Plaschke: With USC and UCLA leading the way, women's tourney slam dunks on the men


The brackets for the two 2024 NCAA basketball tournaments have just been announced and already there is one shining moment.

It belongs to the women.

For the first time, their tournament is more compelling than the men’s.

Caitlin Clark. Angel Reese. Juju Watkins. LSU champs. South Carolina unbeatens. UConn traditions. Old grudges. New rivals. Human drama.

And some of it will be happening in the Southland’s backyard, literally, just call Galen Center or Pauley Pavilion, they’ll tell you.

While the USC and UCLA men had losing records that shut them out of the brackets, the USC and UCLA women are powerful enough to host first-round games and potent enough to steamroll their way to the Final Four.

The Trojans are a one seed, the Bruins are a two seed, and both will be home next weekend for the first two rounds of their brackets in an unprecedented one-city display of NCAA hoops domination.

“C’mon now, wake up and see what’s happening!” said longtime UCLA coach Cori Close. “It’s March Madness, you have two Southern California women’s teams hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, get on board, let’s sell out both arenas, let’s go, it’s pretty tremendous!”

Women’s college basketball these days is indeed pretty tremendous, with filled arenas and record television ratings and enough storylines to finally overshadow the men.

The women no longer have next, they have now.

“More and more people are like, ‘This is really an amazing thing,’ ” Close said. “Coach Wooden was doing this back in the day, he was saying women’s basketball is the purest form of basketball and he loved watching it, but nobody was really ready to listen at that point.”

They’re listening now, with more folks watching women’s basketball than men’s basketball on FOX, with a midseason LSU-South Carolina matchup even out-rating an NBA game between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.

“Amazing personalities, amazing exposure, more parity, it’s easy to get attached to women’s basketball because the players are there for four years,” Close said. “People go to men’s games to be entertained, they go to women’s games to be connected and inspired.”

Sure, it will be fascinating to see if the UConn men can repeat as national champions, but more compelling is the title defense of eccentric coach Kim Mulkey, charismatic star Reese, and the rest of the LSU women.

There’s an undefeated Gamecocks team standing in their way, and just last week the two teams brawled!

Yes, it will be exciting to see if Purdue’s giant Zach Edey can live up to his massive expectations, but it’s the Big Ten superstar from Iowa who has captured the nation’s attention.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Clark? America’s most popular athlete, period? Recently set an NCAA career scoring record with a 35-foot heave from the stinking logo?

Certainly, men’s potential matchups like Houston-Kentucky and North Carolina-Arizona are sweet, but they do not compare to the women’s potential showdowns featuring Iowa-LSU and South Carolina-Notre Dame.

Which brings this shining moment back to the USC and UCLA women, close neighbors with vastly different teams.

USC, 26-5, is a star-driven vehicle led by the incomparable freshman Watkins. She is the nation’s second-leading scorer at 27 points per game, trailing only Iowa’s Clark, and next year she should replace the WNBA-bound Clark as the game’s magnetic force.

With Watkins hobbled and struggling last week, the Trojans’ three Ivy League transfers — McKenzie Forbes, Kayla Padilla and Kaitlyn Davis — and center Rayah Marshall led them to an upset victory over Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament title game. But make no mistake. The Trojans are JuJu’s team, and the next three weeks will be her stage.

The Bruins, 25-6 after losing to USC in the Pac-12 tourney semifinals, are a team without one true superstar, but with plenty of other stars.

A different player leads them in scoring, assists and steals — Lauren Betts, Kiki Rice and Charisma Osborne — and seven players average at least 20 minutes per game.

USC is hot, winning 12 of its last 13 games in a surge that few expected. UCLA used to be hot, began the season 14-0 and was ranked second in the nation before going 11-6 down the stretch and struggling with inconsistency.

The Trojans are in a relatively light regional where the toughest challenges will probably come from underwhelming UConn and slumping Ohio State. The Trojans haven’t won a title in 39 years, but third-year boss Gottlieb has brought this new culture to the verge of greatness.

“We’re just happy to be in it, to be dancing, to be playing at home, and to have challenges in front of us that I think this group is going to attack,” Gottlieb said.

The Bruins, meanwhile, are in a nightmare region that will require victories over LSU and Iowa to reach the Final Four. UCLA hasn’t won a title in 45 years, but Close has directed them to five Sweet 16 appearances in the last eight years and she, too, has her team believing.

“To steal from [Virginia coach] Tony Bennett, if you handle adversity wisely, it can buy you a ticket to a place you maybe never would have gone otherwise,” Close said. “How do we get to Cleveland for a Final Four? We handle that adversity wisely, we have a growth mind-set, we let it teach our hearts to make us better.”

And to think, until two years ago, the ignorant NCAA didn’t allow the women’s tournament to affix itself to the phrase “March Madness.”

In one shining moment, they now epitomize it.



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