Clark closing in on NCAA career scoring records
It started innocently enough for Caitlin Clark.
Twenty-seven points against Northern Iowa in November of 2020 in front of 365 fans in the thick of the COVID pandemic.
Now, it won’t be long before Clark is alone at the top.
There’s a strong chance that happens Sunday, with Kelsey Plum’s NCAA Division I record of 3,424 career points within reach when Iowa visits Nebraska. Clark needs 39 points – a figure she’s reached three times this season and 11 times since the start of her sophomore year.
For a player with a soon-to-be unprecedented college career, one particular comparison keeps popping up again-and-again.
It’s with a fellow record-breaker, a player who stands alone in his own right.
“[Caitlin Clark] is the Steph Curry of women’s basketball.”
That’s how ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith described it last week on First Take – an opinion he’s shared countless times over the past year, and one experts and fans seem to generally agree with.
Clark’s senior season has been something to behold. A scoring average of 32.2 points per game, which would be the third-highest single-season mark in women’s NCAA history if it holds up through April, as well as 8.2 assists per game, which leads all of Division I.
The ascent began as a freshman three seasons ago, when Clark averaged 26.6 points and carried a Hawkeyes team that was unranked all season to the Elite Eight in March. Last year, Clark was the standout of the women’s tournament, recording its first-ever 40+ point triple-double (41 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) against Louisville to reach the Final Four, then scoring 41 more in a win over defending champion and previously undefeated South Carolina.
It’s the same stage Curry starred on as a sophomore 15 years earlier, when he led 10th-seeded Davidson to the Elite Eight, scoring 40 points in a spirited comeback against Gonzaga, 30 against Georgetown two days later, and 33 more against Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen.
Clark and Curry both came up short against the eventual champion, with Clark scoring 30 points in a title game loss to LSU and Curry finishing with 25 in a 59-57 defeat against Kansas, which eventually beat Memphis in the 2008 men’s championship.
Curry’s NBA career got off to a modest start, due in large part to a series of foot and ankle injuries, which caused him to miss 40 of 66 games in his third season. Following a second ankle surgery in the summer of 2012, Curry broke through in year four, was a first-time All-Star a year later, and won the first of his four NBA championships and the first of his two MVP awards in 2015.
That was right before he revolutionized basketball.
In 2015-16, Curry made 402 three-pointers – 116 more than the previous year, when he’d set the NBA record for the most in one season. Curry made an average of 5.1 per game (up from 3.6 in 2014-15) at a 45.4 percent clip, averaging 30.1 points for a Golden State Warriors team that went 73-9.
In the seven years since, Curry has averaged 4.7 three-pointers per game, and broke Ray Allen’s career record in December 2021 in 511 fewer games than it took Allen to reach the mark.
The rest of the NBA has followed suit.
Forty-one of the 50 highest individual single-season three-point totals in league history have come since 2015-16, and teams are making an average of 12.8 per game this season on 35.0 attempts, up from 7.8 on 22.4 attempts in 2014-15.
That’s where the parallel between Curry and Clark gets particularly distinct.
Last season, Clark averaged 27.8 points and 3.7 three-pointers, the latter of which led the NCAA. This year, she’s making a staggering 5.3 three-pointers per game, which would shatter the previous women’s record of 4.5 set by Idaho’s Taylor Pierce five years ago.
And then there’s the so-called “logo three” popularized by Curry, who’s average three-point distance has eclipsed 25 feet each of his last eight full seasons, including last year, when his average make was 26 feet 7 inches. Clark’s average distance in 2022-23 was 25 feet 11 inches, and this season she’s attempted 55 per cent of her three-point shots from 25 feet or beyond, making 39.5 per cent from that range – nearly 10 per cent more than the women’s NCAA average.
“No shot is a bad shot if you can shoot it as well as [Clark] can,” Curry told ESPN last year.
Where Clark could really change the women’s game is in the WNBA, where she’s almost certain to join the Indiana Fever as the first pick in April’s draft.
Sabrina Ionescu – the most recent player to enter the league with hype similar to that surrounding Clark – set WNBA records with 128 total three-pointers and an average of 3.6 per game for the New York Liberty. Ionescu was remarkably efficient, shooting 44.9 per cent from deep, but still attempted just 7.9 per game – 5.4 less than Clark is taking with Iowa this season.
“If [Clark] gets drafted by the Fever this summer, I believe she’ll put up MVP-calibre numbers as a rookie,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo tweeted last Saturday.
Lobo, who won a national championship with UConn in 1995 before playing six seasons in the WNBA, knows a thing or two about the transition from college to the pros.
“While her opponents will be at a different skill level than college, her teammates will be at another level as well. Her game translates.”
There’s plenty more at stake for Clark after she passes Plum – whether that comes Sunday in Nebraska or at home against Michigan next Thursday.
Clark is 178 points behind Hall of Famer Pete Maravich, who scored 3,667 at LSU between 1967-1970, for the all-time NCAA scoring record. At her current rate, Clark will eclipse that on Mar. 2, in Iowa’s regular-season finale against Ohio State.
Clark is also about to become the sixth woman in NCAA history to eclipse 1,000 career assists. Currently at 995, she’s on pace to finish with the fourth most, just ahead of Ionescu, if she forfeits her final year of eligibility as expected (Clark, a senior, received an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA’s COVID waiver in 2020-21).
Then there’s the pursuit of something that’s eluded Iowa in its 43-year history, something Clark and the Hawkeyes narrowly missed last year – a national title.
There’s still work to be done.
Despite being 22-2 and ranked second in the nation, Iowa will likely need to run the table at the Big Ten Tournament if it hopes to secure its first No. 1 seed in March since 1992. That means handling fellow conference powers Indiana and Ohio State, the latter of which weathered Clark’s season-high 45 points in an overtime win over the Hawkeyes last month.
“We’re lucky enough to get to play them again,” Clark said after that game. “You can’t hang your head too much. You’ve just got to respond. Every game in the Big Ten is a battle, and that’s what makes it so fun.”
Regardless of how the Big Ten shakes out, Ohio State will be at the NCAA Tournament in March. As will defending champion LSU, top-ranked South Carolina, and perennial powerhouse UConn, led by Paige Bueckers and Canadian standout Aaliyah Edwards. There’s Stanford, and Cameron Brink, who’s widely projected to go second to Clark in this year’s WNBA Draft, and USC, with freshman JuJu Watkins, who scored 51 points – the most by any woman in the NCAA this season – in a win over Brink and the Cardinal last Saturday.
This year’s dance may be the deepest and most balanced in the history of women’s basketball.
For Clark, it’s another chance to steal the spotlight on college basketball’s biggest stage. An opportunity for the greatest scorer in NCAA history to go out as a champion.