Mulkey’s coaching choices in the LSU vs. Iowa matchup have left many scratching their heads

During a highly-anticipated rematch of the 2023 national championship,  LSU’s strategy against Iowa women’s basketball star Caitlin Clark drew criticism after a game that had fans and analysts alike questioning the coaching decisions of LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey. Despite Mulkey’s well-established reputation as a top-tier coach in college basketball, with a career that boasts four national championships, five Final Four appearances, three AP College Basketball Coach of the Year awards and over 700 career wins, her game plan against Clark in the Elite Eight of the 2024 Women’s NCAA Tournament on Monday seemed to be lacking.

Critics such as Ricky O’Donnell of SB Nation have focused on Mulkey’s decision to assign guard Hailey Van Lith, a Louisville transfer who is known for her skill but not for matching Clark’s physicality, the task of defending Clark. This choice, coupled with a refusal to adapt the game plan as Clark continued to dominate, has led to widespread scrutiny of Mulkey’s strategies. Despite LSU’s size and athleticism advantage on the court, Mulkey opted not to employ tactics like trapping Clark in ball screens or deploying double teams, instead relying on a strategy that allowed Clark to excel while aiming to limit her teammates’ effectiveness.

The game, which ended in a 94-87 victory for Iowa, was once again a showcase of Clark’s talent as she racked up 41 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds, making 9-of-20 shots from three-point range. Her performance highlighted her status as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, college players of all time, also having broken four different records during the game, including Diana Taurasi’s 3-point NCAA Tournament record.

Critics question why Kim Mulkey kept Van Lith on Clark

© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The decision to stick with Van Lith on Clark, even as it became clear that the strategy was not working, has been particularly questioned. Van Lith, at 5’7″, faced a significant challenge in guarding the 6-foot Clark, and the defensive setup left her without the necessary support to effectively counter Clark’s performance. Critics argue that LSU had other options, such as Flau’jae Johnson, 5’10”, who could have presented Clark with a more formidable challenge due to her size and athleticism.

“Well, there’s not a lot of strategy. You’ve got to guard her. Nobody else seems to be able to guard her. We didn’t even guard her last year when we beat them,” Mulkey said, per David Suggs of The Sporting News. “She’s just a generational player, and she just makes everybody around her better. That’s what the great ones do.”

Mulkey’s postgame comments suggested a resignation to Clark, who is seemingly unstoppable at the college level. While acknowledging Clark’s impact on the game and her ability to elevate her teammates’ play, the remarks have not alleviated concerns about the lack of strategic adjustments from LSU’s coaching staff. Meanwhile, Van Lith admitted there wasn’t much she could do.

“Caitlin is very skilled. She’s a great player. She hit some tough shots. There’s not a whole lot you can do about some of the threes she hit,” Van Lith said, per Paul Harvey of Saturday Down South.

In the aftermath, the discussion has expanded beyond the game itself, touching on Mulkey’s overall approach and her interactions with players and fans. Despite her significant accomplishments, the game against Iowa has prompted a reevaluation of her strategies, especially in high-stakes situations.

Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic tweeted Tuesday, ” I have slept on it, and I still have no idea what Kim Mulkey was thinking with her approach to Caitlin Clark.”

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