There have been many firsts in this year’s NCAA March Madness tournament on both the men’s and women’s sides. Parity is stronger than ever within collegiate basketball as the traditionally dominant teams aren’t finding the consistent success expected of them.
On the women’s side, Caitlin Clark became the first player of any gender to record a 41-point triple-double, the UConn Huskies’ dynasty of 14 straight Final Four appearances came to an end, and two number one seeds failed to make the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1998.
New programs are finding success, including the Virginia Tech Hokies who, despite being the first seed, had never made the Elite Eight before this year. Their path to the Final Four included a victory against Tennessee, the winningest program in NCAA history.
“The women’s tournament was very deep this year, deeper than it was last year, which is great to see for the growth of the women’s game,” Stanford forward Haley Jones said after her team’s upset loss against the Ole Miss Rebels.
On the men’s side, it’s the first year the number one seed hasn’t made an appearance in the Elite Eight since seeding began in 1979, and only the second time a 16th seed has defeated a number one seed in tournament history.
This year’s tournament has been defined by unprecedented upsets, beginning with the Furman Paladins—the smallest school in the tournament with an enrollment of 2,970—taking down the powerhouse Virginia Cavaliers.
This shocker was followed by a Cinderella run by the 15th seed Princeton Tigers, who defeated the Arizona Wildcats and Missouri Tigers before finally getting knocked out by the Creighton Blue Jays in the Sweet Sixteen.
None of the six undisputed Blue Blood teams—Duke, UNC, UK, Kansas, Indiana, and UCLA—made it past the Sweet Sixteen. Rather, the Final Four is represented by three teams making their first appearance ever, each of their head coach competing for their first national championship.
“There’s not a lot of difference between the best team in the country and the worst team in the country,” San Diego State Coach Brian Dutcher said. “You’re seeing that on this stage.”
It’s no coincidence the level of competition is rising as the game of basketball continues to rise in popularity and exposure, driving investment within all facets of the game.
Women’s basketball is benefitting the most as programs begin to revitalize lagging facilities and social media starts capitalizing on their growing popularity. The numbers are also starting to reflect this popularity as lowest ticket price for the women’s semifinals was over $300, compared to just under $100 for men’s tickets.
Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin spoke on the shrinking talent gap, saying “we need to normalize women being competitive and having dreams and goals and wanting to win, you get what I’m saying? I think this is good for the game.”
Last Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup between Iowa and Louisville showed how many fans are also jumping on board with these changes.
2.49 million tuned in to watch Caitlin Clark’s historic performance—more than any regular season NBA game on ESPN. Of the 97 points Iowa scored that game, Clark created 70 of them as she dropped 41 herself and assisted on the other 29. Clark is also the first player in D1 history to drop over 900-points and 300-assists in a single season.
As an unprecedented level of competition from student athletes continues to push upwards and has records being broken year after year, it’s clear the future of basketball is in good hands.
Basketball, Caitlin Clark, march madness, men's, NCAA, Women's
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