Bradley’s Buzz: This March, women’s hoops will supply the madness

Don’t know about you, but I can’t wait until the big college basketball tournament commences. It should be epic.

Oh, and the men’s event might be pretty good, too.

Today’s missive concerns Caitlin Clark, but not just Caitlin Clark. She has lifted her sport in a way no collegian — not Pete Maravich, not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not Herschel Walker — has ever lifted a sport, but first we must now acknowledge how steep the climb for women’s basketball has been.

Title IX became the law of the land in 1972. There’s was no women’s NCAA Tournament then. For another decade, women’s sports drifted along under the aegis of the AIAW. It stood for “Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women,” and whenever I typed those letters — back in the day, I wrote a bit about the Kentucky Lady Kats, as they were then known — I thought of root beer.

When women finally got their NCAA Tournament, it paled alongside the burgeoning men’s playoff, which took the Magic-Bird final of 1979 and a string of classic finals — North Carolina-Georgetown, N.C. State-Houston, Villanova-Georgetown — and stamped itself as the nation’s most intriguing annual sporting event. We watched not only to see who won but also who blew it, usually Syracuse or Arizona, and who blew up our bracket.

The women’s NCAA wasn’t quite so compelling. There were few upsets. From 1987 through 2016, Connecticut and Tennessee took 19 of the 30 titles. Then things, as things will, changed. Owing to early-onset Alzheimer’s, the great Pat Summitt retired from Rocky Top in 2012. She died four years later. UConn last won eight years ago.

ESPN, which holds the rights to the women’s tournament but not the men’s, began to flex its promotional might. For all of that, it wasn’t until the tournaments of 2021 that the NCAA was shamed into action.

Had Oregon’s Sedona Prince not posted a TikTok video noting the women’s lack of amenities in its San Antonio COVID-19 bubble — as opposed to the men’s in the NCAA’s headquarters city — women’s hoops mightn’t have become the launch pad of which Clark and her contemporaries have availed themselves. The video ran 38 seconds. Those 38 seconds changed college sports.

“If you’re not upset about this problem,” Prince concluded, “then you’re a part of it.” And if you believe we’re making too much of one viral moment, be advised that in 2021, the NCAA only affixed the words “March Madness” to its men’s tournament. That has been remedied. Which brings us to Clark.

The masses began to take note — though she’d always been hard to miss; she averaged 26.6 points as an Iowa freshman — last spring. She led her team to the championship game, where it fell to LSU, prompting the nation’s First Lady to suggest both winner and loser visit to the White House. Even that tone-deaf moment had an effect. Nobody suggested San Diego State, the men’s runner-up, needed to swing by D.C.

Here’s how big Clark is today: After she announced she’s entering the WNBA draft — she’s a senior, but she hasn’t used her COVID year — John Ourand of Puck wrote: “Fox executives considered reaching out to other networks to see if they could come up with an enticing NIL offer that would convince her to stay in the college ranks for one more season.”

Tickets for the 2023 women’s Final Four involving Clark’s Iowa and Angel Reese’s LSU went for more than seats at the men’s event. As excellent as Zach Edey and RJ Davis and Dalton Knecht are, none of them is the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer. Clark is, having surpassed Pistol Pete in a game that set a ratings record for women’s basketball.

The biggest games on the Sunday before Selection Sunday involved women. Clark had a terrible first half — four points — against Nebraska but scored 30 thereafter to lead Iowa to the Big Ten title in overtime. Reese and LSU pushed hard against undefeated South Carolina in an SEC championship game that wound down with the Gamecocks’ Kamilla Cardoso flinging LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson to the floor.

Six players, four from South Carolina, were ejected. “That’s not who we are,” coach Dawn Staley said, but it would be the greatest shock in the history of broadcasting if ESPN didn’t make heavy use of the Cardoso clip these next few weeks. In the pursuit of TV ratings, any publicity is good publicity.

A caveat: In tournaments, nothing is guaranteed. No matter how hard the Worldwide Leader prays, a Final Four involving Clark/Iowa, Cardoso/Carolina and Reese/LSU might not happen. But think if it does.

The above is part of a regular exercise available to all who register on for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes extras like a weekly poll and pithy quotes, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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