Is Caitlin Clark the greatest collegiate player of all time?


Caitlin Clark is no longer merely an incredible basketball player.

The Iowa superstar has crossed over as a household name for sports and non-sports fans alike. Her quest for the all-time DI scoring crown is drawing a national spotlight with fans spending hundreds on tickets and standing for hours in the cold to enter arenas that fill to capacity.

The senior point guard delights them with deep 3s and buzzer-beaters, emphatic roars and gracious appreciation. She is a dozen or so of those logo buckets away from scoring the most points in women’s basketball history, and is within reach of the DI overall record set by legendary LSU star Pete Maravich.

The talent, the highlight reels, the fans, the viewership, the TV trucks, the on-screen trackers, the commercials, the NIL deals, and, most importantly, the soon-to-be record have all led to one major claim.

Caitlin Clark is the greatest collegiate player of all time.

But is she really?

The Clark Effect is real, but it’s also part of a larger Women’s Basketball Effect of late. Those claiming Clark is the greatest of all time already might have fallen into the trap many stumble into with women’s sports in general.

They’ve forgotten the history. Or, that history wasn’t readily available to consume and discuss.

Clark is but the latest superstar charging onto the scene, following those before her who still have clear claims to be the GOAT. The NCAA sponsored women’s basketball beginning in 1982, and before that players lit up the AIAW designed specifically to center on them. Incredible careers abound.

Caitlin Clark is the megastar of this women's basketball era, but how does she stack up against the legends of the game? (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

Caitlin Clark is the megastar of this women’s basketball era, but how does she stack up against the legends of the game? (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

When Yahoo Sports spoke to Legends of the Ball a couple of years ago about the importance of remembering the sport’s history, their focus was on finding a way to cement the past into sports lexicon. The easiest way, they said, is to break it down by eras.

Instead, we’ve split our candidates up into three categories: The Champions, Advancers of the Game and the NCAA pioneers, who set the foundation for Clark to step back and back and back again to drain 3s for millions on national TV.

The majority of players on this list can cross over into other categories, hence why they’re in the conversation. All have been among the most influential and important players in college basketball history and, for the sake of this argument, only the collegiate resumes are considered (so no WNBA, national team or overseas club success). For each category, we’ll consider Clark’s current case.

THE CHAMPIONS

Trophy case: Four NCAA championships, four Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards, three Naismiths, two Woodens, two Wade Trophies, three Associated Press Player of the Year awards, three United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) POY awards.
Box score (152 games): 2,676 points (17.6 ppg), 1,179 rebounds (7.7 rpg), 426 assists (2.8 apg), 232 steals (1.5 spg) and 414 blocks (2.7 bpg). Shooting line: 53/35.5/79.7.

Stewart takes the lead in the champions category with ease. She is the only player to win more than two MOP awards and, along with teammates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, the first and only in both DI men’s and women’s history to win four national championships. It was Stewie’s world in the mid-2010s.

The Huskies went undefeated when she was a sophomore (40-0) and a senior (38-0), and she helped spark the beginning of their record 111-game winning streak (2014-17). Her career record at UConn is 151-5 (.968).

She was a new, more versatile 6-foot-4 forward characterized early as the “new prototype” in women’s basketball for her wide-ranging skillset that was still rare at the time. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma called her the “first Durantesque player in the women’s game,” a nod to NBA star Kevin Durant. She became the only player in NCAA history to block at least 400 shots and dish out 400 assists. Her 414 career blocks passed Rebecca Lobo for the most in Huskies history, and it ranks top 15 in DI.

As for national recognition and watercooler talk material, Stewart is one of the rare women athletes to land solo on the cover of Sports Illustrated, taking center stage in multiple annual March Madness issues.

Trophy case*: Three NCAA championships, two FF MOPs, two Naismiths, one Wade Trophy, one AP POY, one USBWA POY.
Box score (144 games): 2,156 points (15 ppg), 628 rebounds (4.4 rpg), 648 assists (4.5 apg). Shooting line: 46.9/39.2/81.9.

For all the comparisons between Clark and Taurasi, there is one that stands out the most. It’s actually a famous line uttered by Auriemma in the early 2000s.

“The best way to explain it is that we have Diana and you don’t,” Auriemma said ahead of Taurasi’s fourth and final Final Four game. “And every other team in this tournament wishes they had her.”

It’s easy to say the same thing about Clark two decades later. Both are clutch players who rise to the moment and have the ball in their hands at the end, usually with a celebration in store for their teams.

Taurasi, who was dubbed by UConn’s media department as “The Best…Ever” before her collegiate career ended with a third and final ring, became the program’s first two-time player of the year in 2004. It’s a mark that would be short-lived with Stewart’s success a decade later. Her UConn teams went 139-8.

