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Caitlin Clark helps to draw attention to the women's NCAA basketball tournament

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is time for the Madness. We're talking March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournaments - when brackets are broken, unlikely stars can emerge, and one team's dream comes true. We'll make that two teams. There's the men's tournament - we talked about it yesterday. And we turn to the women's tournament today, which is already drawing a lot of attention thanks to Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark and the undefeated South Carolina squad. Joining us now for more is Ben Pickman. He covers women's basketball for The Athletic. Good morning, Ben.

BEN PICKMAN: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: So we know the No. 1 seeds are South Carolina, Iowa, USC and Texas. Do any of these jump out as the clear favorite?

PICKMAN: I mean, South Carolina is the clear favorite, unquestionably. They were 32 and oh in the regular season. They have both one of the top defenses and offenses in the country. What's so impressive about this year's South Carolina team is that they basically have an entirely new starting lineup from last year's team that also entered the NCAA tournament undefeated. They're looking to go back to the Final Four. And I think it - the expectation is that they will get there. They have a pretty favorable path, all things considered, especially compared to Iowa. So we're going to see what happens if they can complete an undefeated season this year and make some more history.

MARTIN: OK, so Cinderella watch - is there a team that might come out of nowhere and surprise us? Because, you know, Ben, I was thinking, we seem to see less of that on the women's side. Like, every year on the men's side, there's somebody who was like, yeah, I wasn't even thinking about them, busting the brackets. But, you know, we're sad, but we're not really because it's fun. But on the women's side, I guess, I don't think we see that as much. Am I right about that?

PICKMAN: I think you are. And there's a few reasons. I think the first one is that on the women's tournament, the first two rounds are actually played on university campuses. So the top four seeds host games at their own schools, which makes upsets a little bit tougher. And I think this year on the women's side too, we just have a lot of star power, a lot of really great players. So I think there will be some surprises, some upsets. But you're right, I don't think we're going to see a seven, eight, nine, 10 seed go on a deep run like some years happened in the men's.

MARTIN: There's been a lot of talk about the so-called Caitlin Clark effect. You know, in fact, the Iowa Hawkeye star is a big draw. Ratings go up when she's playing. Ticket prices go up when she plays. And you know, sensitive question, but could this be a year when the women's tournament might bring more attention than the men's?

PICKMAN: It certainly has more stars. And certainly the women's tournament is trending up. Whereas last year the ratings of the men's tournament, say the Final Four, for instance, were all significantly down. And they were actually very close to the women's Final Four. So, you know, Clark is an accelerant in the boom that is happening across women's basketball. There's a number of big name players. Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins - South Carolina obviously is a program that has a ton of notoriety. So there really is a lot of intrigue in the women's game. There's a lot more household names in the women's game, I would argue, than in the men's college basketball game. And so, you know, this is going to be a really, really exciting women's college basketball tournament. I mentioned South Carolina, but there's a lot of teams who can win it. And I expect a big TV rating that will again be on ABC in that national championship game.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what are some of the matchups you're particularly excited about?

PICKMAN: Well, I'm looking at that Albany two-region, which is the one with Iowa. There's a number of long-term potential rematches. LSU and Iowa could meet later in the tournament. UCLA is actually my upset title pick, and I have them going very far there in that region, which is super exciting. The first round game I would highlight, though - West Virginia and Princeton in that region. West Virginia, a really good team, and Princeton, winners of the Ivy League - they have had success in the NCAA tournament before. So I like looking at that game as one first-rounder to circle.

MARTIN: All right. That is Ben Pickman. He covers women's basketball at The Athletic. Ben thank you so much.

PICKMAN: Thanks a lot for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.
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