Iowa State's Caitlin Clark has a tough road back to the Final Four

Possible opponents could be Kansas State, which beat Iowa earlier this season, LSU, UCLA, Southern California and South Carolina.

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If Kaitlyn Clark leaves Iowa with a national title, she'll get every bit of it.

The NCAA Tournament selection committee did Clark and the Hawkeyes no favors Women's bow Which was released Sunday night. Sure, they're the No. 1 seed, as expected. They will host the first and second rounds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where they have lost both games the past two seasons. They're in the Albany Regional, which is an easier trip for their die-hard fans than the other regional in Portland, Oregon.

But the actual games? Woof.

There's a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas State, which Iowa has played twice this season, losing at home and winning on a neutral field. A rematch of last year's national title game against LSU in the regional final looms. If it's not Angel Reese and the Tigers, it's likely No. 2 seed UCLA, which is battle-tested after a painful Pac-12 season.

And that's all before the Final Four!

If Clark and the Hawkeyes make it to Cleveland, Southern Cal and freshman JoJo Watkins will likely be waiting. Earn a spot in the title game, and there's a good chance their opponent will be No. 1 overall seed South Carolina, which will be eager to get some payback after Clark beat the Gamecocks in last year's Final Four.

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So yeah, enjoy it.

“They've had the hardest road in my opinion. This is the hardest road,” ESPN analyst Andrea Carter said during the selection presentation while Rebecca Lobo agreed.

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This at least answers the question of whether the committee is playing a preferential role. If that were the case, the committee would have made sure that Clark and Iowa had a direct shot at reaching Cleveland — and I don't mean via Interstates 80 and 90.

“We're not trying to have specific matchups or anything like that,” Lisa Peterson, chair of the selection committee, said after the bracket was released. “I know what it looks like now, but when we're there, we don't see them that way. We just arrange them in numerical order.”

Frankly, no one would have blamed the committee had it tried to give Clark and Iowa an easier path.

Clark has been the most exciting player in college basketball this season. She captivated hoops heads and casual fans alike with her assault on the record books, and they kept sticking around to see what else she could accomplish. Its final four games attracted more than 1 million viewers each, with the regular season finale where it surpassed Pete Maravich to become college basketball's all-time leading scorer and the Big Ten Tournament title game averaged more than 3 million viewers.

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Celebrities want to see her, and little kids want to be like her. Why doesn't the committee want this to continue for as long as possible?

Because it can't, first of all. The top four seeds from the same conference should be in different brackets, and the Pac-12 has twisted things around by having four of them: Southern California, the No. 1 seed; No. 2 seeds UCLA and Stanford; Three-seed Oregon. This was an important factor in how the committee put all of these cut pieces together to create the prop.

But most importantly, the women's game does not need support. Clarke is a certified supernova, but there's a lot of compelling stuff going on beyond her.

There are plenty of storylines and stars throughout this year's field. South Carolina is trying – once again – to complete an undefeated season. There's the “next generation,” with Notre Dame's Hanna Hidalgo, South Carolina's Mylaysia Folwile and Texas' Madison Booker joining Watkins as freshman phenoms. UConn and Paige Bueckers have been under the radar due to injuries and inconsistency, but have made their way through the Big East Tournament.

And don't forget the animated TV series starring Kim Mulkey and her LSU team.

Yes, the tournament hype would be a bit muted if Clark and Iowa weren't in Cleveland. But there's a really easy way around that. Clark and Iowa will have to win.

It's largely forgotten now, but few gave the Hawkeyes a chance last year against South Carolina. The Gamecocks had a 42-game winning streak heading into the Final Four, with all but a few winning by double digits. South Carolina was bigger and more experienced, having won the national title the previous season.

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Clark wasn't bothered in the least. She dropped 41 points on South Carolina and also dished out eight assists. Of Iowa State's 28 field goals, she made or assisted on all but five. She played 38 minutes despite picking up her second foul with 8:17 left in the second quarter. Any time South Carolina tried to pull away, Clark did brutal work to put the Gamecocks back.

Iowa State was also not a favorite in the Big Ten Tournament this month, having finished second in the regular season to Ohio State. But in the final against Nebraska, the team that had beaten Iowa a month earlier, Clark chased down the Cornhuskers almost single-handedly to force overtime, and Iowa clinched its third straight tournament title.

She has ice in her veins, that one, and the higher the stakes, the better Clarke will do. It will have to do it again in the NCAA Tournament because Iowa's path to the title is not easy. It's anything but.

Email Nancy Armor at [email protected] or follow her on social media @nrarmour

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