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Men's, women's basketball programs share stage at Big Ten Media Days

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — In past years, the Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball teams would hold their media days at different times and locations.

That changed this time around when the event was stretched into two days and all the programs convened at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. According to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, there was a purpose behind the move.

Michigan women's basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico called the NCAA's decision to use "March Madness" in branding the women's tournament "outstanding."

“We are coming up on 50 years since the passage of Title IX that provided women the opportunity to compete from an athletic standpoint. We made a lot of progress, but we have so much progress left to make,” Warren said Thursday. “One of the things we want to do at the Big Ten is be leaders in this area. We all can do better, but it is a focal point of us to do it. That's one of the reasons why we're here today in this environment, to show that we believe in equality, that we all can do better.

“That's why we wanted to have this media day where both our women coaches of our programs, our men coaches, our women student-athletes, our men student-athletes, could come on the same stage at the same time to be able to share their stories and to be able to promote their individual brands. We wanted to do it together, not separately.”

Equality, diversity, and inclusiveness were a common theme throughout Warren’s news conference. He said 52% of coverage on Big Ten Network this season will be women’s sports and noted four of the conference’s five basketball head-coaching vacancies this offseason, were filled by people of color — Penn State’s Micah Shrewsberry, Minnesota’s Ben Johnson, Indiana’s Mike Woodson and Wisconsin’s Marisa Moseley.

Warren stressed the importance of women’s athletics, and the topic of gender equity in college basketball has been prominent recently. Last week, the NCAA announced the women’s basketball tournament will start using “March Madness” — the slogan that has been associated with the men’s tournament for years — in marketing and branding this season.

Michigan women’s coach Kim Barnes Arico called the decision, which was one of the recommendations stemming from an external review of gender equity issues of the tournaments, “outstanding.”

“I think last year there were so many tough things that happened through COVID, so many hard times through COVID,” Barnes Arico said. “But there were some real positives that came out of it. An opportunity for the women's game to be on the big stage last year, for so many people to get to watch our game, for so many of the inequities to be shown I think really opened up a lot of people's eyes and has given us an opportunity to use our platform to move forward. This is just another great example and opportunity for our women, for women basketball players, but women basketball players and women in general.”

One idea that hasn’t been met with universal support is the NCAA’s exploration into holding the men’s and women’s Final Fours in the same city on the same weekend. While no final decision has been made, a potential change wouldn’t occur until 2027 since the men’s and women’s Final Fours have contracted hosts through 2026.

Barnes Arico said she was asked by players Naz Hillmon and Leigha Brown on Wednesday’s flight to Indianapolis how she felt about the idea and she doesn’t have a strong opinion either way yet.

“I think it's really a good conversation to have,” Barnes Arico said. “I'm not sure if I have a real feeling which way that I would go at this point. But I think it's great that we're really having those conversations and really trying to figure out what is the best for the female student-athlete. Is it best to put them in an environment where the men are having their Final Four, or is it best for them to have their own place? Where would we get more media attention, what would be the best situation for those student-athletes? I don't know. I'm still thinking about that. I don't have my own personal opinion really on it. I think it's just great that we're having these type of conversations and that we're moving the needle forward.”

And moving forward, Warren said this week’s joint media day will be the “first of many things” the Big Ten will do together with its women’s and men’s basketball programs as it strives to promote an inclusive environment from a race, gender and sexual orientation standpoint.

“I challenge our staff every day, I challenge myself every day, to ask what we can do to continually amplify women's and expense sports to bring these two sports together, to be able to show the respect that our student-athletes deserve and have earned,” Warren said. “You have my promise that I'm going to do everything that I possibly can, especially from a women's sports standpoint, that we give them the respect that they've earned and provide a platform for them to be able to come together and be treated equally, treated in the same manner that we treat our men student-athletes.”

Standing firm

Michigan edged out Illinois for the men’s Big Ten regular-season title last season, despite not completing its 20-game conference schedule, finishing with two fewer wins and losing the lone head-to-head matchup. The Wolverines had three games canceled due to a two-week athletic department shutdown and the imbalanced schedule led to the Big Ten crowing its champion via win percentage.

However, Illinois coach Brad Underwood and athletic director Josh Whitman felt the Illini should’ve been crowned co-champions, and Whitman went as far as to pen an open letter to argue his case.

Asked about the decision to not award Illinois a share of the regular-season title, Warren stood by the call.

“It was not a straight-line year,” Warren said. “I feel we made the right decision collectively with all the athletic directors and conference staff. Josh and I have had an opportunity to discuss kind of the events of last year. … We've been able to communicate. I told Josh many times before I really appreciate and embrace his passion.”

More: UM picked to repeat, MSU to finish sixth in Big Ten hoops preseason media poll

Slam dunks

College athletics has taken its share of financial hits due to COVID-19. While playing through the pandemic last season, Warren said the Big Ten was able to “hold steady” and have a “good year financially.”

“Our schools really stood steady and firm and handled those issues internally, did the right things, and took the long approach to it,” he said. “They didn't take any shortcuts. I know at the conference we're strong. Fortunately, we were smart about our expenses as we started to deal with the COVID-19.”

… The Big Ten created an award named for Michigan native and broadcasting trailblazer Lisa Byington, who was recently hired by the Milwaukee Bucks and will be the first female play-by-play television broadcaster for an NBA franchise. It will be awarded annually to a female student broadcaster working on Big Ten Network’s Student U.

… The Big Ten announced Dr. James Borchers will serve as the conference’s first chief medical officer. In his role, Borchers will serve as a consultant to all 14 Big Ten institutions on matters of student-athlete health and safety and will lead all conference sports medicine programming and initiatives.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins