Friday’s Final Four matchup between Iowa and UConn in the NCAA Women’s Tournament will showcase two of the best college basketball players in recent years: UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

Last week, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma declared Bueckers as “the best player in America,” but he walked back his statement Monday after Iowa and UConn reserved their spots in the Final Four.

“Forget I ever said Paige is the best player in the country. I think (Caitlin’s) the best player of all time. I don’t know whoever said Paige is the best player,” he said in his postgame press conference, according to USA Today.

Auriemma isn’t alone in his thoughts on Clark.

On Wednesday, Clark was named the Naismith National Player of the Year for the second-consecutive year. She was also the only college player to be named to Team USA Basketball’s 14-player training camp roster, but she will miss it to play in the Final Four.

Did UConn’s Geno Auriemma recruit Caitlin Clark?

In Monday’s 2023 national title rematch and revenge game, Clark went off, putting up 41 points and 14 assists and contributing to 71% of Iowa’s 94 points, per the ESPN broadcast.

“I know there’s nothing personal between me and her. I don’t need to be seeing her drop 50 on us next weekend,” Auriemma said Monday. “I love her. I think she’s the best player.”

While Auriemma claims there’s no beef between him and Clark, it’s worth noting that UConn didn’t recruit Clark out of high school, which led the Des Moines, Iowa, native to stay close to home instead of playing for her dream school.

That snub could add fuel to Clark’s fire at a time when she’s already hot. She’s averaging 32.3 points this postseason.

“Honestly, it was more I wanted them to recruit me to say I got recruited. I loved UConn,” Clark told ESPN. “I think they’re the coolest place on Earth, and I wanted to say I got recruited by them. They called my AAU coach a few times, but they never talked to my family and never talked to me.”

UConn guard Paige Bueckers (5) and Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) walk off the court after their game in the Sweet 16 round of the women's NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Saturday, March 27, 2021. | Eric Gay

Is Paige Bueckers the best college basketball player?

Before Clark took the world by storm, Bueckers was the talk of women’s college basketball. Clark and Bueckers’ careers have taken different turns since they last met in the tournament as freshmen in the 2021 Sweet 16.

That year, Bueckers went on to win the national championship and was named the National Player of the Year.

She and UConn tried to repeat as champions the next year but fell to South Carolina in the final. Then in August 2022, Bueckers tore her ACL in a pickup basketball game and missed the entire season.

While Clark and Iowa are the favorites to win Friday, it’s important to not count Bueckers out.

“Paige is great,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley told the NCAA. “I think Paige is probably the elitist basketball player to ever grace our game. You look at her efficiency — she doesn’t take bad shots.”

Bueckers may have earned more accolades in her freshman season, but she’s playing the best she’s ever played in her collegiate career right now. This season, she’s averaging 22 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.4 blocks.

Those averages have only increased in the postseason. In UConn’s four NCAA Tournament games, she’s averaged 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists, 3.3 steals and 1.5 blocks.

Also this season, she’s done something only LeBron James has done. According to OptaStats, in a seven-game span, Bueckers and James are the only NBA, WNBA or Division I players to record at least:

  • 25 points per game.
  • Eight rebounds per game.
  • Four assists per game.
  • Two steals per game.
  • Two blocks per game.

Regardless of Friday’s result, Bueckers has said she will return to UConn next season despite being eligible for the 2024 WNBA draft.

Paige Bueckers praised God after punching UConn's ticket to Sweet 16. Here’s what she’s said about her faith in the past

Is Caitlin Clark the best college basketball player?

A lot has changed for Clark following that Sweet 16 loss in 2021.

Over the past three seasons, she’s become the face of women’s basketball and taken Iowa to two of the program’s three Final Four appearances. This season, Clark became the NCAA’s Division I all-time leading scorer among men and women.

“Caitlin Clark in particular has managed to capture the interest and keep it because she’s a generational player who is playing the game unlike any other woman that we have seen because of the logo threes. We’ve really only seen that in basketball from Steph Curry consistently, and no one has done it in the women’s game to this point,” Cindy Brunson, who has covered women’s basketball for 20 years, told the Deseret News. “She’s shattering every record that was ever put up, and she’s done it in a four-year time span.”

The Caitlin Clark effect: Why the rise of women’s basketball matters

Clark is averaging 32 points, 7.3 rebounds, nine assists and 1.8 steals this season, and she is heating up the farther she gets in the tournament. In Monday’s game, she broke the following records:

  • Most 40-point games in the NCAA Tournament (three).
  • Most career assists in the NCAA Tournament (140).
  • Most career 3-pointers made in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Tied for most 3-pointers made in an NCAA Tournament game (nine).

This weekend will be Clark’s final chance to be crowned an NCAA champion before she’s drafted later this month in the 2024 WNBA draft. The result will likely have no effect on her draft stock as she is already the presumptive No. 1 overall pick.

When is the Iowa-UConn game?

The two stars duel in the Final Four on Friday at 7:30 p.m. MDT. The game will air on ESPN and stream on ESPN+.

The winner will face NC State or undefeated South Carolina in the title game on Sunday at 1 p.m. MDT.