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Column: The Caitlin Clark phenomenon — coming to Northwestern tonight — is much bigger than a basketball game

The Caitlin Clark Eras Tour continues Wednesday in Evanston, where the Iowa hoops phenom leads the No. 3 Hawkeyes against Northwestern at sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Everywhere she goes, Clark brings eyeballs to women’s college basketball, making her like the Taylor Swift of the sports world.

It’s not just another game in the home of “Chicago’s Big Ten team.” It’s a full-throated moment for women’s basketball, a time to celebrate the culture in the guise of watching a game. Clark’s road show is something that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

“I never take any moment for granted, no matter where we’re playing at, whether it’s at home or whether it’s on the road, all the people that want to come see us,” Clark recently said. “And a lot of people spend a lot of time and money to be able to come and watch our team play for two hours.

“So, we always want to go out there and give it your best, give them a little show, give them something to smile about, make it fun, because it’s probably a memory people are going to remember for the rest of their lives.”

Clark’s ascension from talented player to the face of women’s college basketball has been well documented since she led Iowa into last year’s NCAA Final Four, where her duel against LSU star Angel Reese became as celebrated as the 1979 matchup between Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird.

The tickets for Wednesday’s game have been scalped, of course, even though the game on paper should be a lopsided affair. It’s just what happens whenever Iowa comes to town.

“Of course there are going to be a lot of hecklers, it’s going to be maybe a hostile crowd on our own home court, which is going to be an interesting experience,” Northwestern guard Jasmine McWilliams said before Monday’s practice. “But getting the young players for something like that is really important.”

McWilliams pointed out that she has been playing against Clark for three years, “and my first couple years we kind of locked her down, I will say that.” She added that “as talented as (Clark) is, she’s also not the best defender, so I do think attacking her would be the best option” to limit her scoring.

“Maybe get her in foul trouble, just to give us more of an edge and maybe take her out of the game a little bit,” McWilliams said.

But shutting down a player averaging nearly 32 points per game and able to hit 3s from well beyond the arc is probably wishful thinking. Clark’s 3,389 points are just behind Jackie Stiles (3,393 points) for third place on the all-time NCAA women’s scoring list. She also will likely become the all-time Big Ten scoring leader, while continuing her assault on the Division I women’s scoring record (3,527) held by Washington’s Kelsey Plum.

At her current pace, Clark also should break Pete Maravich’s men’s record of 3,667 points, set at LSU.

Clark’s presence has also put Iowa into some prime-time network slots, including Saturday’s game against Maryland on Fox Sports. Wednesday’s game will be broadcast on Peacock, which you probably still have if you signed up a few weeks ago for the NFL wild-card playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins.

The Hawkeyes (19-2) have created a tsunami of media attention since setting a women’s basketball attendance record last fall with 55,646 at outdoor Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City for an exhibition game against DePaul. Carver-Hawkeye Arena has been sold out all season, and they’ve been cramming opponents’ arenas all season, much of it from fans hoping to see whether Clark is the real deal.

Her drawing power is unlike anyone else’s in college athletics, and Clark’s influence on women’s basketball has been compared to an early Tiger Woods, who made every PGA tournament he played a must-see event.

Northwestern coach Joe McKeown, who coached for 20 years at George Washington, has seen big crowds and great atmospheres before, including the Candace Parker era at Tennessee and the great UConn teams that dominated annually. McKeown noted there wasn’t as much parity in college ball back then, and the WNBA didn’t have as much star power as it does now. This, he said, is a very different feeling for women’s basketball.

“Those games were 17-18 years ago,” McKeown said. “Back then, we had pockets of them, just not enough. We played (Sunday) at Indiana. It was packed, and a great crowd. We’re seeing it in the Big Ten, and nationally. USC just played UCLA. Sold out. It’s just really a good time to be part of it.”

As for the game itself, Northwestern (7-13) should have its hands full, battling a dominant and experienced team that can end any suspense if Clark gets hot from the outset.

“The main challenge is going to be tamping the momentum when she gets going,” McWilliams said. “If she hits a big shot, then her teammates start getting going. I feel like if we just keep that under control it will make it a more equal game.”

But keeping Clark from making those big shots has been a pipe dream for most of Iowa’s opponents. Over her last 10 games, Clark has averaged 34.8 points with a 43.3% shooting percentage on 3s, while averaging 7.3 rebounds and 7.9 assists.

“Usually if you’re playing against a great guard, if you can, you try and deny her the ball, or get it out of her hands, or double-team her,” McKeown said. “But when she rebounds, she’s already got the ball. That’s a challenge in the Big Ten for all of us, because she’s starting her own fast break.”

Like Bird or Michael Jordan in their prime, Clark exudes uber confidence on the court and can be vocal at times. She engaged in the now-legendary trash-talking episode with Reese in last year’s Final Four, a story that became a talking point on male-dominated sports talk radio shows, which is to say almost every sports talk radio show in the country.

Will we see some of that on display Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan?

“I don’t personally know her well enough to trash talk her,” McWilliams said with a laugh. “But on the court I’m sure we will.”

Not everyone likes the idea of women trash-talking like men, but even those critics must concede the elevated interest in women’s college basketball this season can be traced to the Clark-Reese “moment” and the media focus on the two rivals. McWilliams believes it’s no different from the men’s game.

“I think trash-talking is part of sports,” she said. “When you’re in an environment like that, especially when it’s going to be sold out, emotions are going to be high. This whole narrative that women should get (technical fouls) for talking stuff, I feel like that’s a little much.

“I feel like there is trash-talking, and hopefully they just let it go instead of giving everyone techs. Or we’re going to have a lot of techs, and that’s going to ruin the game.”

Don’t mistake any perceived trash-talk as a lack of respect for Clark. Her peers know the popularity Clark has brought to the sport helps them as well, and no doubt has convinced more parents to put a Nerf basketball hoop into their daughters’ cribs.

McKeown said he likes the “positive” stories being created about the game and its players, mentioning former Northwestern guard Veronica Burton, now playing with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings.

“To see a Caitlin Clark, to see a Veronica Burton, a first-round pick (in 2022) and the greatest kid in the world … those stories, to me, need to get out,” he said. “When you deal with women’s basketball, you’re meeting people that have great stories also.”

McWilliams spoke of “building your own personal brand” with NIL relationships, making Clark, a spokesperson for Gatorade, State Farm, a community food pantry and others, the right person at the right time in women’s college sports. She has her own foundation, and a cereal brand called Caitlin’s Crunch Time whose proceeds help fund it.

Clark’s very being has been mentioned as an economic stimulus in Iowa, where she’s bigger than corn. The trickle-down effect is already happening.

“It’s great for us, it’s great for the school,” McWilliams said. “It’s just overall a great thing.”

Someone pointed to Clark’s ubiquitous State Farm commercial.

“Multiple State Farms,” McWilliams said of the spots. “That’s amazing. I aspire to (be like) her.”

Those who think the media is guilty of creating this phenomenon, and that Clark’s shelf life in the limelight will be limited to her college experience, should know that Clark’s trading card last week sold at an auction for $78,000. That suggests her future is a good bet, whether she returns to Iowa for a fifth year in 2024-25 or goes to the WNBA, where she’d be the presumptive No. 1 draft choice of the Indiana Fever.

It could be argued that life with a bad WNBA team would be a significant downgrade from the national attention she’d continue to receive at Iowa, not to mention the loss of NIL money. But no one knows what Clark will do, and leaving everyone guessing is probably a solid strategy.

It’s a good time to be Caitlin Clark.