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Championship or Not, Caitlin Clark is Still the G.O.A.T.

(Photo Credit: John Mac, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes fell to a juggernaut on Sunday night.  It wasn’t particularly surprising, though it was certainly notable.  Despite having the most prolific scorer in college basketball history (men’s or women’s), Iowa proved to be no match for the raw, unbridled talent from the South Carolina Gamecocks.  After four years of turning opponents into mincemeat, upending the college basketball landscape, rewriting the history books, reaching two consecutive national championship games, and becoming a cultural phenomenon, Clark met her match.

In the immediate aftermath of the Gamecocks’ 87 - 75 victory over the Hawkeyes, the conversation quickly shifted to a debate: namely, can Clark really claim greatest of all-time (G.O.A.T) status without winning a national title?

The easy answer is yes.  The more complicated answer is also yes – just with a lot more evidence to back it up.

First, this notion that Clark has to win a national title to be recognized as the greatest women’s college basketball player of all time is an absurd premise.  Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962.  The Warriors didn’t even reach the NBA Finals, and Chamberlain finished 2nd in the MVP voting to Bill Russell, but there wasn’t a person alive who didn’t fundamentally understand that Chamberlain was the best basketball player on Earth that year.  It’s not so different with Clark.

It’s really Michael Jordan’s fault.  His 6 - 0 record in the Finals obscures everything else about his career.  Forget the early playoff exits and his me-first, ball-hogging style in the 80s…as far as our collective memory is concerned, Jordan entered the league fully formed with Scottie Pippen at his side in 1991.  Jordan’s shadow is so long and all-encompassing that even 21 years after his last professional game, we still cannot shake the standard he set.  But we should.

Caitlin Clark is – right now – not a champion.  As she’s already declared her intention to enter the WNBA Draft, Clark will never be a champion in college basketball.  The story of her WNBA career is yet to be written, but the sentiment still stands…for now.  But should that really be held against her?

Again, the answer is no.  For one thing, just compare the two schools that met in the title game last night: South Carolina entered the game with a perfect 37 - 0 record.  Iowa, meanwhile, was a formidable 34 - 4, but closer inspection reveals a gulf in favor of the Gamecocks.  Outside of Clark, the Hawkeyes lacked top-tier talent.  The Gamecocks, on the other hand, were chock-full of talent.

Kamilla Cardoso gets (deservedly) a lot of the attention, but the 6’7” center is just the centerpiece of a highly talented roster, which also happens to be coached by one of the premier names in all of women’s basketball (collegiate or professional), Dawn Staley.  The Gamecocks had the 2nd-ranked recruiting class in 2023, the 6th-ranked class in 2022, and the top-ranked class in 2021.  Iowa didn’t even have as many four-star recruits as Iowa State, much less Carolina.

To further illustrate the talent disparity between Iowa and Carolina, just take a look at their bench during the title game.  Notice anything – namely, that Iowa’s bench just didn’t score.  USC’s bench players contributed 37.  For much of the season – and most of the tournament – their lack of depth wasn’t an Achilles’ heel for the Hawkeyes.  Clark’s singular dominance was enough.  On Sunday, though, it wasn’t.

But Clark herself can’t be held responsible for that shortcoming.  She put up 30 points, including 18 in a championship-record first quarter.  She did all she could.  That it wasn’t enough against a historically-talented team shouldn’t be viewed as negative – after all, we only remember David beating Goliath because it was the exception.  Iowa beating Carolina would have been magical, but the fact they lost takes nothing away from the magic Clark made during her time in college.

The fact that Iowa even made it back to the championship in the first place is a minor miracle.  In a sport that’s been historically dominated by a handful of teams, Iowa was the brash newcomer.  It was slightly shocking that they made a run last year, and the fact that Iowa nearly reached the peak again – this time after losing two three-year starters – is mind-blowing.  Just to get to the finals, Iowa had to go through last year’s champion LSU, and perennial leviathan UConn.  Falling short to an undefeated Carolina doesn't seem so bad all things considered.

But beyond all of that, Clark is the greatest women’s college basketball player of all time not just for her accomplishments on the court, but for what she’s done to grow the game.  She’s not just college basketball’s all-time leading scorer – she’s a sensation.  Iowa’s Final Four contest against UConn drew 14.2 million viewers on ESPN.  If your jaw hasn’t hit the floor yet, it will in a second – that’s because 14.2 million viewers is the biggest audience for a basketball game in ESPN’s entire history.  That’s not a typo.

The numbers for the national title game aren’t out yet, but it almost certainly eclipsed (see what I did there) (OK, I’m done) the Final Four numbers.  But regardless, Clark – a 22-year-old women’s college basketball player – drew more eyeballs than LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal or Kevin Garnett ever did.  That’s special, and a championship wouldn’t have validated it.  We all validated it by watching.  By being moved by what we saw.  By talking and writing about it.  Caitlin Clark may not be a college champion, but she conquered the sport anyway.

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