It would be madness to deny the majesty and power of Caitlin Clark’s scoring quest

There was no March Madness the first year of Caitlin Clark’s collegiate career.

No, it wasn’t because the Iowa Hawkeyes didn’t make the NCAA tournament in the 2020-21 season. They did, colliding with Connecticut in a Sweet 16 showdown of future WNBA superstars Clark and Paige Bueckers.

It was because the NCAA withheld from its women’s tournament the use of “March Madness” — a powerhouse phrase synonymous with sneaking looks of full days of hoops action during work hours and rejoicing in surprising upsets.

By doing so, it relegated the women to secondary status.

The madness, the fun, the excitement, the cultural value, the NCAA told fans via the subtext, it’s over here with the men.

Times change quickly, yet how easy it is to forget. Basketball fans would be mad not to keep eyes on Clark in March. The month that shot Clark into stardom in 2023 will almost certainly open with her passing Pete Maravich’s all-time NCAA scoring record Sunday. The senior guard needs 18 points in the regular-season finale at home against Ohio State (1 p.m. ET, Fox) to break Maravich’s career scoring record of 3,667 points.

It’s fitting the player to topple Maravich’s most hallowed record is on the women’s side at this exact moment when the sport, merely in Year 3 of internal NCAA changes to improve equity after the damning 2021 Kaplan report, grows to all-time highs. Nearly 10 million tuned into the national championship game last April. Games across the country are selling out, with entry lines snaking around arenas and parking lots. Fans are spending hundreds on tickets and traveling hundreds of miles to use them. Clark is a part, but not all, of that.

“Women’s basketball is having a moment and that moment needed somebody to team up with it,” four-time WNBA champion and two-time NCAA champion Sue Bird said on the Sports Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch. “So Caitlin, based on just the year in which she was born and doing what she is doing in college right now, is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this moment.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - FEBRUARY 28: Caitlin Clark #22 of the Iowa Hawkeyes drives to the basket against Ayianna Johnson #1 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the third quarter at Williams Arena on February 28, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Hawkeyes defeated the Golden Gophers 108-60. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Caitlin Clark of Iowa drives to the basket against Ayianna Johnson of Minnesota in the third quarter at Williams Arena on Feb. 28, 2024, in Minneapolis. The Hawkeyes defeated the Golden Gophers 108-60. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Her ascendance to the top in front of millions of riveted eyes forces a change in the ingrained default. For half a century, collegiate scorers were sized up against “Pistol Pete” Maravich, a legendary showman who averaged 38.1 shots and 44.2 points per game in three seasons at LSU. He put the record out of reach, even though he played without a 3-point line and before freshman eligibility.

It was: Maravich holds the scoring record. Clark (and previously Kelsey Plum) holds the women’s scoring record.

Except as soon as she sinks point No. 3,668, that emphasis adjusts in a way still rare in sports. In general, articles and records and historical notes fall back on the assumption everything is in reference to men. They don’t require a modifier.

A story about “March Madness” or the “NCAA tournament” was long assumed to be in regards to the men’s tournament. It was accepted that men were the top topic of whatever the day warranted, without having to clarify. Saying “the single-season leaders in points, rebounds or assists” meant on the men’s side. (Women’s players are leading all of those this season, by the way.) The women, they’re the ones who always have a pronoun qualifier attached to differentiate. Even if it’s a man they eclipsed in the books, that has to be made clear.

But not for this.

Soon, it will be: Clark holds the scoring record. Maravich owns the men’s scoring record.

That means something significant in women’s basketball’s growth, and how people are finally allowing and supporting it to properly advance. Even though an overwhelming swath of fans contend Clark’s record is different. That it’s apples to oranges.

Of course, it is. All records are different.

A record is a number on a page and little more. There might be a few select qualifiers for context, but nothing extensive. In its list of career scoring leaders, the NCAA Division I women’s record book only has the year and games played. (The men’s list, unsurprisingly, provides more details). At the top is an important note that the records date back only to 1981-82, even though women played collegiately before it.

See? Already, we’re in murky waters.

How the game is played changes constantly. The style, the rules, the length of the season, the size of the NCAA tournament. Even whom teams play and within which conference is continuously shifting. Surely, UConn’s record 111-game winning streak might not have come to fruition if it was playing in one of the traditional Power Six conferences. Or in this higher parity era of the game.

Life isn’t fair and records aren’t broken in scientific experiments. The player is the main variable, yet barely anything collectively around her or him remains constant except the change itself. No arena is alike, no teammates are the same, no schedule is identical.

Literally any record can hold an asterisk because; at its most basic, an asterisk is context. It didn’t matter who broke Maravich’s mark, whether it was a man or woman. It was always going to be distinctive, especially to those who watched him play in the 1970s.

People watching Clark now will probably feel similarly when the game looks completely different in another half a century. There will be another player averaging near her 32.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game. More stars down the line will regularly hit signature logo 3s from 25 feet deep and find teammates at the exact microsecond they’re open. They’ll storm their own way through the record book.

The future will feature a player who will do the same for college basketball as Clark and Maravich did. It’s simply a matter of when. Until then, healthy sports discussion will abound adding context and stirring up debate. It will all just be words, verbal asterisks, for whichever variables are chosen and which are left behind in arguments.

Yet, the numbers say it all. The all-time scoring record will belong to Caitlin Clark. Everyone will know that. She likely has a handful more games (and maybe one more year) to dazzle fans while increasing the mark. March Madness will be better for it.