Posted by Neil Paine on August 26, 2010
20. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (+12.87 SRS)
Perhaps better known for what their alums do after leaving the program (Billy Packer, Muggsy Bogues, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, etc.), Wake nonetheless has maintained a near-perennial NCAA Tournament presence (and a frequent top-4 ACC team) over the past 3+ decades. Carl Tacy's teams were very good (AP top-20 three times) in the first half of the eighties, and following a short, mediocre stint under Bob Staak from 86-89, Dave Odom took the reins and oversaw one of the most successful periods in school history (including the recruitment of the greatest Deacon of all, Tim Duncan). Under Odom, WF had 7 consecutive NCAA berths, but the last in that run was the most disappointing -- after climbing as high as #2 in the AP poll, Wake was unceremoniously bounced by Stanford in the 2nd round, ending Duncan's collegiate career. After Odom left for South Carolina in 2001, the late Skip Prosser continued a winning tradition with 4 straight Tourney appearances and the development of Paul, before tragically passing away in 2007. Today, the Deacs hope to rebound from Dino Gaudio's up-and-down tenure with the hiring of Jeff Bzdelik in 2010.
19. Florida Gators (+12.90 SRS)
With all due respect to Norm Sloan and Lon Kruger, Florida ranks this highly because of Billy Donovan. Prior to the Rick Pitino protege's hiring in 1996, a top-25 finish would have been considered an accomplishment for the Gators (far and away their best pre-Donovan campaign by SRS came in 1987, when they went 22-11 and lost in the NCAA 2nd round). Sure, Lon Kruger led them to a magical Final Four appearance in 1994, but the typical season ended with UF scraping to finish in the SRS top 50. Then Donovan came to Gainesville, and after 2 rebuilding years they proceeded to rattle off 12 straight 20-win seasons (and counting), 3 Final Four berths, and 2 National Championships, with an average national SRS rank of 8th from 2000-07. His Gators also topped traditional SEC powers like Kentucky & Alabama to be the class of the conference for the decade of the 2000s. With Donovan's recruiting classes annually ranking among the best in the country, don't be surprised if the Gators' ranking here only gets better in the years to come.
18. Arkansas Razorbacks (+13.31 SRS)
Before his success at Oklahoma State (and scandal at Kentucky), Eddie Sutton resurrected what had been a moribund Arkansas program in the mid-1970s, leading them to 9 straight NCAA appearances (including a Final Four) from 1977-85. When Joe B. Hall retired in '85, Sutton moved on to Kentucky (this was before Arkansas & UK shared a conference), and the Hogs replaced him with the greatest coach in their history, Nolan Richardson. Richardson's aggressive "40 Minutes of Hell" defense pushed the Razorbacks to new heights in the early-to-mid 1990s, and they ranked as the 10th best program in the country from 1989-95. That stretch included a move to the SEC in 1992, back-to-back National Title Game appearances (winning once) in 1994 & '95, and 7 NCAA berths in 7 years. The Hogs fell off during the latter stages of Richardson's run, though, as they fought to stay in the nation's top 30 programs, and Richardson himself was ousted in 2002 after he accused the university of racial prejudice against him. Since then, Arkansas has only come close to replicating their early-90s success once, when they won 22 games and finished 16th in SRS in 2006 (and even then they were upset in the 1st round of the tourney by Bucknell).
17. Iowa Hawkeyes (+13.62 SRS)
Over the past 31 years, Iowa has rarely been a great, dominant team (just 7 top-10 SRS finishes, none since 1996), but the secret to their high ranking is that -- with the exception of their 3 most recent seasons -- they've hardly ever been bad, either. Between 1980 and 1999, they ranked better than 10th only 5 times and worse than 40th only 4 times, through the tenures of 3 different coaches (Lute Olson, George Raveling, & Tom Davis). Their most dominant seasons came in the 1980s, including a Final Four in 1980 and 9 NCAA berths in 10 years from '80-'89, and Davis also consistently engineered a top-20 program during the 90s. However, while Steve Alford followed Davis with a decent run of his own, the Hawkeyes were no longer a perennial top-40 team by the time he resigned in 2007, and the team bottomed out under his successor, Todd Lickliter. Unless new coach Fran McCaffery can right the ship and restore Iowa's ability to avoid bad seasons, their days in this list's Top 20 could be numbered.
16. Purdue Boilermakers (+14.11 SRS)
Speaking of avoiding bad seasons, the Boilermakers were as steady & reliable as any school during the Gene Keady era, staying in the SRS top 45 every single season between 1981 and 2001. In that span, Purdue missed the NCAA Tournament just 5 times, at one point advancing beyond the opening round 12 times in an 18-year stretch. Like their Big Ten rivals in Iowa City, Purdue has rarely been a dominant team -- their Lee Rose-led 1980 Final Four team also represents by far their highest SRS ranking: 3rd in the nation -- but it's fitting that a school known for its engineering expertise would boast a hoops team with machine-like consistency. When Keady retired in 2005, the Boilers simply moved on to the next branch of his coaching tree, hiring former Purdue point guard (and Keady assistant) Matt Painter as his successor. And after a rocky first season, Painter appears to be applying Keady's lessons well; the Boilermakers have been +15.46 over the past four years, finishing 10th in the final AP poll last season.