Why there is no Caitlin Clark-caliber star in men’s college basketball this season

The morning after Iowa’s Caitlin Clark became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer earlier this month, ESPN’s Shannon Sharpe made a telling comment about her impact.

The First Take co-host said that he and Stephen A. Smith have discussed Clark “the whole season” and they “haven’t even mentioned the men’s game.” It’s because of Clark, Sharpe said, that he can now come up with the names of five women’s college basketball players faster than he can rattle off the names of five men.

“I can name you JuJu Watkins,” Sharpe said. “I can name you Angel Reese. I can name you Caitlin Clark. I can give you Cameron Brink. I can give you the young lady at South Carolina. I can’t give you five guys who play college basketball.”

That First Take devotes more time to women’s college basketball is more than just a testament to Clark’s incandescent talent and burgeoning fame. It’s also an indictment of the unusual lack of star power in men’s college basketball this season.

Men's college basketball doesn't have too many household names this season. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Men's college basketball doesn't have too many household names this season. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

There’s no Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball or Anthony Davis to entice casual fans to tune in before March with their never-before-seen talent. There’s no Trae Young, Jimmer Fredette or Stephen Curry to siphon mainstream attention away from the NFL or NBA with their audacious 3-pointers and dizzying scoring exploits. There’s not even a Grayson Allen or Marshall Henderson to trip or taunt their way onto America’s social media feeds or TV screens.

Throngs of viewers will still duck out of work early next week to catch the opening two days of March Madness, but this season has lacked a superstar capable of seizing the nation’s attention without the help of the NCAA tournament stage.

To quantify that lack of a breakthrough men’s college basketball player, Yahoo Sports sought the help of Meltwater, a leader in media monitoring and analysis. Meltwater compared the exposure that a handful of top men’s and women’s college basketball players have received via news outlets since Nov. 1, 2023.

It should surprise no one that Clark has been by far college basketball’s buzziest player. The Iowa megastar with the impossibly deep range, the growing collection of scoring records and the array of major endorsement deals has garnered nearly four times as many mentions as any other men’s or women’s player Meltwater examined.

A distant second was Zach Edey, the Purdue 7-footer who is likely to become men’s college basketball’s first two-time player of the year since Virginia’s Ralph Sampson. LSU’s Angel Reese had the third-most mentions, followed by North Carolina’s R.J. Davis. Projected first-team All-Americans Dalton Knecht of Tennessee, Paige Bueckers of UConn and Jamal Shead of Houston were among the other players Meltwater studied, as were national freshman of the year favorites Reed Sheppard of Kentucky and JuJu Watkins of USC.

Provided to Yahoo Sports by Meltwater.
Provided to Yahoo Sports by Meltwater.

To sports marketing experts, that data corroborates their previous assumptions. In mid-March, with Selection Sunday just two days away, men’s college basketball still has yet to produce a player who is widely recognizable nationally.

“I just think this could be an off year,” said Doug Shabelman, CEO of Burns Entertainment, an agency that matches companies with celebrity endorsers. “A lot depends on the type of players that come in, their personalities and how much they want to be marketed. Next year, you could have a superstar kid who gets into the right program, and all of a sudden he’s going to have a lot of attention or marketability.”

The “off year,” as Shabelman put it, is partially systemic in nature. The fact that men’s college basketball’s elite prospects typically bolt for the NBA after just one season detracts from the sport’s ability to achieve familiarity. Fans often don’t get to form a three- or four-year bond with top men’s players the way they do with women’s basketball. The Clarks or Bueckers of the men’s game would be in the midst of his third NBA season right now.

Only back-to-the-basket centers tend to stay in men’s college basketball long enough to make more than one All-American team. The Armando Bacots, Hunter Dickinsons and Edeys of the sport have more incentive to return to school for three or four years with the NBA devaluing their position and the loosening of NIL rules making it possible to earn more money in college than overseas or in the G League.

Unfortunately for college basketball, back-to-the-basket centers typically aren’t as marketable as a guard with everyman size but extraordinary skill. Bacot, Dickinson and Edey aren’t going to reduce a defender to dust with just a crossover dribble and a flick of the wrist. Finishing a pick and roll with a dunk is about as flashy as they get.

“Some of the big guys don’t tend to be as marketable because they aren’t as fun to watch and they aren’t as identifiable,” said Bob Dorfman, creative director at San Francisco-based Pinnacle Advertising. “It’s a little tougher if you’re a 7-foot-3, 7-foot-4 freak of nature versus a guard that the average person can model their game after.”

What makes this season an outlier for men’s college basketball is the lack of eye-popping talent in this year’s freshman class. Many NBA executives deem this the most pedestrian draft class in over a decade. There isn’t a consensus No. 1 pick or anything close.

It’s also a rarity that so many of this draft’s top prospects don’t play college basketball. Half of the 2024 draft lottery could hail from the G League Ignite, the NBL’s NextStars program or top European leagues. We have to wait another year to see Cooper Flagg in a Duke jersey or Ace Bailey wearing Rutgers colors.

There are a ton of compelling stories and charismatic players in college basketball this season. Myles Rice is leading a resurgence at Washington State after losing all of last season to cancer. Sheppard is living his dream at the school where his mom and dad once starred. Houston has proven itself in the rugged Big 12. Purdue is out for redemption after three straight March meltdowns. UConn is aiming to be the first team since Billy Donovan-era Florida to go back-to-back.

Have you watched Indiana State’s Robbie Avila, the goggles-wearing viral sensation nicknamed Cream Abdul Jabbar? Have you checked out Marquette’s Tyler Kolek, the point guard who went off for 27 points and 13 assists against St. John’s, then labeled the entire Red Storm defense “barbecued chicken?

These players and stories have not yet broken through to a mainstream audience. Maybe the NCAA tournament will change that.

“The NCAA tournament,” said Shabelman, “is at a perfect time in the calendar. For a whole month, it’s the talk of the country. That can change the perception of marketability for many of these athletes.”