ESTERO, Fla. — They start showing up an hour or more before games. They’ve got their faces painted, they’re carrying signs, they’re wearing No. 22 jerseys. Some are old. Some are young. Men, women, boys, girls, they’re all there.
Officially, they come to watch No. 4 Iowa.
More specifically, they come to watch Caitlin Clark.
It is perhaps the best circus in women’s basketball. All eyes are on Clark — the reigning Associated Press national player of the year and someone on pace to win the national scoring title for a record third time — from the moment she steps onto the floor for warm-ups to the time she waves good-bye when the game ends and she retreats to the locker room.
Her game has brought fame (nearly 800,000 followers on Instagram), fortune (Nike and State Farm are among her many endorsement deals) and she’s on pace to become the leading scorer in Division I women's history later this season.
“The way people have on our jerseys, the way people have on Iowa clothes, it’s just not the same for every other program,” Clark said. “So, I think for me, it’s ‘just don’t let it overwhelm you. Don’t let the moment pass you by.’ Living in the now is super important. It’s really special.
“These are going to be some of the best moments of my life that I get to share with my best friends, as a kid who’s 21 years old in college. I play this game because I love it. I play because it’s fun. And when I play that way, that’s what allows me to be as good as I am.”
Good is an understatement.
Great is more accurate. A generational great, probably even more so.
With 2,954 points entering Saturday’s game with Bowling Green for the Hawkeyes (7-1), Clark is probably two games away from reaching 3,000. At her current average of around 30 points per game, she’s on pace to catch Kelsey Plum for the all-time Division I women's mark of 3,527 by the end of February. If you think the circus is crazy now, imagine it when Clark gets close to the record. Clark started the year No. 37 on the all-time list; she's up to No. 16 after just eight games.
“To me, the record was never that big of a deal,” Plum said. “I understand the importance of it, but let’s just say when she breaks it, I’ll be very, very happy.”
Plum, an Olympic 3x3 gold medalist and two-time WNBA champion with the Las Vegas Aces, knows what’s coming Clark's way. She experienced it a few years back when she was at Washington and closing in on Jackie Stiles’ record. All the attention gets shifted to the scoring mark, not the game, not anything else.
It is a difficult space to navigate, Plum said.
“I feel like people started caring less about the game and more about just the individual points,” Plum said. “You can play really well and score 15, 20 points and have a great game and people will be like, ‘Aw, it was only a 20-point game.’ It was tough for me because I felt like I lost a little bit of my identity and it ultimately led to a tough transition into the (WNBA) because the expectations were so high. So, if anything, I’d try to send her as much compassion and love as I can and I hope the people around her are checking in with her … because it’s going to be tough to feel like you’re just playing basketball.”
To this point, though, Clark makes the playing-basketball part look easy.
She’s on pace to become the first player in Division I history — men’s or women’s — with 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. (To put that in some perspective, only Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot are in the women’s 2,000-point, 1,000-assist club.) Reaching 1,000 rebounds isn’t totally out of the question. Pete Maravich’s all-time Division I scoring record of 3,667 points is within reach. And come March, an Iowa team that lost to LSU in the national championship game last season will likely be a favorite to win it all this time.
“I mean, she’s the national player of the year,” Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko said. “People project her to be the No. 1 pick in the draft whenever she declares. She has Steph Curry mentality. She’s somebody who will share the ball, but she is somebody that’s aggressive looking for opportunities. She’s probably the toughest person to guard in college basketball right now. … It’s quite a challenge."
Smesko’s team played Iowa last week in the Gulf Coast Showcase semifinals. The Eagles spent from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. inside their video room on the morning that they would play Iowa, most of that time devoted to the defensive scheme for Clark. Smesko stood on one side of the room, his players in big movie-theater-type chairs, their eyes glued to the big projection screen.
The mandates were clear. They wanted to force her left (they often did), they wanted to force her into seven turnovers (they got six), they wanted to be defensively attached to her all over the floor (they were largely successful).
Clark managed 21 points, which was great from the Florida Gulf Coast perspective.
Her teammates scored 79, which wasn’t so great. Iowa won 100-62 and won the tournament the next night by topping Kansas State 77-70.
