During the recently-concluded edition of March Madness, consensus national player of the year Caitlin Clark and her Iowa Hawkeyes graduated from one of the best teams in college basketball to one of the biggest stories in sports.
Thanks to a dominating run through most of the NCAA Tournament, including a Final Four victory over previously-unbeaten South Carolina, the second-ranked Hawkeyes became a fan and media favorite, with Clark’s half-court range and on-court cockiness often driving national conversation. Iowa fell one win short of immortality with a loss to LSU in the championship game on April 2nd – though even in defeat, the Hawkeyes made history thanks to the final’s television audience of 9.9 million, a number that made the affair the most-watched women’s basketball game ever.
On December 16th, Cleveland State will see how it fares against one of the most talked-about and successful programs in the country, thanks to a doubleheader showcase at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa announced by the Hawkeyes on Wednesday.
In the other half of the event, the Iowa men will take on Florida A&M. Game times will be announced at a later date.
Tickets are set to go on sale on March 24th at 11:00 a.m. (ET), through hyveetix.com. Given that Iowa smashed the Big Ten women’s attendance record with 11,143 fans per game last season at their usual home, Iowa City’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena, followed by full 14,382-fan sellouts of their home NCAA Tournament games, and then by a crush of demand for 2023-24 season tickets that forced the school to pause sales, most or all of the 16,110 seats at Wells Fargo Arena will likely be filled. On top of all of that, Des Moines is Clark’s hometown, which will likely produce an additional surge of interest.
Though 6-3 center Monika Czinano, an All-American honorable mention and a Los Angeles Sparks draft selection, is gone, the reigning Big Ten champions will return most of their 2022-23 firepower. Beyond Clark and her 27.8 points per game, Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year Hannah Stuelke are all expected back.
“We’re excited to play in our state’s capital at Wells Fargo Arena,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said in the university’s release. “It will be another great opportunity for both the men’s and women’s programs at Iowa to play in front of Hawkeye fans in Des Moines.”
Do the Vikings have a chance in the game? Most would instinctively say “no,” possibly while laughing, but it is worth noting that the Clark-era Hawkeyes teams lost their only meeting with a Horizon League opponent so far, a home game against IUPUI on December 21, 2021. In that contest, the Jaguars managed to hold Clark to 19 points, while overcoming an 18-point second-half deficit and clinching a 74-73 stunner over their then-No. 15 hosts on a pair of Rachel McLimore free throws with three seconds remaining.
CSU has never matched up with Iowa before, but the Vikings do boast victories over four different Big Ten schools throughout program history, with an overall record of 6-28 against the conference. Four of the six wins took place during the wild west era of women’s basketball, the early 1980s, but more recently, Cleveland State defeated Indiana in both 2009-10 and 2012-13.
The trip to Iowa is the latest data point in a rapid hardening of CSU’s schedule since the 2021-22 season. After that slate, which saw all six of the Vikings’ scheduled and completed non-conference games take place in the Wolstein Center against mid-major or lower-division opponents (a scheduled game at Akron was canceled by a COVID outbreak), Chris Kielsmeier signed a contract extension. That new contract required $40,000 of gross revenue from guarantee games and, in what’s likely not a coincidence, things immediately ramped up last season, with trips to Iowa State and DePaul.
Now things have dialed up even further from there, with what may very well be the toughest game in school history.