There is a tired ongoing discourse, started Sunday, about Angel Reese taunting Caitlin Clark as her LSU Tigers defeated Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes, for the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball title. Reese, like every basketball player, can express herself however she likes. And yes, there is much hypocrisy amongst those who berate Reese while failing to note Clark’s own brashly disrespectful theatrics—and you don’t need a PhD to note said inconsistency as racial in nature. It is, and that’s unfortunate. Welcome to sports media and fandom, where self-awareness and basic decency are the exception.
That this conversation is being held so broadly, though, says something new. The Sunday afternoon, network-televised contest hit a note that no basketball game, particularly a college one, has for a while. There is something especially electric going on here. As the men’s side of the NCAA game loses starpower, the women seem to gain it; here, the true stud talents are having long university careers, reviving the mythology marination complex that used to enrich the NBA. The more fractured, more brief series of men’s youth recruitment pipelines has made it so that women are now more consolidated in, and committed to, the college game. They are the new stars of March Madness.
The night before, for instance, the San Diego State men’s team defeated Florida Atlantic with a thrilling Final Four buzzer beater. The player who hit it, though—Lamont Butler—is not a household name for it, and he is probably never going to be, while Clark and Reese are well on their way. They are fresh avatars for cultural anxieties and triumphs, lead characters in a story that sports has not yet told. Ratings records are being broken by fans eager to see it. And these women are merely 20 years old. We are at the beginning of something grand. There is a distinctly Larry Bird at Indiana State versus Magic Johnson at Michigan State feeling to it all.
The gross subtext—which often becomes overt on social media—is about, yes, race. Iowa’s team is nearly all white, while LSU’s was almost completely made up of black players. That’s how you end up with a single gesture getting discussed by multiple wings of multi-billion dollar media empires, for more than a day. But there’s “styles make fights” stuff on the floor, too. Clark is a precision player, draining threes and threading needles as a passer, but visibly struggled against more concerted invasions of her air space by LSU defenders, namely Last-Tear Poa. She is also a midwestern plainsperson to her core. However much junk she might rudely talk on the floor, she always aims to please and dodge pride in every interview she does, to the point of constant flirtation with the humblebrag.
Reese, who is empowered by the loudness of LSU head coach Kim Mulkey (more on her, in a moment) but who is also like this anyway, finds modesty foolish, and lets everyone know that she owns the paint. She is from Baltimore, where few have ever sought virtue in downplaying their own greatness. Her footwork is precise and devastating, and she is nearly impossible to box out. She is at the center of the Tigers’ deep attack, but also notable for how declaratively she speaks: “This is for all the girls who look like me who they said can’t do this,” she said after the title victory, turning to the camera with wrestling promo gusto. “Y’all told me to calm down, criticized me all year—I’m her. I’m the Bayou Barbie.”
This stuff is, in a word, great. While the action of the championship game got muddled by some bizarre officiating, the narrative quality remained at a startling simmer throughout, in no small part because of Mulkey’s constant devilish perambulations on—and beyond—the sidelines. Mulkey is a great godhead villain coach, rising into a classic elder heel role as the men’s side loses its musty titans of this persuasion. She wears shiny, ridiculous clothing (I beg you to Google Image search her for a few minutes), and acts like someone ripped straight out of The Righteous Gemstones. She is also a bigot, who refused to speak positively of Britney Griner, who she coached through a 2012 NCAAW title at Baylor, after Griner became the first women’s player to come out as openly gay—even when Griner was being held as a political prisoner in Russia for several months.
All of it amounts to an explosive, deeply engaging tapestry of characters and actions. College basketball has always been better at delivering those in quick order, what with its single-game elimination format, tidily scheduled into a certain month that no one ever forgets about. The modern economics of sports have busted up the men’s bracket’s ability to keep offering such wonderful noise, but NCAAW seems to just be getting started at picking up that slack. It has, in one weekend, changed the story of contemporary basketball. We have to wait until Fall for more—but next season could be the first full campaign of an era that’s wholly unlike anything that came before it.