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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

Hannah Hidalgo

Can Notre Dame make a star?

Notre Dame hasn't had a true, international star in years. At this point, can the institution make one?

Recently, Fox has been airing a lot of women’s basketball in its FOX Primetime Hoops slot on Saturday nights. As a women’s basketball fan and supporter, I love this, and I think it’s a pivotal step for the sport. At the same time, FOX’s coverage has been a bit frustrating - especially evident during last week’s Iowa-Maryland matchup. Obviously, the story in any Iowa game is Caitlin Clark. Clark is the star of all of college basketball right now. She’s an amazing player, and soon, she will look to break the all-time scoring record in women’s college basketball. She’s only 66 points away. The sports world seems to be on a trend towards focusing on star players, almost demonizing successful players (i.e. Brock Purdy) who don’t demonstrate consistent flash in their play. 

FOX’s coverage was overwhelmingly focused on Clark. For almost the entire game, on the scorebug above the team’s points, Clark’s scoreline was prominently featured. The problem is that there was much more to the game than Clark. Iowa pulled away at the end of the game, but in the fourth quarter, Clark’s teammates helped as much as she did. It makes me wonder: is FOX interested in the game of women’s basketball? Or are they solely interested in reaping the benefits of Clark’s virality?

Next year, Clark looks to head to the WNBA. Technically, she could return to college basketball, and she could get paid well via NIL. Yet most signs point that she’ll be drafted first overall by the Indiana Fever. Women’s college basketball won’t have a clear star at the beginning of the year. Probably the closest player to one is Hannah Hidalgo, Notre Dame’s breakout rookie guard. Hidalgo is having a monster season, averaging 24.8 points per game. She was recently named to the John R. Wooden Award Late Season Top 20. Hidalgo plays like a star, flashy on defense with the ability to drive and make shots from deep. The question is, could she become America’s player … the new face of American women’s athletics?

My answer is yes; she has every resource to be the best player in women’s college basketball and the best player in team history. Although, I don’t think Notre Dame will play a significant role in that. Let me explain. Notre Dame is still very much a premier brand in college athletics. The independent status in football, Big Ten status in hockey and ACC status in all other sports allow teams and players to have sufficient — if not good — national exposure. Yet, recently, several random programs have become a home to stars. Jayden Daniels had a wildly good season at LSU — even though the team mightily struggled on defense. LSU is an SEC team, sure, but it’s not the largest of markets. It’s not Los Angeles or New York. On the other hand, location can hurt a star. Michael Penix Jr., my vote for last season’s Heisman trophy, struggled to receive media attention; it didn’t help that most of Washington’s games were late at night on cable television.

Iowa is smaller than both Washington State and Louisiana. Iowa’s women's basketball program was adequate before Clark’s arrival, but the team never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen in the five years before she joined the team (2015-2019). Lisa Bluder has coached at Iowa since 2000. She didn’t make a Final Four until last year. Clark is the foundation of Iowa’s success. Iowa’s fanbase — along with Clark’s stellar performance which naturally attracted viewers — helped make Clark into the star she is. Clark took Iowa to the promised land (Final Four) last year. This year, she has a chance to win it. 

Notre Dame on the other hand, has seen that success. Muffet McGraw won two national championships in women’s basketball, the last in 2018. For fans, it’d be nice to win another — Coach Ivey’s first — but it wouldn’t be revolutionary. Notre Dame is flashy like South Carolina or LSU. They focus on the game, and the focus will always be on the court. Notre Dame can help aid a star, especially for women’s basketball. But Notre Dame won’t make a star. No institution can. Not LSU. Not Iowa. Not USC. Not Michigan. Not Alabama. Stars shine because of their play. Any collegiate institution has a role in that, but not a primary one. 

In any sport — whether it be basketball, hockey, football, softball — any player at any major institution can shine to the exact level they play. Unfortunately, recently Notre Dame just hasn’t seen that level of on-field performance. Blame it on recruiting, coaches, or just player talent. I’d argue that Hannah Hidalgo is the first player in a while to become a true, national star: one of the top five athletes in the world. She could attract Clark status if she keeps up her performance. It’s a magnificent gift to Notre Dame fans. Notre Dame would aid her status. But Notre Dame can’t make a star just because of its brand. It starts with the player.