“Honestly, I thought we did pretty well against her,” Smesko said afterward. “I thought everybody competed and at least made her work for everything. You know, there’s only so many things you can do.”
The hardest part sometimes is to simply not be in awe.
Stephen Curry raves about Clark. Chris Paul follows her on Instagram. So does tennis star Frances Tiafoe, women’s basketball legend Sue Bird and a slew of other famous people.She's a three-time gold medalist with USA Basketball. She’s a full-fledged star already, with the game to match.
Purdue Fort Wayne lost to Iowa last week in Fort Myers. As expected, it wasn't close. And when it was over, Mastadons coach Maria Marchesano acknowledged “it's cool to be part of a game like this.”
“You know, she sees things on the court before it ever happens,” Marchesano said. “We have clips from our scout where she’s passing the ball and it’s in the air before that teammate is even open. For her, that ability to pass and make plays for others is pretty phenomenal. … She’s a one of one player.”
The awe factor isn't just for opponents. Iowa takes great pains to make sure it doesn't fall victim as well.
Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder calls it “the Michael Jordan effect,” where teammates might just stand around and watch Clark dominate. That would be a big problem and make the Hawkeyes far easier to beat. Clark plays the biggest role in combating that by being a willing passer and making sure teammates are involved.
She's also maybe the most vibrant cheerleader when she's not in the game. Iowa's game against Purdue Fort Wayne was decided — the Hawkeyes were up by 39 in the final minutes — when a teammate got called for an offensive foul. Clark was the first person off the bench to complain, her arms outstretched in exasperation. On Iowa's next possession, the Hawkeyes scored and again Clark was the first one off the bench, this time to celebrate and grab teammates to shake them in delight.
“To me, it’s managing everybody else too,” Bluder said. “Understanding that she's a special player, and that doesn’t mean that you’re less valuable. It doesn’t mean that she’s more valuable to us. It means that we’re all just really fortunate. We all have roles and we all play our own role. And I think our team does a really good job of buying into that.”
There are criticisms, of course. Clark found herself in a firestorm last season when she waved her hand in front of her face — a “I don't see you” gesture — during Iowa's win over Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. Some felt that was disrespectful and as LSU was closing out its win over Iowa in the national title game, Tigers star Angel Reese made the same gesture toward Clark.
Clark was whistled for numerous fouls last year out of frustration, and did it again against Purdue Fort Wayne — a two-hand shove away from the play. Bluder took Clark out for the rest of the half. When the game resumed, the star was doing star things again, unbothered by anything.
Like LeBron James, she'll always make the pass to an open teammate. Like Curry, she'll shoot from anywhere. She's not shy; nearly half of the games in her career (51 of 108) have seen her take at least 10 3-point tries.
“Usually I know it's going in when it comes off my hand,” Clark said, “and usually I know when it's not going in when it comes off my hand.”
Some people like Clark. Some people might not like Clark. It's all good — last season's NCAA title game against Reese and LSU averaged nearly 10 million viewers, a record for women's basketball. The Gulf Coast Showcase also set attendance records, and while having Florida Gulf Coast there (its campus is just a couple miles from the tournament site) helped, Clark was the reason why most people made the trip.
“I think it’s huge,” Smesko said. “We had a couple stars in the national championship game last year and it was the highest-rated ever or the highest-rated in a really long time. You can see the turnout here and people waiting for autographs and things like that. The women’s game is fantastic. It’s in great shape.”
It was 3,000 or 4,000 fans in the stands in a minor-league hockey arena this past weekend to see the Clark show. It'll be 15,000 fans in Iowa City, no matter the weather, when Clark and the Hawkeyes return home on Saturday. The crowds will be big the rest of the way.
Usually, Clark gives the people what they want — 30-footers, bounce passes on the run, lots of emotion and in the end, much more often than not, a wave after another win.
Her approach is simple. College basketball isn't forever. The game isn't forever. She knows everyone is watching, and she's going to savor it all with hopes of delivering that national title that was just one game from her grasp last spring.
“Just enjoy every single moment, soak it in and know no moment is ever too big,” Clark said. “I think our team really steps up when the lights kind of shine the brightest.”