ALBANY, N.Y. — It truly feels like Christmas morning.

There’s no other accurate way to describe the level of anticipation here ahead of Iowa-LSU’s Elite Eight matchup, a rematch of last year’s record-setting national championship game featuring the sport’s two biggest stars in Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. But that’s not all that’s happening. JuJu Watkins and USC will take on Paige Bueckers and UConn in Portland as the nightcap.

Four superstars. Two Final Four berths are on the line. One history-making day for women’s basketball on tap.

“If I were a basketball fan, I’d be glued to the TV,” Clark said.

“RIP to the viewership numbers,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “It’s going to crush everything.”

Though both games will be broadcast on ESPN, and not ABC, it seems likely that at least one — cough, Iowa versus LSU — will break the viewership record for a non-Final Four game in the women’s NCAA Tournament. Iowa’s win over West Virginia in the second round last weekend shattered the previous record (set two days prior in the Hawkeyes’ first-round win over Holy Cross) with an average of 4.9 million viewers. You could make a compelling argument that Monday’s rematch is the most highly anticipated game in women’s basketball since the 2004 championship game between UConn and Tennessee. Or at the very least, it’s the most-anticipated women’s matchup since, well, last year.

As we all know, the last time Clark and Reese faced off, a whopping 9.9 million viewers tuned in. So, yeah, people will be interested in the rematch. But they should stick around to see the stars in the second half of the doubleheader, too.

As a freshman in 2020-21, Bueckers took home all the National Player of the Year honors. Then, she suffered a knee injury that forced her to miss two months the next season, and an ACL tear kept her out for the entire 2022-23 season. Now, she’s healthy (though so many others on her team are not!) and back to her spectacular self, going up against this year’s freshman sensation in Watkins. They’ll likely share top billing as the sport’s biggest stars next season.

“Star power drives narratives in athletics,” Gottlieb said. “It’s why the NBA took off, when there were faces to it, going all the way back to Magic (Johnson) and Larry (Bird) and then Michael Jordan.”

The 2023 championship game between Clark and Reese has received parallels to the Magic-Bird 1979 men’s title game. It felt like a watershed moment for the sport, but a year later, it’s probably more accurate to call it just the beginning. It introduced millions of people to a couple of superstars and their trash-talking, gave us a new rivalry and then returned all the key players to the sport for another season. Then, Bueckers returned from her knee injury, and an incredibly talented freshman class showed up and showed out in places like Columbia, S.C.; South Bend, Ind.; and Austin, Texas. Watkins has stood out even among such a talented crowd.



It’s LSU vs. Iowa. There’ll be trash-talking — get over it

“Paige and JuJu have both been able to have amazing seasons, and I’ve been able to watch as much as I can,” Clark said. “I’m pretty busy, but I love turning them on as much as I can — especially JuJu. What she’s been able to do for that program as a freshman to come in and lead them to the Elite Eight with a chance to go to the Final Four is unreal, it’s unheard of. She’s so special.

“Women’s basketball fans know how special and cool this moment will be. I think the viewership numbers will show that. … More than anything, it’s just great for our game. I’m lucky to be a part of it.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma pointed out that one of the advantages the women’s game has over the men right now is the lack of a one-and-done rule. Players have to stay until they graduate (or until they turn 22 the year of that season’s WNBA Draft), and fans get to know them. We get to see these players grow up before our eyes.

“It’s kids that have hung in there for three or four years and made their mark on their school and on their sport,” he said. “It can showcase all that’s possible if everybody just buys in and hangs in there and grows with their team.”

There is, of course, one very famous coach and one very successful program missing from Monday’s must-see doubleheader: Dawn Staley and her undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks. They’ve already punched their ticket to Cleveland after beating Oregon State in Albany on Sunday to advance to the Final Four along with third-seeded NC State, which won in Portland. The only two teams left on-site in Albany are Iowa and LSU.

So, no one is talking about South Carolina on Monday, which is fine by Staley.

“Go ahead, take the spotlight, put it somewhere else,” Staley said, smiling. “Let this team continue to thrive in the space that they’re given. Hopefully at the end of the day, next week this time, I’m hoping that we give a lot of people a lot to talk about.

“Now that we’ve won, I’m going to sit back and I’m going to enjoy it like everybody else. Probably millions and millions of people are going to tune into that game, and I’m going to be one of them. I don’t have Nielsen ratings in my house, but you can count me in to watch that game.”

(Photos of Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers and JuJu Watkins: Greg Nelson / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images, Steph Chambers / Getty Images, Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)


Source link