Caitlin vs. Angel: The rivalry that supercharged women's basketball

On3 imageby:Eric Prisbell04/01/24

EricPrisbell

Caitlin Clark Pre-lsu (Part I)

As the Men’s NCAA Tournament looks increasingly like a UConn coronation, the women’s field prepares for a can’t-miss clash of the titans, a rematch that has been a year in the making.

Iowa vs. LSUCaitlin vs. Angel. Enough said.

We’re now on a first-name basis with the cavalcade of elite, marketable women’s players, almost all of whom are still alive in March Madness. Come for the stars, stay for the storylines, which are rich and plentiful.

In a rematch of last year’s national title game – a watershed moment for the women’s game – Angel Reese’s Tigers will need to end the college career of a seminal talent in Caitlin Clark to continue their quest to repeat.

“You’ve got two very talented players that have brought a lot of attention to our sport,” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said Sunday. “They both trash talk. They both make their teammates better. They both have their teammates’ backs. They have both elevated our game to where we have people watching that never watched women’s basketball before.”

The only shame in it? That tonight’s Elite Eight matchup on ESPN doesn’t come a round or two later. Regardless, expect it to set a new pre-Final Four viewing record for women’s basketball.

“We talk about growing the game,” Mulkey said. “Didn’t that national championship game have the highest ratings ever in women’s basketball? You’re probably going to anticipate this one will, too, but it needs to be at the Final Four.”

LSU’s 102-85 victory over Iowa attracted 9.9 million viewers on ABC, making it the most-viewed women’s game in history. Since then, the women’s game has continued to flourish.

Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese not only stars on display

Ever think you’d hear two former NBA greats say this?

“Is this the first time we’re watching college basketball where I know more girls than guys?” Kevin Garnett asked Paul Pierce on his recent “Ticket & The Truth” podcast. “Name five guys in college.”

Pierce: “I don’t even know who the top [men’s] player in college is.”

Garnett: “Women’s college basketball is [expletive] electric. It is blowing the guys’ game out of the water.”

While LSU-Iowa is the main attraction, the latter portion of Monday’s doubleheader – third-seeded UConn vs. top-seeded USC – is another blockbuster, star-studded showcase: Paige Bueckers vs. JuJu Watkins.

“If I was just a basketball fan in general, I’d be glued to the TV like no other,” Caitlin Clark said. “Women’s basketball fans know how special and cool this moment will be. I think the viewership numbers will show that.”

‘It’s the best time to be a female athlete’

Neal Pilson served two stints as CBS Sports president in the 1980s and 1990s as its coveted property, the men’s tournament, surged in popularity. Pilson told On3 that the women’s game and broadcast partners have wisely capitalized on promoting individual stars, much like the NBA has long prioritized (Lebron vs. Steph, for instance).

“Such promotion is very effective with viewers,” Pilson said.

On Sunday, Reese fielded a question referencing the iconic 1979 men’s basketball national title game matchup between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two rivals linked ever since. It’s tempting to make the same comparison with Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark.

But let’s just enjoy and appreciate the rivalry for what it is: One that is supercharging women’s basketball in real-time, with the next must-see chapter on tap tonight.

“It’s the best time to be a female athlete,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I think definitely those two players have had something to do with it. This is not like the pinnacle in my opinion. This is just the start of it, and I just hope we keep getting the momentum that we need.”