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CBB: The Top 31 College Basketball Programs of the Last 31 Years (The Top Ten)

Posted by Neil Paine on November 19, 2010

See also: #11-15, #16-20, #21-25, #26-31

With the 2010-11 season warming up, let's finish up our ranking of the 31 best NCAA teams from 1980-2010:

10. Louisville Cardinals (+14.76 SRS)

Record: 709-329 (.683)
Prominent Coaches: Denny Crum, Rick Pitino
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (1980, 1986)

Louisville has somewhat quietly amassed a dominant resume over the past 3 decades. With 2 national titles and 4 Final Fours, the Cardinals were probably the best program of the 1980s, while their "down" years of the 1990s consisted of 8 NCAA berths & 208 wins. And in the 2000s, Rick Pitino took them to a Final Four in 2005, seamlessly transitioning from the Crum era with 220 victories of his own. Pick any year since 1980, and chances are The Ville was one of the better college basketball teams in the country.

9. Syracuse Orange (+15.41 SRS)

Record: 755-279 (.730)
Prominent Coaches: Jim Boeheim
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (2003)

Under Jim Boeheim, the Orangemen won more games than all but four schools since 1980. He took a solid program and turned it into a perennial contender, produced a number of NBA prospects, won 14 Big East regular-season or tournament titles, and finally filled the gap in his resume when Carmelo Anthony carried 'Cuse to their elusive NCAA crown in 2003. Simply put, no Big East team has been better over the past 30 years.

8. Oklahoma Sooners (+15.53 SRS)

Record: 710-303 (.701)
Prominent Coaches: Billy Tubbs, Kelvin Sampson
Best NCAA Finish: Lost NCAA Final (1988)

Think Oklahoma is just a football school? Think again. Ever since Billy Tubbs took over in 1981, the Sooners have boomed their way to 22 NCAA tournament appearances, 695 wins (23 per season), and 2 Final Fours, including a run to the 1988 NCAA final against Kansas. Tubbs' successors, Kelvin Sampson and Jeff Capel have carried the torch as well; despite the way he departed, Sampson racked up ten 20-win seasons, while Capel promptly rode Blake Griffin to 30 wins in his 3rd year at the helm.

7. Indiana Hoosiers (+16.22 SRS)

Record: 655-332 (.664)
Prominent Coaches: Bob Knight
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (1981, 1987)

Think of Indiana basketball, and you think of Bobby Knight. The General paved the way for the Hoosiers' appearance on this list, piling up 478 wins from 1980 until his controversial departure in 2000. Along the way, he piloted Indiana to 2 national titles, 3 Final Fours, and seven conference crowns, dominating the Big Ten through superior strategy and sheer force of personality. After Knight left, Indiana has only won 17.7 games per season, but the wealth of accomplishments they collected during his tenure is enough to secure the #7 spot on this list.

6. Arizona Wildcats (+16.38 SRS)

Record: 686-304 (.693)
Prominent Coaches: Lute Olson
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (1997)

30 years ago, no one could have predicted that Arizona would blossom into a national powerhouse, but Lute Olsen changed everything for the Wildcats. Within five years of taking over the program, Olsen had transformed the Cats from a 4-24 laughingstock into a 35-3 wrecking crew, eventually taking 'Zona to their first Final Four ever. And that was just the beginning -- Olsen won a staggering 258 games in the 1990s, culminating with a magical NCAA title run in 1997 with Miles Simon & Mike Bibby. Olsen's career wound to a close the following decade, but Arizona has maintained a consistent NCAA tourney presence throughout the 2000s, and hope to keep amassing wins under Sean Miller.

5. Illinois Fighting Illini (+16.48 SRS)

Record: 693-316 (.687)
Prominent Coaches: Lou Henson, Bill Self, Bruce Weber
Best NCAA Finish: Lost NCAA Final (2005)

Despite a tradition that reached back into the earliest days of national college hoops, Illinois wasn't on anyone's radar until Lou Henson took them to the 3rd round of the NCAA tournament in 1981. From then on, the Illini were back -- they would go on to 22 more tourney appearances, 2 Final Fours, and 632 wins from 1983-2010. Still, they haven't secured the prize they're really after -- a national title -- despite coming painfully close in 1989 and 2005. With Bruce Weber at the controls, there's certainly time to change that over the next decade.

4. Kentucky Wildcats (+18.94 SRS)

Record: 788-248 (.761)
Prominent Coaches: Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (1996, 1998)

Winning basketball is a way of life in Lexington, from Adolph Rupp to Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, and now John Calipari. The Wildcats have gone through their share of coaches over the last 3 decades, but one thing always seems to stay the same: they win ballgames. Take the John Wall-led 2010 crew, which finished 2nd the pre-tournament AP rankings. For most schools, that would be a once-in-a-decade team -- yet they weren't even one of the 10 best Kentucky teams since 1980 by SRS! And the 2003 squad, which finished the regular season #1 in the polls? Not even in the top 5. That's what happens when the measuring stick is a season like the one UK delivered in 1996, the 3rd-most dominant SRS performance of the past 30 years. Sky-high expectations, sky-high winning percentages... all of that makes Kentucky our #4 school of the last 3 decades.

