University of Virginia swimmer Kate Douglass and University of Iowa basketball player Caitlin Clark are two of the top athletes in the NCAA. KATE DOUGLASS VS. CAITLIN CLARK: WHO HAD THE BETTER NCAA SEASON?

After Clark’s historic NCAA March Madness performance, we decided to compare her NCAA season to that of swim star Kate Douglass. Archive photo via Jack Spitser (left)/John Mac CC 2.0 license (right) 

University of Virginia swimmer Kate Douglass and University of Iowa basketball player Caitlin Clark are two of the top athletes in the NCAA. In addition, they are both 2023 Honda Sport Award finalists for their respective sports (swimming and basketball), meaning that they have a chance of being up against each other for the overall Honda award (amongst other potential awards)—which is given every year to the best Division I athlete on the women’s side.

Because of this, and also because of the recent hype surrounding Clark’s dominant NCAA tournament performance that led Iowa to the national championship game, I was left wondering: who had the better 2022-23 NCAA season, Douglass or Clark?

Before the two get compared, it’s important to note that Douglass and Clark are undeniably the best NCAA individual performers within their own sport.

Douglass, the winner of the 2023 CSCAA and SwimSwam Women’s Collegiate Swimmer of the Year award, was the only female swimmer to go three for three in individual events at the 2023 NCAA Championships and broke NCAA records in all her events. Clark on the other hand swept all five national “player of the year” accolades in women’s basketball, being named the recipient of the 2023 Naismith College Player of The Year, 2023 Wooden Award National Player of The Year, 2023 AP Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year, 2023 Wade Trophy, and 2023 Ann Meyers Drysdale awards.

Obviously, swimming and basketball are very different sports, so putting Douglass and Clark against each other would be like comparing apples to oranges. But sometimes comparing apples and oranges can still be interesting – oranges are juicier than apples; apple juice tastes better than orange juice.

RECORDS BROKEN

During the 2022-23 NCAA season, Douglass broke three NCAA records in three individual events, swimming the fastest times in history in the 200 IM, 100 fly, and 200 breast. She also set the record for the fastest 100 fly in history off a relay start. Many historic barriers were also broken by Douglass this year, as she became the first woman to get under both the 1:50 and 1:49-point barriers in the 200 IM, the first woman to split a sub-49 100 fly, as well the first to get under 2:02-point in the 200 breast.

Last year, Douglass also became the first swimmer in NCAA history to win national titles across three different strokes, though it wasn’t possible for her to do it again this year with her NCAAs event lineup.

Clark also made history in many ways, recording the most points and assists ever in an NCAA tournament (her points record was also higher than the men’s tournament record) and scoring the most three-pointers ever in a women’s NCAA title game. Several barriers were broken by her too, as she became the first player to have 900+ points and 300+ assists in one season, the fastest Division I women’s basketball player to score 2,000+ career points (tied alongside Elle Donne Donne), and the first player in NCAA tournament history (men’s or women’s) to record a 40+ point triple-double when she put up 41 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists in the Elite Eight against Louisville.

Overall, Clark outnumbers Douglass 9-8 in records/barriers broken this season. However, it’s also important to note that there are way more categories and opportunities for breaking records in basketball, whereas in swimming it’s really only possible to take down records in events. That being said, even when you only consider single-category records that don’t factor in time constraints, Clark also outnumbers Douglass 5-4.

List of NCAA records and barriers broken by Kate Douglass, 2022-23 season:

200 IM (1:48.37)
100 fly (48.46)
200 breast (2:01.29)
100 fly relay split (48.25)
First woman under 1:50 in the 200 IM
First woman under 1:49 in the 200 IM
First woman under 49 in the 100 fly (relay split)
First woman under 2:02 in the 200 breast

List of NCAA records and barriers broken by Caitlin Clark, 2022-23 season:

Most points scored in an NCAA tournament (191)
Most assists in an NCAA women’s tournament (60)
Most three-pointers in an NCAA women’s title game (8)
Most three-pointers in an NCAA women’s tournament (32)
Most points scored in an NCAA tournament triple-double (41)
Most 25+ point triple-doubles in NCAA history (5)
Most 25+ point, 5+ rebound, and 5+ assist games in NCAA history for a woman (5)
Tied as the fastest DI basketball player to score 2,000+ career points (75 games)
First player to have 900+ points and 300+ assists in one season

In terms of dominance, both athletes are also pretty even. Douglass is the fastest ever in the 200 IM by nearly two seconds and also holds five out the fastest six times in history for the 200 breast, while Clark has scored 14 more points, 10 more three-pointers, and 10 more assists in NCAA tournament history than the the next-highest women in both categories.

VERSATILITY

Both Douglass and Clark are considered to be highly versatile athletes. Douglass is amongst the fastest in history in sprint freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly, and IM, whereas Clark is widely regarded for her ability to score in multiple ranges. In fact, the distance of Clark’s average three-point is 25’11 feet, which is is two feet past the three-point line in the NBA.

