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

Posted by Neil Paine on November 19, 2010

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.

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

  1. Chris Says:

    How is Illinois fifth on this list? One great season doesn’t even come close to justifying that position. And it’s Olson, not Olsen. I would think a top 10 program of the last 30 years would earn the man the right to have his name known and spelled correctly.

  2. Bill Says:

    How can Illinois and Oklahoma finish ahead of Syracuse? Is this a joke … I think you need to revisit your SRS formula. Which I am willing to be needs some serious tweaking … if you have followed any basketball over the last 30 years you would swiftly come to the conclusion that the SRS needs some tweaking. Using margin of victory is a big flaw in the equation to begin with because certain programs will win games using a slower tempo and not looking to blow teams out. I emplore you to watch a Syracuse game and see how early Boehiem will start to slow the game down when they establish a lead … franlky this ranking system needs tweaking.

  3. Jesse Says:

    Don’t know how you can have Duke ahead of Carolina. They’re essentially the same in National Championships, winning percentage and final four appearances over this 30 year span. However, you list UNC as winning 20 ACC crowns, meaning Duke hasn’t even been the most dominate school in their own league? I do think that Coach K is the greatest college basketball coach ever but having several coaches that win titles at the same school like Carolina has over the past 30 years is far more impressive. It proves that Carolina can win with diffenent coaches, we don’t know how Duke will do when coach K steps down.

  4. Will Says:


    UNC’s 20 titles counts both tournament and regular season titles. By my count Duke has won more over that period.

  5. KJOK Says:

    SRS is supposed to be simple, just based on points. There are possibly issues with teams that play high possession games (fast, high scoring) vs. teams that play low possession games (slow, low scoring) favoring the high possession teams. One way to adjust for that would be to use the losing teams score as the ‘base’ and calculate a ratio of the winning team’s score over the losing team’s score.

    For example, team A wins 50-40 over team B. Using the current SRS, team A gets 10 points due to winning by 10. If you set team B’s 40 = 100, then the ratio score for team A would be 100 x 50/40 or 125.

    Team C wins 100-80 over team D. Using score in SRS, Team C’s win is twice as ‘good as Team A’s win above, worth 20 points. Using a ratio setting team D’s 80 = 100, then the ratio score for team C would be 100 x 100/80 or 125 – same as team A above.

  6. LaLaland Says:

    How is UCLA not in the top 10 bullshyt

  7. D Says:

    hahaha….that was funny. I was happy to see Louisville at #10 then i saw at least 3 teams that shouldn’t be ahead of them and i was mad, then laughing. So thanks for that. Illinois, Oklahoma….ok. Shouldn’t winning a national championship in the last 31 years be a big part of being in the top freakin 10!!! You people/sites who ‘crunch’ all these numbers and shit are just a fraud. Your formula is a joke.

  8. Johnny Says:

    Yeah this post is highly an accurate IU has 5 titles not two,… Illinois has not won yet and ucla is not listed in the top ten….whoever blogged this should consider writing for the food network…my top 5 is UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, and Duke.

  9. 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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  13. Tim Says:

    I really expected UCONN to be somewhere on this list. They’ve produced 3 National Titles and a boat load of players who’ve gone on to succeed in the NBA. Now, I understand that most of their success has primarily come in the past 20 years, but still, how can you not put Calhoun and co. on this list?!

  14. DypeDagoastog Says:

    Cheers with regards to your records. Enormously preferred.

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