Friday, April 12, 2024

The Best 40 College Women Basketball Players Ever

Scroll down for the count down of the all-time top 40 college women's basketball players. The intro paragraphs below cover the decade of work we believe makes this list as accurate as can be. The decision to use all the research to rank the players resulted from some of the 70,000+ unique visitors to the Value Add Basketball Game, who having played games between some of the hundreds of greatest TEAMS ever said they'd like separate cards (click here to print all 40) for just the greatest PLAYERS  ever play the game. This allows a draft and fantasy league games rather than being tied to actual teams. 

This top 40 builds on my development of the system, which was used by NBA officials in draft prep. After a team official tipped off Sports Illustrated about the system, they gave this nice summary: 

As a longtime fan of Bill James' baseball books … Pudner (was) curious about adapting the baseball sabermetrics concept of "Wins Above Replacement (Player)," or WAR, to rate the value of individual college hoops players. The metric he settled on, called "Value Add," attempted to quantify the percentage drop-off if, say, Ohio State were to give all of Jared Sullinger's possessions to a generic, ninth or 10th man on a Division I bench.

We further built upon that system to develop the free Value Add Basketball Game, featured in SIMS magazine after NBA team officials who met with me regarding prospects asked me to attend the MIT Sloan convening of statistical experts such as Nate Silver.

This Top 40 has certain advantages over other methods that could be used to determine the best players in college basketball history.

Dominant Defenders Averaging < 15 ppg - Jordan, Taurasi, S. Bird

1.      We measure defense (and Strength of Schedule faced by each player) with the same precision and weight that is often used only on the offensive side of the court.  For example, Michael Jordan led UNC to the 1982 title despite averaging fewer than 15 points a game, and his 1 steal, 0 blocked shots and 4 rebounds per game also would not indicate how elite he was already. On the UConn Women’s undefeated run 20 years later neither did Diana Taurasi or Sue Bird averaged 15 points per game though some argue they were on the way to becoming the two best players in the world. 

However, the measures we first developed a decade ago measured the incredible lockdown defense of players on UNC Men’s 1982 team and UConn Women’s 2002 season and credits the players for STOPS beyond just steals, blocked shots and defensive ratings. Its not important for the reader to understand the Defense -6 rating for Bird and Taurasi vs. the +7 for Caitlin Clark, but that is a precise measurement of how much more likely each opposing player is to score if guarded by Clark than against either of the UConn players. 

2.     Clark and the Top 5 Ever at Hitting the Open Shot

 Having mentioned Clark is not an elite defender, rest assured how dominant we all know she is on offense. Strong defenders sometimes deny a shot or force an uncomfortable shot, while weaker defenses from lesser teams breakdown more often to allow an uncontested lay-up.

 However, in the game if neither of those things happen then basically the player gets an open shot to try to score or draw a foul while shooting. Based on our calculation, only four other players in history are comparable to Clark on converting a non-layup open shot. Per 20 shots (as measured in our game by a 1-20 die roll), if a player only needed to take about 25% of their teams shots (Clark’s figure was actually 44%), the only four players likely to produce more than 24.5 points per 20 shots excluding open lay-ups are (note we corrected a formula error after first posting to correct these figures): 

  1. Nancy Lieberman, Old Dominion 1980 - 26.3 per 20 non-layup open looks
  2. Breanna Stewart, Connecticut 2016 – 25.8
  3. Caitlin Clark, Iowa 2024 – 25.6
  4. Cheryl Miller, USC 1983 – 25.5
  5. Maya Moore, Connecticut 2010 – 24.6

Based on the fact that Clark faced tougher competition than Lieberman’s 1980 ODU team (women's basketball was not an NCAA D1 sport until two years later), the case is good that Clark is the greatest offensive player in the history of college basketball. 

3.  Adjusting for Position - Point Guards and Centers

One other key to determining the best 40 players in history is understanding that a player must be valued above a likely replacement AT THEIR POSITION. The player card for a center who scores a few feet from the basket after catching a pass, cannot be used in the game as a point guard who would be dribbling up the court against pressure defense.

