Iowa's Clark remains calm as center of attention

Mar. 29—ALBANY, N.Y. — It's been a busy week even by Caitlin Clark's lofty standards.

The Iowa superstar received an offer worth $5 million to play against men in rapper Ice Cube's Big 3 three-on-three league this summer. And she earned an invitation to the U.S. national team's training camp next weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, as the team prepares for the Paris Olympics.

Clark didn't have much to say on the former Friday at MVP Arena, but she hopes to respectfully decline the latter.

"To be honest, I found out about the Big 3 thing at the exact time you all did, and my main focus is just on playing basketball," Clark said of the story that went viral on social media Monday. "I think that's the biggest thing. ... USA Basketball is my — that's your dream.

"You always want to grow up and be on the Olympic team, but lucky for me, I have the opportunity of possibly not doing that because I want to be at the Final Four playing basketball with my team."

It feels like Clark is everywhere these days.

She's not just the face of women's basketball but one of the most famous athletes in all of sports.

On Thursday night, Clark and Iowa teammate Katie Martin were watching television in their hotel room when one of the NCAA's all-time leading scorer's many national commercials appeared on the screen.

The roommates simply turned to each other and laughed.

"I just think it's really cool," Martin said of Clark's iconic pop culture status. "I don't know. It just brings more awareness to women's basketball, and it brings more awareness to not only her, but our entire team and Iowa. So I think it's awesome."

The numbers back Martin up.

The Hawkeyes' first two games of this year's NCAA Tournament were the highest-rated women's college basketball games of all time outside of contests in the Final Four or the national championship game.

And they rank second and third all-time for any women's college basketball game behind last year's national final between Iowa and LSU.

Iowa No. 22 jerseys dotted the crowd at MVP Arena for Friday's Albany 1 Regional semifinals even though Clark and the Hawkeyes play in Alabany Regional 2 on Saturday.

And a local youth camp organized in conjunction with the NCAA earlier this week was filled with Clark supporters.

But the attention isn't always so positive.

Clips of Clark arguing with officials and scolding teammates during a second-round win against West Virginia drew responses from fans and detractors alike and provided fodder for the never-ending sports-talk radio cycle.

Clark has long since grown accustomed to being at the eye of the storm.

"I think it's kind of been the same story for me over the course of the (last) two years," Clark said. "It's like I know people are always watching. I know eyeballs are always on me. This is kind of what happens when you are in the spotlight.

"And it's not anything you shy away from. I'm competitive. I'm fiery. That's how it is, and I think that's what has brought me a lot of success. I think, at the same time, it's being able to channel that and use it in the best way."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has been awed by the way Clark has handled being the face of Iowa's team and, really, women's basketball as a whole.

Clark regularly stayed long after home games to sign autographs for young fans, and she's become something of a team spokesperson — answering hard questions from the media before and after nearly every game.

It's a lot to put on the shoulders of any 22-year-old, but Clark seems like a natural in the role.

"I completely trust her maturity," Bluder said. "She is extremely mature, has handled every situation that's been thrown at her, and she's had a lot of different situations thrown at her. She's handled them all beautifully."

Clark hasn't played in front of an empty seat this season — home or away — a streak that's expected to continue in front of 15,500 fans Saturday when the top-seeded Hawkeyes (31-4) face No. 5 seed Colorado (24-9) for a spot in the Elite Eight.

But it's not just Iowa benefitting from the attention Clark has brought to the sport.

ESPN reported viewership of non-Iowa tournament games is up 74% over last year, and there is a star-studded cast in Albany alone.

Before Friday's semifinals, the cast on this side of the bracket included defending national champion LSU, unbeaten and top-ranked South Carolina, one of the game's most electrifying freshmen in Notre Dame's Hannah Hildalgo, an Indiana team that's been among the nation's finest the past four seasons and three teams from the Pac-12 — Oregon State, UCLA and Colorado — in the final year of the conference as it's been traditionally configured.

Clark's proud of the growth of the women's game and her role in helping to accelerate it.

But the weekend aim is simple in her eyes.

The Hawkeyes are playing for a national championship they fell one step short of claiming a year ago. Despite the noise all around her, the competition on the court is all that matters.

"We just had a practice, we play (Saturday) and that's really all you're guaranteed," Clark said. "You're trying to go out there and win and fight for another day, and I think ... we don't want this to end.

"We love coming to practice. We love playing games with each other. You want to soak it in and keep extending it out."