Will the Gulf Coast Showcase be Caitlin Clark’s showcase? Or, will it be an opportunity for another statement from Kansas State?
The organizers of the Clean Simple Eats Gulf Coast Showcase, held at Hertz Arena in Estero, FL from Friday, Nov. 24 through Sunday, Nov. 26, have to be pleased with the potential for a rematch between the No. 5 Hawkeyes and No. 16 Wildcats.
The eight-team tournament features first-round games on Friday and semifinal games on Saturday before a championship game on Sunday. All games will available on FloHoops.
No. 18 North Carolina could spoil the Iowa-Kansas State showdown. Most likely, the Wildcats and Tarheels will meet in the semis, an intriguing Big 12-ACC matchup. The well-tested winner probably will see the Hawkeyes in a super-fun championship game, whether it ends up as an opportunity for K-State to take down Iowa for a third-straight time or for the Tarheels to score a rankings-rocking upset of their own. That said, let’s not prematurely count out the hometown team, FGCU. Western Kentucky, Vermont, Delaware and Purdue Fort Wayne complete the tourney field.
Here, we’ll take a look at the four first-round matchups:
No. 16 Kansas State Wildcats (4-0) vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (5-1)
Friday, Nov. 24: 11 a.m. ET, FloHoops
Kansas State is 4-0, and that’s with star senior big Ayoka Lee still rounding into top form after missing all of last season due to knee surgery. The 6-foot-6 Lee leads the Wildcats with 22 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and the Hilltoppers likely have no answer for her. WKU’s tallest players are freshmen: 6-foot-3 Caitlin Staley and 6-foot-3 Jailynn Brill. Neither has played more than 16 minutes in the Hilltoppers’ four games.
Outside of Lee, the Wildcats play with a verve that will present a challenge to the Hilltoppers. As evident in the big win over Iowa, freshman guard Zyanna Walker plays with fearless energy, while Gabby Gregory is a connector with a clutch gene.
No. 18 UNC Tarheels (4-0) vs. Vermont Catamounts (3-1)
Friday, Nov. 24: 1:30 p.m. ET, FloHoops
UNC’s undefeated record does not offer much insight into the ultimate quality of the Tarheels. Outside of a too-close-for-comfort escape against Davidson, UNC has thrashed overmatched teams. They need to do the same against Vermont, setting themselves up, in all likelihood, for a more informative matchup against Kansas State.
Thus far, the Tarheels have received balanced scoring from the foursome of senior guard Deja Kelly, junior big Maria Gakdeng, senior wing Alyssa Ustby and grad guard Lexi Donarski. While Kelly leads the team with 14.2 points per game, the other three all are putting up at least 11.5 points per game. Ustby also is doing everything else for the ‘Heels, posting a team-best 9.5 boards, 3.5 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.
Interestingly, sophomore guard Paulina Paris replaced freshman guard Reniya Kelly in the starting lineup in UNC’s most recent game. For the season, Paris has averaged more minutes per game, seeing 25.8 minutes of court time to Kelly’s 20.0.
FGCU Eagles (3-1) vs. Delaware Blue Hens (1-1)
Friday, Nov. 24: 5 p.m. ET, FloHoops
The Eagles will attempt to ensure the Gulf Coast Showcase championship trophy does not leave southwest Florida. As has been the philosophy under head coach Karl Smesko, the local team again lives and dies with the 3. Take a look at the Eagles’ official roster, where, instead of identified by position, all players are listed as “shooter.” However, the shots have not been falling at the expected rate for the Eagles’ shooters. Currently in the top 10 nationally in total 3s attempted, FGCU has hit only 28.8 percent of their long-range efforts.
A particularly poor performance from deep—5-for-30 for 16.7 percent—resulted in the Eagles scoring just 59 points, including only four in the fourth quarter, to escape with a home win over Kentucky. To dispatch Delaware and then threaten presumed semifinal opponent Iowa, FGCU needs their 3-balls to fall. Redshirt junior Maddie Antenucci and senior Dolly Cairns are the Eagles’ most prolific shooters, attempting 6.8 and 5.8 per game, respectively.
No. 5 Iowa Hawkeyes (4-1) vs. Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons (2-1)
Friday, Nov. 24: 7:30 p.m. ET
If Iowa remains motivated to silence skeptics after their loss to Kansas State, expect this game to get out of hand instantly. The Mastodons, projected to finish fourth in the Horizon League, lack the firepower necessary to hang with the high-flying Hawkeyes. In their season opener, Purdue Fort Wayne fell by 19 points to Michigan.
This should be an opportunity for Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder to give extended opportunities to her reserves. Yes, how far the Hawkeyes go in March largely will depend on Caitlin Clark’s singular brilliance. However, injecting extra confidence in the likes of junior guard Kylie Feuerbach, junior forward Addison O’Grady and sophomore guard Taylor McCabe could pay off in season’s critical moments.