When looking at hard stats, Douglass was ranked top ten in the NCAA for 7 different events, while Clark was ranked top ten in 12 different categories (per the NCAA stats site). In total, there are 14 individual events in NCAA swimming, while there are 26 individual statistic categories determined by the NCAA in women’s basketball. So once again, if we are looking at things percentage-wise, Douglass and Clark are even.

List Of Events Where Kate Douglass Is Ranked Top Ten, 2022-23 Season:

50 free: 20.95 (3rd)
100 free: 45.86 (2nd)
100 back: 50.47 (t-4th)
100 fly: 48.46 (1st)
100 breast: 58.14 (9th)
200 breast: 2:01.29 (1st)
200 IM: 1:48.37 (1st)

List Of Categories Where Caitlin Clark Is Ranked Top Ten, 2022-23 Season:

Assists: 327 (1st)
Assists Per Game: 8.6 (1st)
Field Goal Attempts: 715 (3rd)
Field Goals: 338 (3rd)
Free Throw Attempts: 285 (2nd)
Free Throws: 239 (2nd)
Total Points: 1,055 (2nd)
Three Point Attempts: 360 (1st)
Three Pointers: 140 (1st)
Three Pointers Per Game: 3.68 (1st)
Triple-Doubles: 5 (1st)

Across the events where Douglass is ranked top ten, she has an average ranking of 3, whereas Clark averages a ranking of 1.5.

BONUS: TEAM SUCCESS

Even though the strength of a team shouldn’t determine the strength of an individual, it’s still interesting to compare how much of an impact Douglass and Clark had on their respective teams.

The one major accolade that Douglass has and Clark doesn’t have is an NCAA team championship, as the Virginia swim team is arguably better than the Iowa basketball team. While Virginia won the NCAA swimming championships by 127 points, Iowa fell just short, losing to LSU 102-85 in the national basketball title game. In addition, Virginia had been heavily favored to win NCAAs all year, whereas Iowa was an underdog against several basketball teams such as South Carolina, who were undefeated headed into the Final Four.

At NCAAs, Douglass scored 60 individual points (the maximum you can score), which means she contributed to 11% of Virginia’s 542 total points. Without those points, Virginia still would have won NCAAs with 482 points (second-place Texas had 415), but the race would have been tighter. However, it’s important to note that she was also a big part of four national championship relays, which earned 160 points—though one could argue that Virginia’s depth would allow them to score a similar amount of points on relays even without her, even if they don’t win them all. Meanwhile, Clark scored 1,055 out of Iowa’s 3,116 total points this season (33.9%), but that doesn’t account for how she’s helped the team through making assists and rebounds.

Although losing Douglass hurts Virginia, the Cavaliers are still one of the top teams in the NCAA without her, with generational talents like Alex WalshGretchen Walsh, and Ella Nelson also the roster. Iowa has other strong players like AP All-American honorable mention Monika Czinano, but it’s clear that Clark is the core of their team, and the Hawkeyes would not have made it to the national championship game if it wasn’t for her. Clark’s individual impact on her team is much bigger than Douglass’s, but you can’t really penalize Douglass for being on a superteam. Therefore, this category shouldn’t really be considered a factor in the “who is better” debate.

CONCLUSION

I’m going to be completely honest here: before I wrote this article, I was not expecting Douglass and Clark to be so close to each other stats-wise, which makes the debate about who’s objectively better much more difficult. Of course, when you’re comparing swimming and basketball accolades with each other, you’ve got to weigh in a lot of subjective factors, which isn’t an easy task for me since I’m much more familiar with college swimming than I am with college women’s basketball.

For a lot of these national awards though, popularity and cultural impact are factored in, and Clark undoubtedly beats Douglass in this category. Women’s basketball has a much bigger market than college swimming, and the way that Clark single-handedly got so many more people tuning into the WNCAA tournament is almost equivalent to the Phelps effect in swimming. In fact, the University of Iowa even had to pause women’s basketball season ticket sales for the 2023-24 season due to overwhelming demand (they have seen 6,700 new season ticket requests as of April 6, 2023).

I’d even go as far as saying Clark’s impact even reached people outside of basketball—after all, what else got me to spend hours researching March Madness stats for an article on a swimming website?

That being said, Douglass is also transcending NCAA swimming in her own ways, even if her sport isn’t as popular as college basketball. We’ve never seen a swimmer like her before, and the versatility shown by her and other NCAA swimmers like the Walsh sisters, Torri HuskeMaggie MacNeil, and Leon Marchand are raising the sport to another level. In addition, the dominance of the University of Virginia dynasty over the last three years has cemented the Cavaliers as one of the greatest teams in the sport.

So who do you think had the better season, Douglass or Clark? Was I being swimmer-biased, or was I not giving the swimmers enough credit? Let me know your thoughts in the comments down below.

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