Who's the best? Aliyah Boston-Caitlin Clark debate & why it matters to women's basketball

Iowa's Caitlin Clark (22) and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (4)

COLUMBIA – Both sides tacitly believe they’re right.

The face of their team takes the argument. And from their viewpoint, it’s not close. There shouldn’t be a debate.

But in the simplest of terms, the passionate dialect between South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and both teams’ respective fan bases, is more than worth having. It has converged into a real-time sales pitch for women’s basketball and the women’s NCAA Tournament that tipped off Friday.

While this isn’t the first time there has been an argument regarding who the top player in the country is – Diana Taurasi and Alana Beard in 2004 or Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins in 2008 are two recent ones that jump out – the Clark-Boston is playing out at the perfect time for the sport, which saw a 160 percent audience increase last Sunday for the 2022 tournament selection show than the 2021.

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“It’s passionate,” longtime ESPN women’s basketball analyst and national championship-winning coach Carolyn Peck told The Greenville News. “And the thing about it is it gets people talking about women’s college basketball.

“How good is it when people compare Michael Jordan to LeBron James? It’s a conversation that people are interested in. For women’s basketball because they are so passionate about it, I think that’s great for the game.”

How Boston and Clark are completely different players has given the debate plenty of miles as well. For No. 1-ranked South Carolina, Boston is the star among a roster full of stars. The forward currently sits on 25-game double-double streak – she extended it against Howard in the first round of the NCAA tourney Friday in Columbia – and has been the model of consistency.

She averages 16.6 points and 12 rebounds per game.

For Iowa, a No. 2 seed in the Greensboro Region that defeated Illinois State in the first round Friday to advance, the score-first guard Clark has displayed the top shooting range in the country, hitting deep 3’s from the halfcourt logo, but she also is a smooth distributor of the ball. In the Hawkeyes' NCAA Tournament opener, Clark had a double-double of her own, finishing with 27 points with 10 assists

Clark leads Division I in scoring at 27.4 points per game along with 7.8 assists per game.

Mar 6, 2022; Nashville, TN, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston (4) grabs a rebound during the first half against the Kentucky Wildcats at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Mechelle Voepel, an Associated Press voter and one of the authorities on women’s college basketball with an extensive past of covering the sport, said it’s not a straightforward debate between a forward and a guard and because of that difference, it has ratcheted up the dialogue.

“This one is really interesting because you have two entirely different type of players,” Voepel said. “They do different things in some way. Aliyah is really a dominate post player, the most dominate in college basketball right now, and Caitlin is a guard. She’s got the ball in her hands a lot. It’s for that reason in an Iowa game, you’re watching her all the time.

“The nature of the post position is you aren’t going to be the focus of the attention when running down the floor when your team has the ball. Part of it is that you’re watching different things. Due to the structure of the teams, Aliyah is not taking as many shots when you compare them. They’re different and that makes for an interesting contrast.”

Debate is great, but both Voepel and Peck agree that there is a negative side to it with some taking their cases too far and being negative toward the player they’re arguing against. The negative comments come with the territory, but it takes away from the constructiveness of the debate.

“Each side fan bases are convinced they’re right,” Voepel said. “To South Carolina fans, it’s not a question. To Iowa fans, it’s not a question.

“People act like you disrespect a player because they don’t get player of the year. And the voting has nothing to do with not respecting them. You can only vote for one. It doesn’t mean you don’t respect who else in on the ballot. When people start to get negative about the other player – they’re still college kids. Advocate as much as you want for which one you believe in, but don’t take shots at 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds online. I have zero tolerance for that. They’re both great and terrific kids. And frankly it’s going to be awesome because they’re the future of women’s basketball.”

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts after making a 3-point basket during a NCAA Big Ten Conference women's basketball game against Michigan, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

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While the Naismith Player of the Year announcement on the first night of the Final Four is still a few weeks away, both Voepel and Peck say they believe Boston is the front-runner for the award.

Peck pointed to Boston’s scoring efficiency (second in the country) and the level of competition the Gamecocks faced this season (11 games against the top 25) and say it gives her the slight edge.

“Clark is a phenomenal player. She’s got unbelieve range, she’s done great things to be able to Iowa in a great position for where they’re going in the tournament," Peck said. "When it comes to the national player of the year, the reason I feel like Aliyah Boston should be national player of the year is what she has done consistently.

“And the numbers don’t lie.”

South Carolina and Iowa could meet in the Elite Eight. Don’t doubt all eyes of the sport would be on Greensboro, North Carolina, and that game that night.

And that’s what it’s all about. That’s why the debate between Clark and Boston is happening at an important time for women’s college basketball. The two best bring the sport into the homes of millions and there’s no price for the continued growth in exposure.

“You got three great players to debate about it,” Peck said. To me, (Baylor senior forward) NaLyssa Smith is in the conversation.

“When you have players that are at that level, more than just one hands-down, it’s great for the sport.”

Cory Diaz covers the South Carolina Gamecocks for The Greenville News as part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow his work for all things Gamecocks on Twitter: @CoryDiaz_TGN. Got questions regarding South Carolina athletics? Send them to Cory Diaz at bdiaz@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Player of the Year: USC's Aliyah Boston or Iowa's Caitlin Clark?