Much of the women’s basketball GOAT discussion runs through Storrs, Connecticut, and Taurasi has at least one thing to hold on Stewart: Her 2002 championship team trumped Stewart’s 2016 team in Yahoo Sports’ “Best Teams Ever” bracket in 2020.

Diana Taurasi won three national championships during her college career at UConn. (Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Diana Taurasi won three national championships during her college career at UConn. (Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Chamique Holdsclaw (Tennessee, 1995-99)

Trophy case*: Three NCAA championships, two FF MOPs, two Naismiths, two AP POYs, two USBWAs.
Box score (148 games): 3,025 points (20.4 ppg), 1,295 rebounds (8.8 rpg).

Holdsclaw led the Lady Vols to the first three-peat in NCAA history. The 1998 squad was the program’s first undefeated team (39-0) and set the NCAA record at the time for most wins in a season.

When she left college with a 131-17 overall record, she was the fifth player to reach 3,000 points and one of five to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 assists and 300 steals. Lady Vols teammate Tamika Catchings, who played on the 1998 title team, also reached that.

Holdsclaw received the Naismith Player of the Century award for the 1990s.

*The Wooden Award was not given on the women’s side until 2004.

Maya Moore (UConn, 2007-11)

Trophy case: Two NCAA championships, one FF MOP, two Naismiths, two Woodens, three Wade Trophies, two AP POYs, two USBWA POYs.
Box score (154 games): 3,306 points (19.7 ppg), 1,276 rebounds (8.3 rpg), 544 assists (3.5 apg), 310 steals (2.0 spg), 204 blocks (1.3 bpg). Shooting line: 52.5/40.4/79.8.

Moore is a nice hybrid between the champions category and advancing the game. She is one of the best blends of accolades, advancement and name recognition included in this exercise in legendary status. Her rise came alongside the beginning of regular internet usage, social media and smartphones, allowing more people to find her on their own and talk about her broadly. Of course, Stewart also had that, and with more trophies.

UConn labeled the 6-foot forward the “most prolific winner in NCAA history” before Stewart came along to bust that up. Moore led the Huskies to a 150-4 record over her four-year career with four Final Four appearances. When she left for the WNBA, she ranked fourth in NCAA scoring history with 3,036 points.

How does Clark compare? Clark is missing one key element in this category. She has yet to win a national championship. That could come this April in Cleveland, where Iowa is a favorite to reach the Final Four again after its first title game last year. Most would say at least one championship is needed to make a legend, and some of the following names have faced this toward the end of their own collegiate careers.

Take the cases of Kelsey Plum and Kelsey Mitchell, for instance. Plum set the scoring record in 2017 and Mitchell neared it in 2018. Both are highly talented players with strong collegiate careers and statistics to back it up. But neither are considered the greatest because neither lifted a trophy with their team on the last day of the season.

ADVANCERS OF THE GAME

Trophy case: Two NCAA championships, two FF MOPs, one Naismith, two Woodens, one Wade, one AP POY, two USBWA POYs.
Box score (110 games): 2,137 points (19.4 ppg), 972 rebounds (8.8 rpg), 287 assists (2.6 apg), 209 steals (1.9 spg), 275 blocks (2.5 bpg). Shooting line: 53.8/28.3 (17-60)/71.3.

Parker continues to be a trend-setter who has completely changed the game. Record notes often refer back to her success, and she is commonly in rare air as a “first” no matter the level.

Her staying power began before she made it to Tennessee to play for legendary head coach Pat Summitt. Parker made national headlines when she won the dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-American basketball event for top high school boys’ players. Two years later, she became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game (and twice, no less).

She is listed on Tennessee’s player page as a “G/F/C,” an incredibly versatile all-around 6-foot-3 star years ahead of a more position-less era. Parker only played three years after redshirting as a freshman with injury.

Brittney Griner made Baylor basketball games must-see TV during her time at the school. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Brittney Griner (Baylor, 2009-13)

Trophy case: One NCAA championship, one FF MOP, two Naismiths, two Woodens, two Wades, two AP POYs, two USBWA POYs.
Box score: 3,283 points (22.2 ppg), 1,305 rebounds (8.8 rpg), 239 assists (1.6 apg), 748 blocks (5.1 bpg). Shooting line: 56.9/—/.747.

Griner perfected what Parker advanced. The 6-8 center was dominant in the paint and earned national attention for her record-setting 18 dunks as well as her record 748 blocks that far surpassed St. Mary’s Louella Tomlinson (663) and Michigan State’s 6-9 Allyssa DeHaan (503), who played in the same decade.

