Hotter In Cleveland

According to the National Weather Service as this is being written, the forecast for tomorrow afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, when the men’s Final Four taps off, is sunny and 67 degrees.  The forecast for tonight in Cleveland, Ohio, when the women’s Final Four commences, is cloudy and 41 degrees.

Obviously, the fine minds who issue forecasts aren’t influenced by the waves of change we are seeing in college basketball of late.  No objective observer would contend that the temperature, not to mention the energy and adrenalin, is far hotter in Cleveland.

FRONT OFFICE SPORTS’ triumverate of Amanda ChristovichEric Fisher, and David Rumsey  put it into perspective in their newsletter this morning:

Friday night’s doubleheader will feature perhaps the most highly anticipated women’s slate in history. Underdog NC State will face off against undefeated South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. ET. Then, blueblood UConn and Paige Bueckers will take on the indescribable Caitlin Clark (above) and Iowa. Experts are predicting that the women’s Final Four will shatter last year’s impressive records, and that the championship game could rival—or perhaps even surpass—the ratings for the men’s tournament. March Madness ticket prices are already higher in Cleveland than they are in Phoenix.

And as the NEW YORK POST’s Ryan Dunleavy pointed out, it’s that especially intriguing showdown between the unprecedented talents of Clark and the unprecedented genius of Connecticut’s legendary coach that has the anticipation index at 11-plus:

Here comes a Friday matchup (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) of Clark — the all-time leading scorer in men’s or women’s college basketball — against Geno Auriemma and his record 11 national championships as coach at UConn. 

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives down court against LSU guard Flau’jae Johnson (4) during the third quarter of an Elite Eight round college basketball game during the NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

LSU coach Kim Mulkey was late to adjust off of a poorly devised game plan of having Hailey Van Lith defend Clark, without the help of traps or double-teams. The record-setting sharpshooter was well into a rhythm that led to 41 points on nine 3-pointers by the time LSU made a fourth-quarter switch to have the quicker Flau’jae Johnson harass Clark.

Auriemma won’t repeat that same mistake.

Over the course of 39 seasons, he has devised game plans to defend Chamique Holdsclaw, Alana Beard, Seimone Augustus, Candace Parker, Skylar Diggins, Sabrina Ionescu and countless other All-Americans who were playmakers with the ball in their hands. Not to mention he has seen all the best perimeter defensive game plans thrown at his own array of all-time greats, from Sue Bird to Diana Taurasi to Maya Moore to his current All-American living in Clark’s enormous shadow, Paige Bueckers.  If there is a way to force the ball out of Clark’s hands and make the rest of the Hawkeyes beat you, Auriemma will try it. The problem, of course, is Clark also is a savant at setting up her teammates with crisp passes. In two previous meetings against UConn, Clark is averaging 23 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists, but Iowa is 0-2. She shot a combined 16-of-45 from the field, including 6-of-23 from the 3-point range.

I’m sorry, for as interesting as the quest for the UConn men’s team is to win back-to-back titles, or the patience of Purdue finally making a Final Four for the first time in 44 years on the back of its fifth year goliath Zach Edey, or even North Carolina State’s now nine-game post-season winning streak and hopes they can become the first double-digit seed to win it all, it all pales in comparison to what will be happening across the street from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight.

Look how excited Clevelanders themselves are, as CLEVELAND.COM’s Cliff Pinckard wrote this morningL

Do yourself a favor and head downtown at some point through the weekend to experience the thrill of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four.

Better yet, grab your daughter or niece and their friends and watch their wonder at all the sights around them, even if they get nowhere near Caitlin Clark or Dawn Staley.  When the Women’s Final Four was here in Cleveland in 2007, some friends and I watched the semifinal games at a restaurant near the arena. The vibe was electrifying. The place was teeming with college coaches who were in town for their annual convention and shoulder-to-shoulder with groups of fans of the four qualifying schools. Every few minutes we saw another luxury NCAA-branded bus full of people drive by.

And as we know, this Final Four’s attracting a LOT more attention than the one that was held 17 years ago did.

And as Dunleavy points out, before the weekend is over, it could get even hotter:

If Clark finally cracks Auriemma’s wizardry in the Final Four, there is a strong chance undefeated South Carolina will be waiting at 3 p.m. Sunday in the national championship game (as long as it outlasts North Carolina State in Friday’s 7 p.m. Final Four matchup).

Surviving a three-game championship gauntlet of LSU-UConn-South Carolina, while factoring in the extra circumstances around each of those matchups, would be an all-time postseason run worthy of its place on a Mount Rushmore with any NCAA single-season champion.

It might even bring these women back out of hiding.  They actually know that it is indeed HOT IN CLEVELAND.

And this weekend, a LOT hotter.

 

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