With the 2021-22 college basketball season tipping off this past week, NCAA women's teams around the country have their eyes on the Twin Cities as a dream destination in April.
From former Hopkins star and current UConn sophomore sensation Paige Bueckers to one of the players she grew up following — Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen — everyone hopes the journey this season takes a turn onto the road to Target Center.
"I'm thrilled the Final Four is going to be in Minneapolis and on the 50th anniversary of Title IX," said Whalen, who led her alma mater to the 2004 Final Four in New Orleans.
Bueckers, the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, missed out on playing before large crowds last season because of the pandemic. She caught a glimpse of it at Connecticut's exhibition game last weekend and will get the full picture Sunday, when the Huskies open the season against Arkansas in Hartford.
"I sort of feel like a freshman in a sense where we didn't get that experience last year," she told reporters this month.
All the top programs have goals of making NCAA tournament runs, but this season is different for players and coaches with Minnesota ties. No matter how their season ends, their state can again showcase how much basketball means here.
"After having multiple championships with the Lynx and with me having gone to a Final Four," Whalen said, "there's huge support for women's basketball in our city."
Place in history
The last time Minneapolis hosted a Final Four was on the men's side, when Virginia defeated Texas Tech in overtime in the championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2019.
It's been more than 25 years since Minneapolis' one-and-only women's Final Four came to town. Hall of Fame UConn coach Geno Auriemma won the first of his record 11 national championships after beating Tennessee at Target Center in 1995.
Gophers fans experienced a magical ride with Whalen and Janel McCarville getting to the 2004 Final Four after beating UCLA, Kansas State, Boston College and Duke. That Gophers team, especially with a homegrown talent like Whalen, electrified the state of Minnesota and inspired a generation of girls hoops players.
Whalen got another sense of Minnesota's passion for basketball during the 2017 WNBA playoffs. Target Center's remodeling that summer led to Williams Arena becoming a pro playoff venue. Fittingly for Whalen, she and the Lynx beat the Los Angeles Sparks in front of a raucous Game 5 sellout at the Barn for their fourth championship.
Whalen remembers talking to Maya Moore, Cheryl Reeve and others during that time about the Final Four possibly coming back to her home state. A year later, Whalen became the Gophers coach.
"We were talking about once Target Center was renovated what would it look like here if we hosted a Final Four," said Whalen, who saw her premonition turn into reality when the 2022 Final Four site was announced in the spring.
A regional passion
Iowa All-Big Ten center Monika Czinano, who is from Watertown, Minn., has already set a goal of playing in the Final Four in front of friends and family.
The Hawkeyes lost to UConn in the Sweet 16 last season, but Czinano and All-America Caitlin Clark return for a Big Ten title contender.
"I think the state of Minnesota [high school and youth] programs I was a part of and growing up in that basketball culture made me thrive," Czinano said. "That would be so special to go to the Final Four in my home state. I definitely think with our team that's what we're striving for."
Clark and Bueckers' head-to-head matchup as superstar freshman guards was one of the highlights of the NCAA tournament last season, giving the Hawkeyes star an even bigger appreciation for Minnesota hoops.
"I know there's a lot of great talent from Minnesota," said Clark, a Des Moines native. "Me and Paige are pretty good friends. When I was in high school, we played some Minnesota teams that were super talented."
The Hawkeyes will play the Gophers in Minneapolis on Jan. 20. The Gophers will face Bueckers and UConn to open the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament next Saturday in the Bahamas.
The Big Ten opened the season with five teams in the Associated Press Top 25: Maryland (No. 4), Indiana (8), Iowa (9), Michigan (11) and Ohio State (17).
The odds of at least one Big Ten program reaching the Final Four seem high, but an entire season is left to play.
One thing that won't change by the time April 1-3 rolls around is the state of Minnesota's love for women's hoops.
"It's extra special to have our city and our state — that always comes out and supports women's athletics and women's sports — have an event like that," Whalen said. "It's the culmination of the women's basketball season. I think it will be a great event."