She was a force to be reckoned with, and few could measure up to her height or get around her 7-3 wingspan. But she also played with the athleticism of a traditional guard, prompting head coaches at the time to call her the best post they’d ever seen. Her Baylor teams went 135-15 (108-5 over her final three years) and the national title team was the first to finish 40-0.

As with many of the transcendent talents on this list, national cameras and attention followed Griner throughout her collegiate career. Her dunk total at the time she left for the WNBA was three more than every other women’s player combined, and in her final home game she slammed down three. She ranked second in all-time scoring and was the first NCAA player to amass 2,000 points and 500 blocks.

Honorary mention: Seimone Augustus (LSU), who had a similar pull on fans as this group.

How does Clark compare? Women’s basketball has never seen a player like Clark before. Her range is half-court, allowing her to pull the defense out and still beat them on strong drives to the basket. But it’s not just a heave-and-prayer. She practices this much like Stephen Curry, one of the more favored comps for Clark. And she has the green light because she can hit from deep. That’s what has drawn the nation’s eyes, and will lead to more players like her in the future.

If Clark doesn’t win a title — though it should be noted that Parker and Griner both did – this is the category she might lead. Because her scoring record isn’t likely to last long in this new era of high-scoring individual stars.

NCAA PIONEERS/TRAILBLAZERS

*Wooden Award was first introduced in 2004, the AP in 1995 and the USBWA in 1988.

Cheryl Miller (USC, 1983-86)

Trophy case: Two NCAA championships, three Naismiths, one Wade.
Box score (128 games): 3,018 points (23.7 ppg), 1,534 rebounds (12.1 rpg), 414 assists, 462 steals, 320 blocks. Shooting: 56.5/—/73.5.

Miller dominated the record books in the NCAA’s first years and is still all over the top lists. She holds USC marks for scoring, scoring average, rebounds, rebound average and free throws made. Given the legacy players who have gone through the Trojan system, her numbers staying at the top is most impressive.

The small forward is one of five legendary players whose names are celebrated with annual Naismith starting five awards. Nancy Lieberman (point guard), Ann Meyers Drysdal (shooting guard), Katrina McClain (power forward) and Lisa Leslie (center) are the others and could all lay claim to the greatest of all time.

USC's Paula McGee (11), Cheryl Miller (31) and Pamela McGee (30) celebrate after winning the national championship in 1984. (Peter Read Miller /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

USC’s Paula McGee (11), Cheryl Miller (31) and Pamela McGee (30) celebrate after winning the national championship in 1984. (Peter Read Miller /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Sheryl Swoopes (Texas Tech, 1991-93)

Trophy case: One NCAA championship, one FF MOP, one Naismith, one USBWA POY.
Box score (66 games): 1,645 points (24.9 ppg), 528 rebounds (8 rpg), 226 steals, Shooting: 52.7/41.0/84.4.

Swoopes is one of the most legendary and iconic players in women’s basketball history. She scored 47 points for Texas Tech to defeat Ohio State in the 1993 national championship game. It stands as the most in women’s Final Four history, and is the second-highest in tournament history.

Her 955 points (28.1 ppg) in the 1992-93 season are a school record, and one of the best in NCAA history for a single season, and her 53 points against Texas in March 1993 is also a single-game school record. Much like Clark, she poured in a few big scoring performances. She hit at least 40 points four times and had 17 games of at least 30 points.

Lisa Leslie (Southern Cal, 1990-94)

Trophy case: One Naismith, one USBWA POY.
Box sheet (120 games): 2,414 points (20.1 ppg), 1,214 rebounds (10.1 rpg), 402 blocks, 321 steals. Shooting: 53.4/—/69.8.

Leslie is one of the most decorated players in Trojans history and received the NCAA Silver Anniversary award in 2019 as a distinguished individual on the 25th anniversary of the end of her collegiate career.

She left the program in the top five in points and rebounds and held the blocks record. But she never led her team past the regional final round of the NCAA tournament. Her teams went 89-13.

Honorary mentions: Lieberman played for Old Dominion in the AIAW days and won two national championships. She was the first Wade Trophy winner and amassed 2,430 points, 1,167 rebounds, 961 assists (school record) and 562 steals.

Meyers starred for UCLA from 1974-78 and notched the first quadruple-double as a senior. She was the first four-time All-American and still holds Bruins records.

How does Clark compare? No player will likely ever compare to the OGs. This group of players largely fought their way onto courts and battled through sexism in the pre-Title IX era, where players were steered far away from athletics even by their doctors. Even Leslie and Swoopes were born right around the time Title IX was first passed.

There was no footprint to follow, no player film to watch and few basketball programs to participate in from a young age. These women are truly in a league of their own.



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