What excites Minnesota basketball experts most about Paige vs. Caitlin?

Millions of viewers will be glued to their screens Friday night (8:30 p.m., ESPN) watching Iowa vs. Connecticut — Caitlin Clark vs. Paige Bueckers — at the women's Final Four in Cleveland.

That semifinal comes after undefeated South Carolina and Minnesota native Tessa Johnson face North Carolina State (6 p.m., ESPN).

The Star Tribune asked some of Minnesota's basketball experts to share their thoughts heading into this showcase night.

Cheryl Reeve

The Lynx basketball boss goes to the NCAA women's Final Four every year. She cannot remember a year when she was looking forward to watching the games more.

"It will be epic," Reeve said. "The Elite Eight was epic, like nothing we've seen."

Reeve wasn't just talking about Friday's Iowa-UConn semifinal, the Caitlin Clark-Paige Bueckers story line. Reeve looks forward to seeing an athletic North Carolina State team take on unbeaten South Carolina in the first semifinal.

But more than anything, Reeve is really just reveling in the way women's basketball has exploded in popularity, viewership, level of play.

"Last year in Dallas it was incredible," Reeve said. That's where LSU beat Iowa in a championship game, which had a peak viewership of 13 million people. "Those of us who have been in this a long time, we knew this could be our thing."

But, like everyone, Reeve is looking forward to Iowa-UConn. Clark, the highest-scoring player in Division I history. Bueckers, national player of the year as a freshman, a career disrupted by injuries, back at 100%. In two Elite Eight wins, the two combined for 69 points, 17 rebounds and 18 assists.

Now, Reeve doesn't expect the two to guard each other. She believes Clark has to be guarded by a defender with both athletic ability and height. But Reeve is intrigued by the difference in the two players' styles.

"What will be on full display is the way Paige – and [UConn coach Geno] Auriemma has said it all along – the way she leans into the team to make her team better," Reeve said. "She won't drop 40. That's Clark and Iowa, and how it works for them. Two identities, two teams, two super stars. . . . Two great coaches.

One great Final Four.

Lindsay Whalen

Lindsay Whalen, the former Gophers star and coach, point guard on four Lynx title teams, will be there Friday, too. She'll be making an appearance in conjunction with the Naismith Hall of Fame and will see the games in person.

When she sees where the game has gone, Whalen sees the perspective. Her Lynx teams wouldn't have been there without the old Houston Comets, the WNBA's first dynasty. The Comets would not have been there without the 1996 Olympic team, which wouldn't have been there without Cheryl Miller's USC teams.

And now, another step.

"This is a boom," Whalen said. "It's like the tech boom. It's growing so fast, it feels like everybody is watching it. There are so many eyes on the game, people talking about it."

Especially the Iowa-UConn matchup.

Whalen has seen both Clark and Bueckers play for years; she recruited Bueckers hard as Gophers coach.

"It's been fun to see the way they have developed, how both have matured," Whalen said. " … I'm not sure I could have handled that much pressure in college. But they handle it with grace."

And, as Whalen said, those two are already paving the way for the next wave, the likes of JuJu Watkins and Hannah Hidalgo.

"What a time to be a fan," Whalen said.

Lea B. Olsen

As a former Gophers player and TV analyst for the Lynx and Wolves, Lea B. Olsen felt terrible for Bueckers when injuries struck the previous two seasons.

"She really is, I think, one of the greatest players right next to Caitlin, and all the shine has been on Caitlin," Olsen said. "So I'm just super excited to see the battle. Great for women's basketball. Great for all sports fans, but I think most importantly it's great to see Paige back at a high level again."

Kent Hamre

As St. Michael-Albertville's head girls basketball coach, Hamre has had one of the state's best players – Johnson, the South Carolina freshman. He has coached against one of the nation's best – Bueckers.

"Could you ask for anything more if you are a basketball fan?" Hamre said. "Paige and Caitlin are great ambassadors for women's basketball throughout the country. What these two have done the last few years to elevate women's basketball across the country is amazing."

Hamre had plenty of chances to see Bueckers up close when she was with Lake Conference-rival Hopkins. She was the nation's No. 1-recruit in the Class of 2020.

"What always impressed me with Paige is that she made everyone around her better," Hamre said. "She also always had time for the youth and the autograph seekers. Truly a class act!"

Hamre would like nothing better than to see a repeat matchup of the 2022 championship game: No. 1-ranked and unbeaten South Carolina vs. Connecticut.

"Paige vs. Tessa! I am guessing that is what the state of Minnesota wants," Hamre said.

Johnson scored a team-high 15 points for South Carolina in its 70-58 victory over Oregon State in the quarterfinals.

"Two great student-athletes from the Lake Conference playing for the national championship would bring a lot of pride to Minnesota," Hamre said.

"I have a feeling this won't be the last time we have Minnesota girls playing in the Final Four. There are so many talented girls' basketball players in the state of Minnesota. This is becoming a girls basketball mecca."

Star Tribune staff writers Chris Hine and Ron Haggstrom contributed to this report.