an upset against the Hawkeyes.) Others, like West Virginia on Monday night, have pressed his full-court. (She had six turnovers but still finished with 32 points, 12 free-throw attempts and eight rebounds.) Clark has seen double and triple teams. She was shadowed left and right.

“We forced her,” one coach said. “A lot of people don't like to force her to the left because she shoots her jump shot well with her left side, but for me, you just let it go and if you have enough pressure, that's the truth. Hard shot. I understand people go the other way.

Another said: “If you make a wrong choice that night you have to be prepared to be corrected. I think you better have a plan A, plan B, plan C, and then you better have an emergency plan.

One key theme coaches championed: Make Clark work for everything. “Don't do anything stupid, just give her the easy stuff,” said one coach. Another added: “You need to get rid of her easy spots.” That means defending without fouling (Clark averages seven free-throw attempts per game) and limiting his opportunities to 66.3 percent shooting. Don't let a teammate throw a 70-foot baseball pass easily.

Another suggestion is to put defensive pressure on Clark. “Expose Kaitlyn on defense or make her work a little harder,” another coach said.

“We tried to protect her a lot,” one coach said. “We ran her every play we could. Do something other than let her stand there and let her run the offense.

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The problem facing Clarke, the remaining college opponents, is that nothing works perfectly. “If you go into it like you're going to shut her down, you're out of your mind. You're wasting your time,” the first head coach said. “You go into the game thinking you're going to make a game plan that nobody else does, and you think too much about yourself.”

Colorado may have the advantage of familiarity unlike other rival opponents. The Buffaloes and Hawkeyes met in last season's Sweet 16, when Clark and the Hawkeyes led Colorado by one point at halftime before the final 20 minutes for an 87-77 victory.

But Colorado knows there's another factor in addition to Clark's talent. The crowd will be pro-Iowa in Albany.

“We're definitely expecting that kind of crowd,” Buffaloes coach JR Payne said Friday. “It felt like last year in Seattle, it was on the other side of the country.”

A first experience with Clark-mania can be instructive. Knowing how Clark handles the basketball, gets up for jumpers, and how it sounds in a sold-out arena when he sinks a logo 3-pointer will be valuable. One of the coaches urged the players not to worry about the crowd noise after the Clark jumper or the crescendo after the Logo 3. This season, Clark has made more than 3-pointers from 25-to-30 feet under 3 seconds. For CBB Analytics.

“When everyone's freaking out, what?” said the coach. “It's just 3. It's coming. Don't panic.”

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AthleticNicole Auerbach and Sabrina Merchant contributed to this report.

(Photo: Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

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