Last Monday, Caitlin Clark — as close to a must-watch talent as there is in college basketball — continued her brilliant season with a 28-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound triple-double. Clark’s heroics steered No. 10 Iowa past No. 2 Ohio State, dealing the Buckeyes their first loss of the season.
Later that evening, ESPN’s SportsCenter appropriately opened its show with highlights of the game and of Clark, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year.
The seemingly innocuous decision irked sports media personality Jason Whitlock. Apparently so perturbed by the sight of women’s basketball highlights teeing off the show, Whitlock expressed his thoughts in a tweet at 1:15 in the morning.
“Who is paying for this?” Whitlock asked. “What percentage of sports fans does this serve?”
It’s not worth anyone’s time to unpack Whitlock’s blatant misogyny. But the incident can serve as a touchstone for how we view women’s college basketball in general.
Whitlock’s tweet coincided with the best week of Big Ten women’s basketball in recent memory, highlighted by four top-15 matchups. Which is to say: If you are shunning the sport and the conference — like Whitlock is — you’re simply missing out.
Take this past week as a case study. Monday began with the Big Ten making history in the newest AP Poll, with four conference teams — No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Indiana and co-No. 10s Iowa and Maryland — earning top-10 rankings. It’s the first time that the Big Ten has had four teams ranked in the top-10 in the poll’s 47-year history.
That small moment of history kicked off a seminal week for the conference. Monday night not only featured the vastly entertaining bout between Iowa and Ohio State, but also a top-15 matchup between Indiana and No. 13 Michigan in Ann Arbor; the Hoosiers held off the Wolverines to secure the program’s best-ever start, at 18-1.
Three days later, it felt like deja vu. The conference boasted another double-header with a pair of top-15 matchups. First, Maryland trumped Michigan in College Park; afterwards, Indiana outlasted the Buckeyes inside a rocking Assembly Hall.
That sort of high-level talent isn’t lost on Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, who has often taken time out of her postgame press conference to praise the competition.
“When I left the other night after the Indiana game — and the same will be true about tonight — I’m like, ‘Holy cow, we have some talented players, but also some really talented teams,’ ” Barnes Arico said Thursday.
It wasn’t a great week for Michigan — Barnes Arico’s squad dropped two games, whiffing on a prime opportunity to cement itself in the conference’s upper echelon. Despite losing, Barnes Arico knows that playing in perhaps the best conference in college basketball will prove beneficial in the long run.
“That was an awesome environment to play in,” Barnes Arico said after the Michigan-Iowa contest, which drew a then-season-best crowd of more than 10,000 fans. “And I’m disappointed that we weren’t really able to take advantage of our home court advantage. But a great basketball game for all those there to see.”
Great basketball is what you’ll get when you watch the Big Ten, with nine teams ranked in the top-50 in the latest NET rankings.
And people are taking notice.
The Indiana-Ohio State game drew a raucous crowd of 10,455 people, the largest ever for an Indiana women’s basketball game. Ohio State sold out Value City Arena for its clash with the Hawkeyes, though a sell out meant just 9,368 fans because the 300-level section only opens for men’s games. Perhaps it’s time to change that.
Michigan, to its credit, has.
Crisler Center used to keep the upper level closed for women’s basketball games, deploying large curtains that hid the sections. But for bigger games, that’s changed — and to strong results. Earlier in January, consecutive home games against Iowa and Michigan State drew 10,731 fans and 10,534 fans, respectively.
Plus, of the 25 highest-rated games this season in terms of television viewing, 44% of them have involved Big Ten teams — and that doesn’t even include the slate of games from this past week.
Lucky for you, if you haven’t yet begun paying attention, you’re afforded a bit of a mulligan — this past week marked the halfway point in conference play, which means the stellar slate is far from over.
Thursday, Michigan will host No. 22 Illinois, a resurgent program that recently clinched its first winning season in a decade. Later in February, the Wolverines will travel to Bloomington for another chance at Indiana and host the Buckeyes in a five-day span.
The entertainment is endless. You’ll get a chance to watch Clark drill impossible logo 3-pointers that rival Steph Curry’s range. You can watch dominant players like Maryland’s Diamond Miller, who recently dazzled with 23 points and five steals against the Wolverines. You can cheer on Michigan fifth-year wing Leigha Brown, who shines in the spotlight with an unrivaled tenacity.
So if you haven’t yet tuned in, right your wrongs for the second half of the season.