DALLAS — One of the many charms of basketball is that it is a city game and a country game. Games are honed on net-less rims in urban parks and homemade backboards nailed to ancient barns. When the Iowa and LSU women play for the championship of a culturally homogenized and politically divided country Sunday, they will emerge from opposite ends of the sport’s landscape. It will be Midwest against South and East, country against city, mostly white against mostly Black—contrasts that could be combustible in so many places in America but not on a hardwood floor. There, it will just be game against game.
At times, Iowa born-and-raised Caitlin Clark will be guarded by a professional rapper. LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson has a record deal with Roc Nation, and she says that some coaches were wary of recruiting her because they thought she would choose rap over hoop. She is the daughter of another rapper, Camouflage, who was shot to death outside his studio in Savannah, Georgia, the city where Flau’jae grew up. But when Johnson was asked about Clark, a product of Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines, she dropped the opposite of a diss track.
“If I’m guarding Caitlin Clark, I’m gonna play my best defense ever and throw a prayer up at the same time,” Johnson said Saturday. “Watching her play last night in person was different.”
In an era where everybody seems to know everybody from AAU ball, Iowa and LSU have almost no overlap. Hawkeyes Kate Martin and McKenna Warnock said they don’t know any of the Tigers personally. They played against LSU’s Angel Reese and Kateri Poole in the Big Ten—Reese transferred from Maryland and Poole from Ohio State. But that underscores another big difference in how the teams were constructed.
As LSU coach Kim Mulkey reminded reporters and herself Friday night, her team has “Nine new pieces ... nine new pieces.” Mulkey left Baylor for LSU two years ago, took her Hall of Fame credentials with her, and used the transfer portal and recruiting to assemble an almost instant contender. Every one of her starters is new: Johnson, and four transfers.
Iowa has one transfer, Molly Davis, who arrived from Central Michigan last year and has played a total of 13 minutes in Iowa’s last four games. The Hakweyes have had the same starting lineup for three straight years. Clark and Kate Martin are about to make their 100th start together. This could be an advantage for Iowa—“Whatever we've got to do, we know each other super well,” Martin said—but even if it is not a difference in the game, it is certainly a difference in the teams.
Mulkey is an ostentatious dresser and no-fear talker, a coach who could probably win anywhere but belongs in America’s red states. She won three national titles at Baylor and left to win one in her home state of Louisiana. Her current starting five includes a rapper, a star nicknamed Bayou Barbie (Reese), and another who goes by Lex Luthor (Alexis Morris). Mulkey didn’t try to build a team that reminds people sports are supposed to be fun. It just worked out that way.
If you enjoy college basketball more as a free-market enterprise, with players freely seeking the best opportunities for themselves and schools giving chances to players who have made mistakes, then LSU is the team for you. Morris is on her fourth school and her second opportunity from Mulkey, who brought Morris to Baylor, kicked her off the team after two arrests, then brought her to LSU three years later.
Mulkey says Morris should write a book. Iowa could write a children’s book. The opening sentence, courtesy of Coach Lisa Bluder: “We always want to lead the Big Ten in high fives.” Before this year, Bluder never made the Final Four in more than two decades at Iowa, but she also never left for a place where making the Final Four would be easier. She attended high school in Iowa, played college ball at Northern Iowa, and has spent her entire adult life coaching in the state.
Even Hawkeyes who aren’t technically from Iowa are of Iowa. Warnock grew up in Wisconsin, but her mom, Karri, grew up in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa, playing six-on-six basketball, the Tall Corn State’s old, unique version of the girls’ game. In six-on-six, players stay on one side of the halfcourt line and play offense or defense, but nobody plays both. Bluder’s Hawkeyes, like Mulkey’s Tigers, play both. Warnock says “I’ve always wanted to play for coach Bluder.”
The playing styles are different, too. Iowa is more consistent, but LSU at its collective best is more explosive. Clark is the game’s premier offensive guard, but Reese is its most dogged offensive rebounder. She averages 6.5 offensive rebounds per game. “Offensive,” Bluder said Saturday. “Offensive!” It is a preposterous number.
Iowa cannot keep Reese off the boards. LSU cannot keep Clark from scoring. Nobody could keep these two teams from getting here. Iowa and LSU have nothing in common except what matters most: great players who listen to excellent coaching and can’t think of any better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than playing Dr. Naismith’s game. It will be the best of basketball—and the best of basketball.