Is it safe to ask if Paige Bueckers, not Caitlin Clark, is the best player in women’s college basketball?

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark points toward the stands after a game against Maryland in February.

Nick Wass/AP

I know a tidal wave when I feel one, the soaked clothes being one clue, the salt water in the lungs being another.

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is much, much more than a phenomenal basketball player. She’s a cultural thunderclap who has drawn all different kinds of newcomers to women’s college basketball. Her ability to make shots from galaxies far, far away is remarkable, and her passing skills are exceptional. Children who wouldn’t otherwise have been drawn to the game now shoot hoops and make her trademark heart gesture with their hands after a bucket. Lots of money has come her way via TV ads.

She’s a girl wonder.

With all that in mind, I wonder if a question can be asked without the questioner being sent to a watery grave:

Is Caitlin Clark really the best player in women’s college basketball right now?

There’s very little dunking in the women’s game, but if anything would seem to be a slam dunk in life these days, it’s that Clark stands alone atop the mountain. Everybody and everything tells us this is so – the gushing analysts, the breathless play-by-play announcers and the corporations that want their brands associated with her. If Clark decides to play in the WNBA, she’ll be the No. 1 overall pick. There’s no debate on that.

But … um … er … I can’t shake the thought that Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers is a better all-around player than Clark.

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If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in hiding.

Geno Auriemma, the bombastic coach of the Huskies, recently opened the door to a debate on the subject by saying, “We have the best player in America.” You’d expect that from a coach and you’d especially expect that from Auriemma, who has been known to give his opinion even if no one asked.

He talked vaguely about statistics that backed up his assertion, but the obvious ones don’t favor his player. In the tournament, Bueckers is averaging 28 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5 assists and 3.25 steals to Clark’s 32.3, 7.3, 10 and 2. I’m sure there are numbers that cast Bueckers in a better light, but the best argument for her actually is the opposite of numbers. It’s the thing that stat nerds hate: the eye test.

I know what Clark’s going to do on the court. She’s going to find space to get off her shot, often from an ungodly distance. It’s amazing to watch. She’s going to get passes to teammates whom defenders, in their preoccupation with her, have forgotten to defend.

I don’t know what Bueckers is going to do on the court, other than everything, and that’s the allure. Her feel for the game on both ends of the court is something to behold. You need a steal late in a game? She’ll do that. A rebound? Sure. A crossover dribble and a drive to the basket? Got it. She looks like she could walk into any pickup game anywhere and more than hold her own.

I’d like to say we’ll get an answer to the who’s-best question Friday, when Iowa and UConn meet in a Final Four game, but I know that will be missing the point of Clark, no matter how she plays. There’s no Paige Mania. There hasn’t been JuJu Watkins Mania, even though she had a phenomenal freshman season for USC. There’s only Caitlin Mania.

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Taylor Swift isn’t the best singer in the world, but her 283 million Instagram followers either don’t know it or don’t care. That’s what this is, on a smaller level.

Who will be the better WNBA player? My money would be on Bueckers, if she can stay healthy. That’s a big if. She was the 2020-21 National Player of the Year, then missed most of the next two seasons with knee injuries. That allowed Clark to blow past her in the race for national renown. If people forgot about Bueckers, this year’s tournament has served as a nice tap on the shoulder.

If Clark decides to play in the WNBA, the team that gets her will get a built-in marketing campaign, increased ticket sales and national attention. But she’ll face much stiffer competition on the court than she does now. I’m not sure why bigger college defenders don’t challenge her when she drives for a layup. They just don’t. That will change at the next level.

There’s a joy to Clark’s game that you can’t make up. She’s a total entertainment package, and that’s why America has taken to her. But if the measure is basketball skills, the Caitlin-Paige competition is close.

When the two met in the tournament three years ago, Clark had 21 points, three rebounds, five assists and five turnovers. Bueckers had 18 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and two turnovers. UConn won by 20.

Since then, there’s been a massive wall of hype for Clark. Best to get out of the way and let it do its thing.

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