Some at the MIT convening argued with me regarding the extra valuation I credited in the Value Add Basketball system, but is simply must be done. A point guard handles the ball a lot more than other players and thus it is much tougher for them to avoid turnovers than other players. 

A special thanks go Ainsworth Sports for their incredible work to categorize and rank professional women's players - including this database ranking all the point guards. Ainsworth factors only professional careers, while the rankings below factor only college careers - but to have this master list of every player good enough to play point guard in a professional league was an invaluable cross reference to be sure was flagging elite point guard play.

In our great players game, the truly elite passing point guards have an extra mark on their card that lets them lower teammates shooting die by 1 to increase their chance of scoring by 5%. On the flip side, if a team is put on the court without a true point guard, we adjust in the other direction. You don’t need to play the game to get the idea, as for the Top 40 rankings, each group of five players (1st through 5th, 6th through 10th… etc) all had to include at least one point guard. 

If point guard were no harder or important to play than other positions, three players would have been ranked a bit lower, but due to this requirement; 

  • Dawn Staley of the 1991 UVa team is moved up slightly to No. 20 all-time as the “all-time 4th team” point guard, 
  • Cynthia Cooper for the 1983 USC team is moved up slightly to No. 25 as the same for the “5th team,” and
  • Lindsay Whalen of the 2004 Minnesota team is move up slightly to No. 30 as the “6th team” point guard. 

On the flip side, Centers for most of history have better stats because they caught the ball near the basket for higher percentage shots. For this reason, we do not allow more than one center in any of the groups of five or on the court at the same time in a game. A true center is defined in the game as a player with a 5-C on their card who also does not have any made 3-pointers on their card. To have two players in that category on the court would be clogging the middle. 

Therefore, if you just looked at stats regardless of position, you would likely rank our 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th team centers higher overall - but instead they are ranked at the top of each 5-group set:

  1. Breanna Stewart of UConn 2016 is not effected as she ranks No. 4 overall as our "1st team Center,"
  2. Brittney Griner is our all-time 2nd team Center so grabs the top spot of the next five players at No. 6
  3. Pam Kelly of 1982 Louisiana Tech is our 3rd best all-time center and thus 11th on the all-time list,
  4. Tina Charles of 2010 UConn is our 4th best center and thus claims the 16th all-time spot to stop the 4th team
  5. Finally, Chamique Holdsclaw of 1998 Tennessee is No. 21 as the “5th team center.” As dominant as Holdsclaw was, her 56.7 percent shooting on 2-pointers as a center was a good 5% lower than the four centers we put above her in the ranking of the five dominant centers.

Many would argue for all five of those centers, including Holdsclaw, to be in the top 10, but we believe this is more accurate because a good replacement center would provide more than good backups at other positions, and while the Shooting Guards, Small Forwards and even Power Forwards (now that even can be a 4th guard in the modern game) are a lot more interchangeable than centers or point guards even though those last four could all rank higher if we disregarded positions. 

The Top 40 – Count Down

With that as background, the following are the cards in our game for the Top 40 women’s college basketball players of all-time in count down order.  It is not necessary to play or know the rules of the Value Add Basketball Game to read through the cards – but the ranges will give you a basic idea of how often each player got off the shot (in blue – Clark joins Pistol Pete Maravich as the only players in history got have the ball almost 44% or more of their team’s positions as the ultimate “go-to” players who get the ball on four of eight rolls on the 8-sided die).

 Other ranges give you an idea of how often the player stole the ball, blocked shots, fouled, turned it over, got to the hoop for a layup or shut down their opponent (Adj op Lay-up is that number with negatives being great defenders). Then the 20-sided die range for shooting or drawing fouls, free throw percentage (Sue Bird’s 1-19 Free Throw Made and 20 missed reflects her hitting 95% of all free throws), offensive and defensive rebounds, and finally Stamina (44 indicated they play the whole game with no rests).

Note - we had a formula error that threw off the "Points per 20 open figures" so we corrected and reposted the 40 cards below. That catch mainly just updated that figure for all 40 cards as a guide for how good a shooter each player was - however, it did lead to one update in the Top 5 we will save for the end.

