Caitlin. Angel. Paige.
It’s been a long time coming, but women’s college basketball is now loaded with megastars on a first-name basis with a growing national audience.
And the NCAA season, which begins Monday to unrivaled hype and with unprecedented questions about the tradeoffs of the college and pro games, will revolve around the talents of these three crossover luminaries with silky handles on the court and social media handles to match.
Iowa sharpshooter Caitlin Clark, the reigning national player of the year, transformed the sport last season with her logo 3-pointers and showmanship — then miraculously leveled up in March.
She woofed her way to the tourney’s first 40-point triple-double in the Elite Eight and finished with an NCAA Tournament record, for men or women, for most points scored (191).
At her current rate of 27.2 points per game, Clark is on pace to eclipse the Division I scoring record of 3,527 set by Washington’s Kelsey Plum in her 30th game this season.
The interest is sure to be immense. Already, Clark and Iowa drew 55,000-plus fans to the campus football stadium for a preseason exhibition game.
“I think if anybody can handle it, she can handle it,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder recently told ESPN. “The stars lined up right for her. She came around at the right time in the right place. With NIL, with becoming one of the faces of college basketball.”
Another one of those faces belongs to LSU firebrand Angel Reese, a double-double machine (34 in 36 games last season) who ignited a week of subtext-rich hot takes when she taunted Clark in the closing minutes of the Tigers’ victory over Iowa in the 2023 national championship game in front of a record-setting TV audience.
“I love Caitlin. We’ve been competing since we were in AAU,” Reese said last month at LSU’s media day. “It was always fun, always competitive. … The world is always going to have a good girl and a bad girl. I’ll take that I’m going to be the bad guy because I know I’ve grown women’s basketball and inspired people.”
Kim Mulkey reloaded for preseason No. 1 LSU’s title defense by wooing the portal’s top two transfers — combo guard Hailey Van Lith and forward Aneesah Morrow — to share the spotlight (and touches) with Reese. Did someone say superteam?
And don’t forget about UConn point guard Paige Bueckers. After all, just two years ago Bueckers’ star was the brightest of the bunch.
But after winning player of the year as a freshman in 2020-21, Bueckers missed significant time as a sophomore due to a left knee injury and all of last season because of 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’s stronger. She feels more confident. … She has more of an edge now than she had back then.”
Now, quick: 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 previously women’s college basketball was defined by the name on the front of the jerseys — or sometimes, the names of the titans patrolling the sidelines: Auriemma, Mulkey, Pat Summitt — it is increasingly about the names on the back, their skilled games and Madison Avenue-ready personas.
Reese, Clark and Bueckers have premium sponsorship portfolios and NIL valuations surpassed by few non-football athletes in the country.
That alleviates much of the financial incentive to turn pro — and in some ways, such as travel, the conditions would worsen — so what will these three do when they are eligible for the 2024 WNBA Draft?
Along with projected first-rounders such as Stanford’s Cameron Brink and South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso, they are each eligible for a fifth COVID year to stay in school until 2025 (Bueckers potentially has two more years due to her injury).
None has committed either way, though Clark’s recent remark about “soak[ing] in every second” might have been a tell.
They have combined to elevate the sport of women’s college basketball.
They are vying for more hardware in what might be the most competitive season on record. Now add in a delicious “will she stay or will she go?” backdrop to their exploits — and the lure of going out of top.