Kim Mulkey’s awful game plan vs. Caitlin Clark is the reason LSU’s season is over

Kim Mulkey’s twisted worldview is easy to criticize. Her coaching acumen is not. The 61-year-old has built one of the greatest head coaching resumes in college basketball history since accepting the Baylor job in 2000: she has four national championships, five Final Four appearances, three AP College Basketball Coach of the Year awards and more than 700 career wins.

By any definition, Mulkey is one of the greatest college basketball coaches of this generation in either the men’s or women’s game. She also absolutely blew it in what may go down as the most anticipated game of her career: a seismic rematch of the 2023 national championship game between her LSU Tigers and Caitlin Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes in the Elite Eight of the 2024 women’s NCAA tournament.

Iowa beat LSU, 94-87, behind another stunning performance from Clark. The superstar guard finished with 41 points, 12 assists, and seven rebounds in the win, draining 9-of-20 shots from three-point range.

It is nearly impossible to stop Clark when she’s playing her best, and this game was the ultimate showcase of her breathtaking talent. From the opening minutes, she was hitting deep pull-up three-pointers, throwing perfect hit-ahead passes to spark the Hawkeyes’ transition offense, and slicing and dicing the LSU defense with her live dribble passing.

This was arguably the greatest college player of all-time completely locked in for a game she waited a full year for. It’s possible no one could have stopped her on Monday night, but one thing is for sure: Mulkey’s rigid, galaxy brain game-plan ensured that Clark was never going to be truly challenged.

While Clark is a supernova of historic proportions, the undeniable truth of the Iowa-LSU rematch is that the Tigers had the size and athleticism advantage all over the court. There was only one player on the floor for LSU who lacked great length and foot speed: guard Hailey Van Lith, who transferred into the program from Louisville over the offseason as one of the most high-profile players in the sport.

For whatever reason, Mulkey decided to have Van Lith defend Clark all night. She decided not to trap Clark in ball screens or throw double teams at her. She decided to have her bigs play drop coverage and leave pull-up three-pointers wide open. To put it another way, Mulkey decided to let Clark ‘get hers’ and make sure the rest of the Hawkeyes didn’t beat LSU. It was incredibly foolish.

Part of being a high-level coach in a single-elimination tournament is adjusting when your initial strategy isn’t working. Mulkey refused to do it until it was too late.

Mulkey could have thrown burgeoning sophomore star Flau’jae Johnson at Clark defensively. She probably didn’t want to do that so Johnson didn’t waste too much energy on defense, because LSU also relied heavily on her offensive contributions (she finished with a team-high 23 points in the win). Mulkey could have switched up her coverages earlier even if she wanted to stick with Van Lith, altering her deep drop for more aggressive blitzes to get the rock out of Clark’s hands.

Instead, she stuck with the same defensive blueprint the entire way. Clark kept torching it.

Van Lith was never going to have the length to challenge Clark’s shots. The 6-foot Clark just shot right over the top of her. At 5’6, Van Lith was the smallest player on the court, and she had the toughest assignment in the basketball world on Monday night. With the bigs staying back, she really had no chance.

These shots are too easy for the greatest shooter the college women’s game has ever seen.

In fairness, Clark was so in the zone that it might not have mattered what LSU did. She ripped this one over 5’11 guard Last-Tear Poa without a problem:

Clark has the same unrelenting competitive spirit that once fueled Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. The Hawkeyes national title game loss to LSU last season haunted her throughout the summer and informed her meteoric senior year. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where she was losing this game.

Of course, basketball is a team sport. If Iowa had the best player, it felt like LSU may have had the second, third, and fourth best players on the floor. In fairness, the rest of the Hawkeyes played extremely well in this game, with Kate Martin scoring 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting and Sydney Affolter finishing with 16 points. Hannah Stuelke held up in the middle against Angel Reese and Co. with eight points and five rebounds. It didn’t help LSU that Reese suffered an ankle injury in the first half and didn’t look 100 percent physically the rest of the game despite returning.

Still, Mulkey built an LSU roster that was loaded with talent, but felt like it underachieved this season. Obviously, Mulkey knows way more ball than me or anyone else criticizing her game plan against Iowa. Mulkey just doesn’t do herself any favors with the way she carries herself. Fans on Twitter were delighted to see Mulkey hold the L.

Van Lith didn’t deserve to be put in that position, especially with rumors that she was fighting an illness coming into the game. Van Lith is an excellent player, but sometimes you are just too small to guard the apex predator in your sport one-on-one. Sometimes, you need help. Mulkey refused to send any, and the Tigers season is over in part because of it.

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