3. Kansas Jayhawks (+19.34 SRS)

Record: 820-240 (.774)
Prominent Coaches: Larry Brown, Roy Williams, Bill Self
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (1988, 2008)

When your first coach invented the game, it's safe to say you've got tradition -- and pressure to perform. Yet the Jayhawks have managed to live up to those expectations over the last 30 years, winning more games (820) than all but 2 schools, capturing 19 conference titles, and most importantly, taking home 2 NCAA titles in thrilling fashion. Outside the state of North Carolina, you won't find a better basketball program in recent seasons than the one they've built in Lawrence, Kansas.

2. North Carolina Tar Heels (+20.49 SRS)

Record: 822-252 (.765)
Prominent Coaches: Dean Smith, Roy Williams
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (1982, 1993, 2005, 2009)

Chapel Hill has been home to GOAT-worthy hoops legends like Dean Smith and Michael Jordan, yet what does it say about North Carolina basketball that neither are bigger than The Program? That's what you get when you win an amazing 822 games, 4 NCAA titles, and 20 ACC crowns in a 30-year span. Unfortunately, though, it's not exactly lonely at the top for UNC, because they don't even rank as the #1 team in their own state -- which brings us to...

1. Duke Blue Devils (+21.29 SRS)

Record: 823-244 (.771)
Prominent Coaches: Mike Krzyzewski
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010)

They're the school just about everyone loves to hate, college basketball's answer to the Yankees or the Patriots, and just like those teams they're constantly in your face with their relentless winning. It doesn't even seem to matter who's wearing the uniforms -- when Coach K plugs different names into his lineup, it just provides a new set of stars for Dick Vitale to scream about. Over the past 30 years, no other D1 team has won more frequently, and in a more dominant fashion, than the Devils from Durham. And, frankly, it all comes down to Krzyzewski... I mean, sure, Vic Bubas had some good years in the 1960s, but the overwhelming majority of Duke's success as a program has come under Coach K's guidance. Year in and year out, he puts together a team that strongly contends for the national championship. If all the hate is a natural byproduct of that, then I hope my team is this reviled too someday.

9 Responses to “CBB: The Top 31 College Basketball Programs of the Last 31 Years (The Top Ten)”

  1. marparker Says:

    Must have had some really down years in Westwood if they are not in the top 10 with multiple final four appearances over that span.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    I think this methodology rewards consistency as much as anything else. Some of those years UCLA had under Lavin, Walt Hazzard, and Howlund (his first few years with Lavin's players, before he started going to Final Fours with his own guys) were not good relative to a program like Oklahoma, who went to fewer Final Fours but whose down years were not as, well, down.

  3. Cort Fornero Says:

    No UNLV? They haven't had a better 31 years than Alabama? Even in the "down" years between Tark and Kruger they still put together some pretty decent teams.

  4. Kat Says:

    Interesting to see how teams have continued or discontinued their success over these years. As always, and as long as Coach K is leading the program, I don't see Duke going anywhere on this list. Love to hate em, got that right. Wish Indiana could pull it together...they lost a lot with the departure of Knight, and Crean has much to prove. Hope to see the Big Ten add more to this list in the future!

  5. Sara Says:

    Knight did not leave, he was fired by the insidious Miles Brand. We have lost the in-state recruiting battle over the past 10 years due to Mike Davis's inability to recruit Indiana's top talent, and the disastrous hire of Kelvin Sampson which created more instability. Hopefully Crean can turn our in-state wealth of basketball talent into contenders again.

  6. oops you screwed up Says:

    Okay, how about we look at PROGRAMS and not just championships...

    1. UNC... as much as I hate to admit it
    2. UK... strong argument for #1 as a PROGRAM
    3. Duke... quite an accomplishment for a smallish school
    4. Kansas... good consistency, history, and winning %... if forgettable overall
    5. Louisville... under-performed a bit? maybe, but, c'mon, it's Louisville
    6. UConn... sure they have a grotesque fan-base, but they are definitely a top-ten program
    7. IU... the Hoosiers have had a rough go of it lately, but we're going back 31 years right?

    List stops here if we are talking PROGRAMS. Honorable mention: Syracuse, Memphis, Arizona and if I'm being generous maybe Maryland. BTW who compiles a garbage list like this?

  7. Mike Says:

    Great post! Thanks for this. I love thinking about the old teams. There's no way these current teams could hang with some of those older teams. I found a pretty extensive 64-team bracket on a site. Good stuff. I found your article searching for more opinions on the best team. Nice!

    If you want to check out the 64-team bracket. It’s enjoyable if nothing else:

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