Caitlin. Angel. Paige.
It’s been a long time coming, but women’s college basketball is now full of first-name megastars and a growing national audience.
And the NCAA season, which begins Monday with unprecedented hype and questions about the tradeoffs between college and professional play, will center around the talents of these three crossover luminaries with silky-smooth on-court touches and social media handles to match. Turn handles.
Iowa sharpshooter Caitlin Clark, the reigning national player of the year, changed the game last season with her logo 3-pointers and showmanship — then miraculously reached a higher level in March.
She posted her first 40-point triple-double of the tournament in the Elite Eight and finished the tournament with an NCAA Tournament record for most points scored (191).
With her current scoring average of 27.2 points per game, Clark is on pace to surpass the Division I record of 3,527 points set by Washington’s Kelsey Plum in her 30th game this season.
The interest is certainly huge. Clark and Iowa have already drawn more than 55,000 fans to the campus football stadium for a preseason exhibition game.
“I think if someone can handle it, she can handle it,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder recently told ESPN. “The stars were just right for her. She came to the right place at the right time. With NIL he became one of the faces of college basketball.”
Another of those faces belongs to LSU firebrand Angel Reese, a double-double machine (34 in 36 games last season) who sparked a week full of subtext-rich hot takes when he put Clark over in the final minutes of the Tigers’ win Iowa mocked in the 2023 national championship game in front of a record-breaking TV audience.
“I love Caitlin. We’ve been competing since we’ve been in AAU,” Reese said at LSU’s media day last month. “It was always fun, it was always competitive. …The world will always have a good girl and a bad girl. I expect I’ll be the bad guy because I know I’ve promoted women’s basketball and inspired people.”
Kim Mulkey prepared for No. 1 LSU’s preseason title defense by courting the portal’s top two transfers – combo guard Hailey Van Lith and forward Aneesah Morrow – to share the spotlight (and touches) with Reese split. Did someone say super team?
And don’t forget UConn point guard Paige Bueckers. After all, Bückers’ star was the brightest of all just two years ago.
But after winning player of the year as a freshman in 2020-21, Bueckers missed significant time as a sophomore with a left knee injury and all of last season with a torn ACL. Now she’s back – and the Huskies mean business.
“Paige is a better basketball player now than she was when she was national player of the year,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma recently told reporters. “She’s bigger. She is stronger. She feels more confident. … She has more of a lead today than she did back then.”
Now quickly: Try to name the three best or most renowned men’s players in college basketball this season. And no, “the big guy from Purdue” doesn’t count.
Where women’s college basketball was once defined by the name on the front of the jerseys — or sometimes by the names of the Titans patrolling the sidelines: Auriemma, Mulkey, Pat Summitt — it is increasingly about the names on the back , their slick games and Madison Avenue-ready personas.
Reese, Clark and Bueckers have premium sponsorship portfolios and NIL ratings surpassed by few non-football athletes in the country.
That removes much of the financial incentive to turn pro — and in some ways, like travel, the conditions would worsen — so what will these three do if they qualify for the 2024 WNBA Draft?
Along with projected freshmen like Stanford’s Cameron Brink and South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, they are each eligible for a fifth COVID year to remain in school through 2025 (Bueckers may have two more years due to her injury).
Neither has committed one way or the other, despite Clark’s recent remark about “soaking[ing] in every second” could have been a clue.
They have come together to promote the sport of women’s college basketball.
They’re vying for more hardware in what could be the most competitive season ever. Now add a delicious “Will she stay or will she go?” The background to their heroic deeds – and the temptation to reach the top.