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Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson was in primetime and for a national championship. Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark is a third-round game in the NCAA Tournament on a Saturday afternoon and arguably means every bit as much to college basketball, a sport that has been hit hard by the pandemic.

So, the University of Connecticut vs. Iowa in the women’s college basketball tournament is about more than the continuation of UConn’s pursuit of a 12th NCAA championship.

The women’s NCAA Tournament gets its chance to shine

Let’s be honest: Duke University didn’t make the field in the men’s NCAA Tournament, so we’re pretty much fresh out of players to despise. Kentucky didn’t get there either, so there isn’t a team to vilify.

Throw in a ridiculous number of upsets in the first two rounds of the tournament last weekend and we’re left with some interesting matchups – Houston shooting 3-pointers over the Syracuse zone and crashing the boards hard, for instance – but nothing compelling.

In truth, men’s basketball is coach-driven anyway. The top players leave for the NBA after one season. This year, we barely got to know very many of them because the pandemic shortened schedules and then created postponements and cancellations. We’re left with a largely nameless, faceless tourney.

Fortunately, the women’s tournament has given basketball fans a delightful Sweet 16 game. Paige Bueckers (UConn) and Caitlin Clark (Iowa) are the two best freshmen in the country. In fact, they may be the sport’s two best players, period. Having them go head-to-head Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ABC gives the women – consistently shortchanged in exposure — a much-needed boost.

Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark will be the weekend’s best NCAA Tournament matchup

Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark are do-it-all playmakers hailing from the Midwest. They’re the only Division I players in the country to average 19 points and six assists this season. They’re also the only freshmen to earn AP All-America honors.

What makes this NCAA Tournament matchup between the two when UConn battles Iowa more intriguing than usual is that Buckers and Clark grew up close enough to each other to have played with and against each other coming up through the AAU and USA Basketball ranks.

Bueckers attended high school in Hopkins, Minnesota, where she was named the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior after her team’s 30-0 season. She has won multiple gold medals with Team USA and has justified her status as the nation’s top-ranked recruit coming out of high school.

Clark was the No. 4 ranked recruit in her senior class while playing in West Des Moines, Iowa, where she picked up the statewide Gatorade Player of the Year award. She teamed with Bueckers to help capture gold for Team USA in the 2017 FIBA U16 Americas Tournament and the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup Tournament.

Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark, by the numbers

Iowa freshman guard Caitlin Clark led NCAA Division I in scoring at 26.8 points a game, hitting for 30 or more a dozen times. She also averaged six rebounds and better than seven assists.

UConn freshman guard Paige Bueckers is the fourth freshman in Huskies history to score 500 points in a season. She averaged 19.9 points, six assists, and nearly five rebounds a contest. She also shot an astonishing 46.7% from 3-point range.

Only one can come out of the Sweet 16 as the victor, but all basketball fans are winners just by being able to witness the first of what hopefully will be multiple matchups between two enormous talents.

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