March Madness: Does Caitlin Clark need to win a title to be the women's GOAT?

A debate emerged this winter over whether Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is the greatest women’s college basketball player of all time.

As can happen with such things, opinions got intense. Personally, I find Clark to be the most exciting women's player and perhaps the greatest, but I can’t just forget about Connecticut’s Diana Taurasi. Others prefer others. There is no lack of contenders.

In seeking to split hairs between levels of greatness, a point was raised: Does Clark have to lead Iowa to a national title to lay claim to the moniker?

“I hear people talking about [greatest of all time],” said ESPN’s Jay Williams. “For me, I’m kind of like ‘OK, you want to be a GOAT?’ Fine. There’s levels of greatness. You’ve got to win championships to be [a] GOAT.

“So when people want to [call Clark] the greatest, I’m like, ‘Let’s slow down. I’ve seen Diana Taurasi. I’ve seen Breanna Stewart’ … Championships. That’s how we measure greatness overall.”

Williams’ criteria is interesting, but perhaps not applicable, especially in women’s college basketball.

The short answer to the above question is, no, Caitlin Clark does not have to win a national title to be considered the greatest of all time.

Doing so over the next three weeks would certainly aid her candidacy — dramatically, even — but the uneven competitive balance and nature of the women’s college game makes such a thing a bonus, not a baseline. Williams, to his credit, acknowledged that in his numerous comments on the subject.

Start with this: Almost no one ever debates who the greatest men’s college basketball player is. That gets reserved for overall play, heavily, if not exclusively, weighted to what a player — namely Michael Jordan or LeBron James — does/did at the NBA level.

Any college argument might center on “most accomplished” rather than taking into account pure skill.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, left, celebrates with teammates after the overtime win against Nebraska of NCAA college basketball game in the final of the Big Ten women's tournament Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, left, celebrates with teammates after the Hawkeyes beat Nebraska to win the Big Ten women's tournament. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

If the argument was about who the greatest to ever play college hoops was, then the answer is Jordan, who spent three years at North Carolina and drained a national championship-winning shot as a freshman. How could it be anyone else? No reasonable person would rank him below No. 2 on the all-time GOAT list and his only competition — LeBron — never played in college.

Yet, if you’re talking about the most accomplished — and still great — players at that level, it’s hard to go beyond Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor). In three seasons (freshmen were then ineligible) at UCLA, he led the Bruins to an 88-2 record and three national titles. He was thrice named both the National Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.

Go ahead and try to beat that.

That was a different era of college hoops, though. It resembles (to a degree) the women’s college game, certainly in the 2000s when Taurasi helped UConn to three championships, even to this day. The sport was top-heavy, with just a few teams actually capable of even reaching the Final Four, let alone winning it.

Consider that while Taurasi was UConn’s second-leading scorer her sophomore season — the first of her three national titles — the Huskies were so loaded that they featured four of the top six picks in that spring’s WNBA Draft, including Sue Bird (1) and Swin Cash (2).

That team went 39-0 and outscored its opponents by an average of 35.4 points a game, including 26.9 in the NCAA tournament. There was just one single-digit result all season, a midseason 59-50 victory at Virginia Tech.

I remain partial to Taurasi because of how she played the game, but how much should winning a championship really matter under those circumstances? Of course UConn was going to win.

Clark is in a different situation. Coming out of Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines, she eschewed the superteams that define the sport and chose to write her own legacy at a good, but hardly elite, program at Iowa.

The Hawkeyes made a Final Four back in 1993, but had reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament just twice this century before Clark arrived. Coach Lisa Bluder ran a quality program, but Clark wasn’t going to be surrounded by fellow McDonald’s All-Americans. If the team was going to be elevated, then it would be Clark doing the elevating.

Well, Iowa made the title game last year — before losing to a stacked LSU team. They enter this NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed for the first time in over three decades. Still, while the Hawkeyes can absolutely win the national title, they are no one’s favorite to do it. That honor goes to 32-0 South Carolina, which is seeking its third national title — and second in three seasons — under coach Dawn Staley.

Is Clark really a lesser player if she can’t pull it off? Wouldn’t taking Iowa to multiple Final Fours be more impressive than what someone such as Taurasi did at UConn?

Jay Williams' point about counting titles is applicable when discussing NBA or WNBA players. Those leagues are parity driven, and over long careers the truly great ones should be able to lift their franchises.

Because women’s college basketball is exponentially more popular than the WNBA — the reverse of the men’s game — you can see why trying to shift the championship criteria is tempting. The Final Four is what millions of people watch and remember.

It shouldn’t matter though. Caitlin Clark’s legacy shouldn’t be diminished by whether Iowa clips the nets in a few weeks.

Now, if they do, if she leads the Hawkeyes that high … well, that might settle the debate forever.