UConn's Geno Auriemma will be coaching in his 27th straight Sweet 16 on Saturday, but his first game in this women's NCAA Tournament.
Auriemma spent the first two rounds back home in Connecticut, self-isolating after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
“Sitting at home and knowing that you're not part of it, but you're trying to be a part of it, yeah, it's a most unusual feeling,” he said.
The Hall of Famer returns just in time to get a close-up view of Saturday's battle between the nation's most heralded freshmen, UConn's Paige Bueckers and Iowa's Caitlin Clark.
“It’s been a while since you have two kids that have had this kind of an impact, both on their teams and on the game itself nationally,” Auriemma said Thursday. “To have one is kind of cool. To have two and to be so alike in so many ways? And yet unfortunately, they’re going to be put in a situation where it’s like a big football game, where they say it’s Brady versus Aaron Rogers. It couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Clark, the nation's leading scorer at almost 27 points per game, has put up a total of 58 points in the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes victories over Central Michigan and Kentucky.
“I’ve known Caitlin since really young middle school ages and she’s been doing this her whole life,“ Bueckers said. ”I mean, scoring 30 points in one half. It’s surprising to a lot of people, but that’s just the high standard she’s been living up to her whole life.
Bueckers, a national player of the year candidate, has had a pretty good tournament herself, scoring 44 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and dishing out 10 assists in the Huskies’ blowout wins in San Antonio.
“We'll try to run a lot of different things at her, but UConn has more than just Paige and that's the biggest thing,” Clark said. “You've got to control the rest of the team too. Obviously that's one of our main focuses is on her, but they have so many talented players, so its going to be a whole team effort on every single person they have.”
Other players to watch: Top-seeded UConn also has been getting strong performances during the tournament from another freshman, forward Aaliyah Edwards (36 points, 17 rebounds in two games) and junior center Olivia Nelson-Ododa (39 points, 15 rebounds).
The Huskies will count on that duo's defense to contain Iowa's Monika Czinano, who is shooting a nation's best 67% from the floor and has 37 points and has 14 rebounds through two games.
The X factor: UConn starting guard Niki Muhl suffered a sprained right ankle in the Huskies opening round win. The Huskies say she's questionable for Saturday's game.
Time: 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Saturday's second semifinal in the River Walk regional also features a marquee one-on-one matchup, this one on the inside.
National player of the year candidate Nylyssa Smith and the No. 2 seed Baylor Lady Bears will be facing No. 6 seed Michigan and Big Ten player of the year Naz Hillmon, Smith's former USA basketball teammate.
Smith has averaged 18.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game for the Lady Bears. She scored 33 points and pulled down 14 boards in the first two games in San Antonio.
Hillmon comes in averaging 24.6 points per game and put up 50 points earlier this season in a game against Ohio State. She has averaged 16.5 points and 14 rebounds in the Wolverines two tournament games.
“We know the biggest challenge is going to be Naz,” Smith said. “We are looking at how to guard her, different ways of helping, just different ways to shut her down.”
The Lady Bears (26-2) won their first two games by 49 and and 42 points and are playing in their 12th straight Sweet 16.
Michigan which beat Florida Gulf Coast by 21 before upsetting Tennessee, 70-55 and will be playing in its first.
Other players to watch: Michigan's Leigha Brown, who missed 35 days this season because of coronavirus-related issues, including her own bout with COVID-19, has been on a tear in the tournament, scoring 28 points against FGCU and 23 against Tennessee. Baylor's Moon Ursin, who averaged just over 12 points in the regular season put up 24 and 21 in her first two tournament games.
The X Factor: For the first time during the tournament, some fans will be allowed inside the Alamo Dome. Though limited to 17% of the arena's capacity (about 2,700 fans), the addition of spectators is expected to create a home-court advantage for Baylor.
The two teams met in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament on Baylor's home court in Waco, Texas. That game ended in a 80-58 Baylor rout.
“Having the opportunity to play there in the NCAA Tournament, I know what their fan base is like,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "I know how passionate they are and I know how much they will travel, especially in the state of Texas to have an opportunity to watch Baylor compete for a national championship.”
Time: 3 p.m. ET, ABC