The Big Ten women's basketball tournament arrived in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday, bringing in another marquee sporting event less than a year after the Final Four electrified Target Center.
"I can almost promise you it will be five days of exciting, competitive and, if it's anything like the regular season, dramatic basketball," said Megan Kahn, vice president of women's basketball for the conference.
It's a big year for the Big Ten women — if not the hometown Gophers. Five of the teams playing this week are ranked in the Top 20. Indiana is No. 2, and Iowa's Caitlin Clark is one of the best shooters in the country and a contender for national player of the year.
The single-elimination tournament won't pack Target Center like the Final Four, and plenty of seats are still available, especially for the early rounds. The top teams get a double-bye and don't play until Friday.
For the Twin Cities, the tournament is another opportunity to showcase hometown hospitality and event savvy. For women's basketball, a lively tournament is another step in the push to parity with the men's game.
Moving the event to Target Center was a big shift. Since 1995 the event has been played in Indianapolis for all but three years.
"I'm excited for our student-athletes to get up here and have a new experience," Kahn said.
By the time the championship game hits ESPN on Sunday at 4 p.m., 14 teams will have played 12 games. The Gophers won't be there. They played in the first game Wednesday and lost to Penn State.
Goldy Gopher, the Nittany Lion, the university pep bands and cheerleaders were on the sidelines keeping it lively, but attendance was sparse for the initial games, just a fraction of the 18,000 fans who turned out for the Final Four last year.
The seats are mostly general admission so that's first-come, first-served.
"If you're a fan, what a cool opportunity to get close to the action," said Matt Meunier, deputy executive director for Minnesota Sports and Events and a co-executive director for the tournament.
All 14 teams are staying at downtown hotels, and they saw their first of many Big Ten tournament signs welcoming them when they arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
"As we go through this tournament, you're going to see more and more crowds as the games get even better," Meunier said, adding that there will be a free fan zone with pep bands in the Target Center lobby beginning at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in preparation for the team arrivals and the 4 p.m. championship game.
Kahn's expecting fans to come from Indiana — the top-seeded team — as well as Nebraska and Iowa. Clark is a draw on her own, responsible for a boost in attendance at arenas across the Big Ten of about 4,000 per game when she's in town, Kahn said.
If that sounds like hype, tell it to the Hoosiers who lost in Iowa City because of Clark's stunning three-point shot last weekend.
Ahead of Wednesday's first game, Kahn said the Big Ten had sold more all-session passes than they did for the tournament a year ago. There are seven sessions, all of which include two games except for the championship. Kahn said she expects sellouts later in the weekend.
Beyond the action on the court, it's a big moment for women's basketball. For the past two years, the NCAA stepped up efforts to bringing more perks and prominence to the women's game after a viral video from the 2021 Women's Final Four in San Antonio showed the paucity of their event in contrast to the men's.
"To me with all that's happened in the last two years, it's fun to have this here for our fans and our community," said Julie Manning, deputy athletic director at the U. "It demonstrates where women's basketball is and how far we've come."
Meaghan and Brigid Hart-Molloy snapped up the $75 all-session passes and flew in from their home in Ann Arbor, Mich. They've got a room at a downtown hotel and were hoping to score a table for a meal at Owamni.
"We're Big Ten women's basketball fans in general," Meaghan Hart-Molloy said. "The Big Ten teams this year are good."
They're also big Michigan fans, and the winner of the Minnesota-Penn State game was to play the Wolverines, so the Hart-Molloys were ensconced in the second row ahead of the tip-off.
"We're invested in the outcome," Meaghan Hart-Molloy said.
The two didn't mind the less-than-hospitable gray, drizzly Minnesota weather.
"We're fine being inside for five days," Brigid Hart-Molloy said.
Minneapolis retirees Dan and Susan Patton didn't travel as far or plan in advance, but they put on their Golden Gopher sweatshirts Wednesday and bought $12 tickets at the door.
"It's great entertainment," Susan Patton said. "We had an open afternoon and it's a big event."
Dan Patton, who was in the marching band when he attended the U, acknowledged they're not big basketball fans, but "we wanted to support the team."
Jessica and Matt Gerhan of Richfield were also wearing the maroon and gold for the Gophers. The couple said their son was in daycare so they decided to make it a date.
"We're just in general big fans of Gophers sports, and I have a mild obsession with Lindsay Whalen so we came out to see how the year ends," Jessica Gerhan said.
Whalen, a former Gophers star and the head coach until she announced her resignation Thursday, was still a hometown hero with fans watching what turned out to be her final game.
"It's been a tough basketball year, but we love them," Jessica Gerhan said.
Matt Gerhan added, "We'll hold out hope."
It wasn't a great ending for the Gophers, but there truly is a next year. Both the men's and women's Big Ten tournaments will be played at Target Center in 2024. That's a basketball fan's dream with 26 games over two weeks.