On the rise, Big Ten eyes women's NCAA tourney breakthrough
MILWAUKEE - Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark has looked over the women's NCAA Tournament bracket, eyed the potential matchups facing her second-seeded Hawkeyes and the rest of their Big Ten brethern, and come to a rather optimistic conclusion.
"The Big Ten can certainly place two in the Final Four," she said. "I don’t think that’s a stretch by any means."
Just one would end a long dry spell.
In an almost impossible amalgamation of bad luck, poor draws and underachieving basketball, the Power 5 conference — with its big budgets and high-profile programs — has only advanced a women's team to the national semifinals once since 2005, and that was league newcomer Maryland in 2015. And it's been since 1999, when Katie Douglas and Stephanie White-McCarty led Purdue to a national title win over Duke, that the league crowned its only NCAA champion.
"Understand, we've played some of the best teams in America all year long. The Big Ten is loaded — Maryland, Ohio State, Indiana, all of us top-three seeds" said Clark, a two-time first-team All-American and the nation's third-leading scorer. "It has shown how our conference has really grown on the national stage. We need to use that as a confidence-builder."
That might be the only thing lacking from the Big Ten right now: confidence.
The league certainly has star power.
Clark was joined on the All-America first team by Mackenzie Holmes, who led Indiana to the Big Ten regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in its region. Diamond Miller of Maryland, the No. 2 seed in its region, was voted second-team All-American. Four others in the tournament — Indiana’s Grace Berger, Michigan standout Leigha Brown, Makira Cook of Illinois and Iowa’s Monika Czinano — earned honorable mention honors this week.
It also has better depth. Better coaching. And better support. Indiana and Purdue sold out both their games this season, the first time the Hoosiers have done it at Assembly Hall, and their game against Iowa in Iowa City was an early sellout, too.
"This time of year, after you've been beating each other up all season long, you are all Big Ten," Maryland coach Brenda Freese said, "and you want each and every team to move through the bracket as far as possible.
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"The conference really prepared us for now, to see so many teams are hosting," added Frese, who led the Terrapins to the national title in 2006, when they were still part of the ACC. "But now, just understand that each and every team has to, you know, continue to use what we did during the conference slate and take this into this tournament."
The testing began before the Big Ten schedule for most of its teams.
The Terps were blown out by No. 1 South Carolina in November but also beat top-10 teams UConn and Notre Dame. The Hoosiers earned ranked wins over Tennessee and North Carolina. Iowa lost a competitive game to the Huskies and beat Iowa State. Ohio State also beat the Vols along with Louisville during the nonconference portion of its schedule.
The Big Ten beat ‘em in November and December. There's no reason to believe it can’t beat 'em in March.
"The Big Ten is kind of a different conference when it comes to physicality, strength, athleticism," said Brown, whose No. 6 seed Wolverines played UNLV on Friday. "So I think just really being able to use that to our advantage, yeah, and it's just a matter of really coming out of the gates just really ready to go and really taking it to them."
The Hoosiers, of course, should have the easiest road to the Final Four. They open the tournament Saturday and should be heavily favored all the way to the Elite Eight, where they could run into No. 2 seed Utah or No. 3 seed LSU.
Iowa opened Friday against Southeastern Louisiana with a favorable path to a regional final against Stanford, and fellow No. 2 seed Maryland is aiming for a shot against the top-ranked Gamecocks for a spot in the Final Four.
The third-seeded Buckeyes have the toughest road to Dallas in a region with No. seed Virginia Tech and No. 2 seed UConn.
"I think now we have teams, A, good enough to be there and B, maybe a path to get there," Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said. "Sometimes the path is not as easy. Sometimes you get a good seed, but it comes down to matchups a lot of times over seed, and I feel like this year, maybe some of us have a good path to get there as well.
"I’m excited about this opportunity," added Bluder, who got the Hawkeyes to the Elite Eight in 2019. "I think that the Big Ten has proved over and over this year how good this conference is. You know, I think this could definitely be the year."
AP Sports Writers Noah Trister in College Park, Maryland; Mike Marot in Bloomington, Indiana; Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Associated Press writer John Bohnencamp in Iowa City, Iowa, contributed to this report.