By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Caitlin Clark sort of mirrors her team when it comes to playing defense.
Because for both, it’s an area that needs to improve.
Clark has had to carry such an extensive load on offense ever since she started playing basketball to where her defensive deficiencies sometimes gets overlooked or dismissed.
That was certainly the case for Clark in high school at West Des Moines Dowling, and during her freshman season with the Iowa women’s basketball team.
Clark led the nation in scoring as a freshman last season with a 26.6 per-game average, while her team averaged 86.1 points per game.
The object of the game is to outscore your opponent and Iowa has excelled in doing that as evidenced by having made the NCAA Sweet 16 in two of the past three seasons, including last season with the 6-foot Clark leading the way at point guard.
However, a lack of defense is ultimately what doomed the Hawkeyes as they were pounded by Connecticut 92-72 in the Sweet 16.
Iowa also lost twice last season to Big Ten regular-season champion Maryland by scores of 111-93 in the regular season and 104-84 in the Big Ten Tournament.
“Really caring more and then, obviously, there’s some technical things we changed, just our coaches going back last year and watching games that we struggled,” Clark said at Iowa’s annual media day event on Thursday. “Or even watching games of other teams that were super good on defense and just trying to take certain techniques and certain things that they did and kind of implement them into our defense.”
Clark admitted on Thursday that defense wasn’t a point of emphasis for her in high school.
“Honestly, probably not enough, but at the same time I played the entire game and had to save a lot of energy for offense,” she said. “So, it was little different then for me. I really didn’t guard the best player all the time. I did, sometimes, but high school was just so different because so much was expected of me on offense.
“Well, here, I have such great teammates.”
Defense was without question the main narrative being pushed at media day on Thursday, starting with head coach Lisa Bluder’s opening statement.
“We have a pretty good recipe for offensive success, but as you know, our defense needs to improve, and that’s been a point of emphasis since we started our workouts in the summer,” Bluder said. “Rebounding and defense need to improve.”
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Iowa’s defensive woes still hasn’t stopped the hype from building around the current team, which is ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll.
Clark and her cohorts like to push the pace on offense, score in transition and shoot from 3-point range.
And while it’s entertaining to watch, it’s still only half of the game.
For Iowa to become elite, the performance, and the effort, on defense will have to improve.
And it starts with wanting to play defense and making it a priority.
“I think it’s just getting better as a whole, anything we can do,” said All-Big Ten senior center Monika Czinano. “We’ve had practices where we worked on offense for ten minutes and all the rest of it was defense.
“I think we’re really preparing ourselves the best we can in that aspect.”
Czinano agreed with Clark that a major part of playing defense is caring about it.
“Oh yeah, I think a lot of it is just switching our focus a little bit,” said Czinano, who led the nation in field-goal percentage last season at 66.8 percent. “We’re so offensive oriented as you can see.
“But I think a lot of it was knowing that in order for us to go far, we need to take defense way more seriously than we ever have and just kind of flipping the mindset.”
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Iowa already has been bitten by the injury bug as backup sophomore center Sharon Goodman and sophomore forward Shateah Wetering both will miss the season due to knee injuries.
Both players figured to be in the rotation, so their losses will hurt Iowa’s depth, which could have an impact on defense.
“Both of those players would have fit into our playing rotations this year, and obviously those injuries hurt our depth,” Bluder said. “But there’s still so many reasons to be excited about this basketball team.”
The addition of Iowa State transfer Kylie Feuerbach, a 6-0 guard, is one of the reasons to be excited. She played extensively for Iowa State as a freshman last season, and should help on both ends of the court.
“That’s an amazing experience that she’s already had, but she hasn’t had the Iowa experience yet,” Bluder said of Feuerbach. “She’s like a freshman coming in as far as knowing our offense and defensive schemes.
“She does have the experience, but she still has learning to do as far as how we run our system over here. But she’s going to be tremendous. I’m very excited about having Kylie on our team.”
With Clark and the 6-3 Czinano, Iowa has one of the top inside-outside combinations in the county, let alone in the Big Ten.
Bluder also had high praise for junior guard Kate Martin, calling her maybe the most improved returning starter on the team.
And that’s saying a lot since Iowa returns all five starters, including junior forward McKenna Warnock and junior guard Gabbie Marshall.
“Kate is the glue,” Bluder said. “Kate is one of the best leaders that I’ve ever been around, and that’s over quite a few years, so I’m very happy with Kate. She’s been a very versatile player for us and playing a number of positions, as well, because we really need to have Kate on the floor for us.”
All the players look forward to playing in front of fans again after having that taken away last season due to global pandemic.
Clark fed off the energy from fans in high school, even those who cheered against her.
And she is eager to get the same boost in college.
“Dowling was usually pretty packed full with fans and we played a lot of good teams around the Des Moines metro and the gym would be pretty full,” Clark said. “So, it’s definitely something I feed off of, even if they’re booing against me, I like that, too.”
But even with the support of fans, how far this Iowa team goes will depend largely on how much it improves on defense.
“We did make some schematic changes, a few things, but also it’s just kind of more of an emphasis,” Bluder said. “A buy-in from the players that I think they understand that we got to the Sweet 16 with a tremendous offense, but we could have gone farther if we had had a good defense, as well. They want to go farther. They know that’s what’s hindering us from making that advancement. I think the buy-in from them is also very key.”