March Madness: CU women make 2024 tourney debut. Colorado’s best collegiate team is part of a revolution in women’s basketball

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David Zalubowski/AP
Colorado guard Kindyll Wetta (15), Colorado guard Maddie Nolan (24) and Colorado guard Jaylyn Sherrod in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Boulder, Colo.

The University of Colorado women’s basketball team makes their 2024 March Madness debut at 5 p.m. Friday, March 22 in this year’s most watched NCAA tournament bracket. 

At the top of Colorado’s difficult region are Caitlin Clark and the University of Iowa. Clark has helped bring a new level of competitiveness and swagger to the women’s game, according to Ceal Barry, former CU coach and inductee in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I have yet to see a guard play with her skill on the women's side ever,” Barry said, adding that Clark is also atypical from previous generations because she appears to enjoy the spotlight. Barry said her attitude seems to be, “The more attention I get, the better for Iowa basketball.”

Clark is the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer across men’s and women’s basketball since she passed “Pistol” Pete Maravich this season. She’s just one of the players Barry is excited to watch this March. They are among a generation of women who’ve evolved the game in the decades since Title IX.

Barry also sees signs that CU, which made it to the Sweet Sixteen last year, is poised for another deep run in this Spring’s tournament, despite a subpar performance in the final weeks of the season and the fierceness of the competition in their region — dubbed the “Group of Death” — headlined by Clark’s Hawkeyes and defending champion LSU.

“I think they can compete with anybody in the country,” Barry said, noting Colorado beat LSU in the season opener.

Barry spoke with Colorado Matters Host Ryan Warner about the women’s tournament and her CU Buffs.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Ryan Warner: What makes this year's CU team so good?

Barry: This is a long list! First of all, they have a lot of experience — quite a few fifth-year and fourth-year players. That always bodes well for the NCAA tournament.

They're really talented; they have a couple of great shooters in Frida Foremann and Maddie Nolan. But I think the biggest thing is they're two-deep at every position, meaning two point guards, two good shooting guards, two good small forwards, two post players, two power forwards. Their second team, at times, is better than their first team. This is a really good Colorado team.

Ryan Warner: How do they compare with other teams in the country?

Barry: I rank them a little bit higher than what they got with their seed in the NCAA tournament. They were seeded fifth [in their region]. I understand it, having been on that committee before, but I think they have a really, really, great chance of going very deep in this tournament.

Warner: You seem to cast the more recent performance almost as like a little blip. What's your assessment of why CU seemed to struggle so much at the end of the season?

Barry: It was a function of the schedule. Also, some of these other teams have kind of figured out what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and these have been close games. These haven't been blowouts. The Pac-12 conference is just a really, really competitive, talented, well-coached conference.

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Karl B. DeBlaker/AP
Colorado's Frida Formann (3) controls the ball against Duke's Celeste Taylor (0) during the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Durham, N.C.

Warner: It’s been a remarkable year for women's basketball overall, and that starts with Caitlin Clark. For anyone who hasn't taken a moment to watch her play yet, what are they missing?

Barry: My gosh, if somebody is a sports fan in general and has yet to see Caitlin Clark play, they're really missing out. They call her a once-in-generation talent. I have yet to see a guard play with her skill on the women's side ever, and there have been some great guards like Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.

Caitlin Clark is not just a great shooter. There aren’t very many players that can just come down, stop on dime, and hit a 40-footer. She can do that. She goes left really well and can step back and create space to get her shot off.  And she really embraces the attention. A lot of women in the past with the spotlight on them kind of emphasized the humility aspect, of taking the spotlight from their teammates. Caitlin, from what I've watched, enjoys the spotlight. She's more or less, “bring it. The more spotlight I get, the more attention I get, the better for Iowa basketball.”

Warner: Why do you think that's an exception in women's basketball?

Barry: Historically, it is an exception. I think for women from my generation, as we came up through the ranks of playing any sport, sportsmanship was emphasized. There was still a message that we should be ladylike, and part of being ladylike was being humble and not seeking attention and not getting out of your lane.

I don't think women born in 2000 or after, in that generation, have been sent the message that you need to be humble or stay in your place. Whereas somebody my age, we weren't really encouraged to develop our skills as much as we were encouraged to develop values that would be becoming of a female in that time period.

Warner: This remarkable year in women's college basketball is happening the same year that a WNBA player, Sabrina Ionescu, nearly beat NBA superstar Steph Curry in a three-point contest. What does the emergence of these women say to you about the evolution of this sport and, more fundamentally, opportunities for girls over time?

Barry: I think it's the legacy of Title IX, which passed 50 years ago. These are Title IX babies' grandchildren. In addition to Sabrina Ionescu and Caitlin Clark, there are a couple of great freshmen. In the Pac-12, JuJu Watkins, who plays at USC, regularly scores 30 points a night. That's just another night at the office for JuJu Watkins.

These kids grew up with social media. As a regular part of their day they can pull up videos of Steph Curry and watch him shoot over and over and over and mimic the footwork and mimic the followthrough and learn to shoot just sitting in their bedroom, leaning against the wall and watch a player over and over and over and over again. We didn't have that in the 70s. 

When I was coaching the 80s, 90s, early 2000s, it was all out on the basketball floor teaching. Not a lot of video. The only video we used was to scout our opponents. But I think these kids are developing their skills, watching how to appropriately shoot a basketball, just by looking on their phone.

Warner: What you’re really talking about is studying, right?

Barry: Absolutely. And they should be, because they can make a lot of money. Caitlin Clark, with NIL — name, image and likeness — she can be on a State Farm commercial. She's making money. So, I think there's a lot of financial incentive and these kids know that.

Warner: Another of your players to watch right now is Hannah Hidalgo at Notre Dame.

Barry: This is a player who's not just a shooter. The first thing that struck me was her energy level. Can this kid go this hard for that long in a 40-minute ball game, as a freshman? The other thing is she inspires her teammates tremendously. She has this motto, I think, in her brain that is “Refuse to lose.” I've seen Notre Dame down, and she got in her teammates’ faces, jumping around the court, not allowing them to get too far behind. She inspires them a lot.

I was all about JuJu Watkins being the freshman player of the year, but Hidalgo is right up there. She's that good.

Karl B. DeBlaker/AP
Colorado's Frida Formann (3) celebrates after a basket with teammate Aaronette Vonleh, left, during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament against Duke, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Durham, N.C.

Warner: Taking this back to CU, is there something we should be watching for on Friday when they tip-off that will indicate whether they got their groove back?

Barry: They’ll play Drake, and Colorado is the higher-seeded team. So I think the first thing is whether you see the hungry Colorado team that played against Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament. They beat Oregon by 49 points.

And I would expect that they're going to be a little angry about not getting a four-seed.

But I think the play of Frida Foremann, Jaylyn Sherrod, Maddie Nolan — that perimeter play — if they're hitting their outside shots, that's a significant part of the offense for Colorado.

Warner: Is this the kind of situation where CU has one big shot in this year's tournament, or can they keep the success going next season?

Barry: Fans should keep an eye on Foremann. She's a phenomenal player and probably will play professionally, and she’s one of four great players coming back. I would expect Colorado to be right back in an identical position next March as they are right now.