The 40th to 31st Best Women’s College Basketball Players in History:  40,  Clarissa Davis; 39,  Sylvia Fowles; 38,  Angel McCoughtry; 37,  Rebecca Lobo; 36,  Cappie Pondexter; 35,  Ivory Latta; 34,  Seimone Augustus; 33,  Tina Thompson; 32,  Ruth Riley; 31,  Nykesha Sales.

The 30th to 21st Best Women’s College Basketball Players in History: 30,  Lindsay Whalen; 29,  Sue Wicks; 28,  Cindy Brown; 27,  Katie Smith; 26,  Lisa Leslie; 25,  Cynthia Cooper; 24,  Nnemkadi Ogwumike; 23,  Angel Reese; 22,  Katie Lou Samuelson; 21,  Chamique Holdsclaw.


The 20th to 11th Best Women’s College Basketball Players in History: 20,  Dawn Staley; 19,  Becky Hammon; 18,  Sheryl Swoopes; 17,  Penny Toler; 16,  Tina Charles; 15,  Kelsey Plum; 14,  Sabrina Ionescu; 13,  Elena Delle Donne; 12,  Nancy Lieberman; 11,  Pam Kelly.

We featured Pam Kelly's backup Debra Rodman, sister of Dennis Rodman.

The Top 10 Best Women’s College Basketball Players in History: 10,  Candace Parker; 9,  Cheryl Miller; 8,  Caitlin Clark; 7,  Diana Taurasi; 6,  Brittney Griner; 5,  A'ja Wilson; 4,  Breanna Stewart; 3, Sue Bird; 2,  Maya Moore

1,  Tamika Catchings.

At one point I thought of whimping out and putting teammates Taurasi and Bird in a tie for a particular spot, since they are so connected as teammates, doing the radio show together and really similar stats in college. I admit I just don't watch much NBA or WNBA because I'm so focused on college - but I believe Taurasi is considered by at least some the greatest pro ever with Bird a few spots lower. However, there stats (and thus player cards below) are just so similar that the fact that point guard is a harder position, and the fact that steals are such the crucial college stat, that those two are the reason I conclude that Bird was just a little more valuable than Taurasi to the 2002 undefeated season - but a close call.

Moore and Catchings are so close in value that they really could be listed as tied for Number 1, so I went to way too indepth reviews of both of them to determine the slight difference between the two of them to determine Catchings had a slight, slight edge over Moore for the all-time best.

Feel free to stop reading here and just consider them co-champs - but if you want way to much detail on why Catchings is No. 1 ...

As for Tamika Catchings being No. 1- she starts with a huge head start on the defensive side, as the only men's or women's player in the elite top level of STEALS (11-16,31 is not only the highest rating but the 31 indicates she can steal from any of the opposing five players) and BLOCKS (21-26,32 likewise indicates she can also block anyone's shot on the court - in both cases not just the player she is guarding.

However, with all that it still came down to a photo finish between her and Maya Moore for the best player of all-time from our calculations - as both finished a good distance ahead of Sue Bird and the rest of the field.

Moore was a good shot blocker, but a big gap between Moore's 21-26 to block the shot of the player she is guarding, and Catchings' 21-26, 32 to block the shots of any of the five opposing player.

Both are perfect on steals, with the rare combo of almost never fouling - distancing themselves from the rest. 

Catchings gets another small but important edge by rarely turning the ball over (only 41-42). 

They are virtually even in scoring with Catchings hitting a few more 3-pointers and drawing more fouls, but Moore getting to the hoop more for 2-pointers. 

The two are by far the best rebounders among non-centers, with Moore taking a tiny edge back with her 1-9 rebounding on offense and defense, while Catchings is 1-9 on offense but one notch down at 1-8 on defensive rebounds. Only three all-time centers have better rebounding numbers than the two of them.

In the end, it's a photo finish with Catchings nudging out Moore for the greatest college basketball player of all time.

Her rebounding figures of 1-9 on Offensive Rebounds and 1-8 on Defensive Rebounds 

No comments:

Post a Comment