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On the rise, Big Ten awaits breakthrough in women’s NCAA tournaments

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Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark has been watching the women’s NCAA tournament, eyeing potential clashes with her runner-up Hawkeyes and the rest of her Big Ten brethren, and has come to a fairly optimistic conclusion.

“The Big Ten can certainly get two spots in the Final Four,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a stretch by any means.”

Only one would end a long dry spell.

In a nearly impossible mix of bad luck, bad draws and bad basketball, the Power 5 conference — with its big budgets and high-profile programs — has only promoted a women’s team to the national semifinals once since 2005, and that was league freshman Maryland in 2015. And since 1999, when Katie Douglas and Stephanie White-McCarty led Purdue to a national title win against Duke, the league has crowned its only NCAA champion.

“You see, we’ve played against some of the best teams in America all year. The Big Ten is loaded — Maryland, Ohio State, Indiana, we’re all top 3 seedlings,” said Clark, a two-time first-team All-American and the nation’s third-leading scorer. “It showed how our conference has really grown nationally. We have to use that as confidence builders.”

That’s perhaps the only thing missing 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 regular-season Big Ten title and ranked No. 1 in his region. Diamond Miller of Maryland, ranked No. 2 in his region, was selected to the second-team All-American team. Four other participants in the tournament – Indiana’s Grace Berger, Michigan’s Leigha Brown, Illinois’ Makira Cook and Iowa’s Monika Czinano – received honorable mentions this week.

It also has better depth. Better coaching. And better support. Indiana and Purdue both sold out games this season, the first time the Hoosiers have done so at Assembly Hall, and their game against Iowa at Iowa City was also an early sellout.

“This season, after you’ve been beating each other all season, you’re all Big Ten,” Maryland coach Brenda Freese said, “and you want every single team to get through the group as much as possible.

“The conference really prepared us for hosting so many teams,” added Frese, who led the Terrapins to the national title in 2006 when they were still part of the ACC. “But now you just understand that every single team needs to continue to use what we did during the conference list and bring to this tournament.”

Testing began ahead of the Big Ten’s schedule for most 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 achieved ranked wins over Tennessee and North Carolina. Iowa lost a competitive game to the Huskies, defeating Iowa State. Ohio State beat the Vols along with Louisville during the nonconference portion of its schedule.

They beat the Big Ten in November and December. There’s no reason to think it can’t beat them in March.

“The Big Ten is a kind of different conference when it comes to physicality, strength and athleticism,” said Brown, whose No. 6 Wolverines played UNLV on Friday. “So I think we can really use that to our advantage, yeah, and it’s just about really getting out of the gates, just being really ready and really bringing it to them.”

The Hoosiers, of course, should have the easiest route to the Final Four. They open Saturday’s tournament and should be heavily favored through to the Elite Eight, where they could face No. 2 seeded Utah or No. 3 LSU.

Iowa opened Friday against Southeastern Louisiana with a favorable path to a regional final against Stanford, and No. 2 Maryland is aiming for a shot against the top-ranked Gamecocks to earn a place in the Final Four.

The third-seeded Buckeyes have the toughest road to Dallas in a region with No.-seeded Virginia Tech and No. 2-seeded UConn.

“I think now we have teams, A, that are good enough to be there and B, maybe a way to get there,” Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder said. “Sometimes the path is not so easy. Sometimes you get a good seed, but it often comes down to matchups beyond the seed, and I have a feeling this year some of us might have a good way there as well.

“I’m excited for this opportunity,” added Bluder, who brought the Hawkeyes to the Elite Eight in 2019. “I think the Big Ten have proven time and time again this year how good this conference is. You know, I think this could definitely be the year.”

AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in College Park, Maryland; Mike Marot of Bloomington, Indiana; Brett Martel of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Associated Press writer John Huhncamp of Iowa City, Iowa, contributed to this report. ___

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