NCAAB
July 20, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

The 25 Greatest NCAA Basketball Programs Ever, Ranked

Few sports are as cyclical as college basketball — especially nowadays. The players are young, inconsistent and only stay a year or two before leaving for the NBA or transferring elsewhere. It makes one appreciate the programs that remain consistent year after year and from one generation to the next, even if we secretly hate them because of their success.

When it comes to the best college basketball programs, it’s all about coaches and culture. Players will always come and go, but coaching stability and strong cultures are what produce programs that make the NCAA Tournament with regularity, compete for championships, and win titles.

With that in mind, here is our ranking of the top 25 college basketball programs ever.

25. Virginia Cavaliers

Winning the 2019 National Championship was just enough to put the Cavaliers into the ranking. Of course, it helps that Virginia had plenty of good years during the first half of the 20th century and could be considered a powerhouse of that era.

The Cavaliers also had a nice run in the 80s when they went to the Sweet 16 five times and the Final Four twice.

Virginia's recent success under Tony Bennett puts them over the top and firmly into the top college basketball programs of all time.

24. Florida Gators

For what it’s worth, Florida accomplished very little on the basketball court before the late 1980s. Obviously, that hurts their case substantially. However, being one of the few teams to win back-to-back titles in the modern era carries them a long way.

With six regular-season SEC championships and eight Elite Eight appearances since 2000, the Gators have done a phenomenal job of making up for the lost time and putting themselves in the same arena as some of the all-time greats.

23. Purdue Boilermakers

The Boilermakers are the first school from Indiana on our list, but they won’t be the last. Outside of a retroactive National Championship in 1932, Purdue has never reached the promised land. Also, the Boilermakers have just two Final Four appearances including zero since 1980.

That being said, Purdue was one of the early powers in the Big Ten and one of the league’s most consistent programs over the last 40 years. Since 1980, Gene Keady and Matt Painter have been the only two coaches, and that kind of consistency has paid off for the Boilermakers.

22. Temple Owls

For a program that’s never played in a major conference, Temple has had an incredible amount of success. The Owls owe most of it to two Hall of Fame coaches.

First, there was Harry Litwack, who coached for 21 seasons, taking the Owls to two Final Fours. Later, there was John Chaney, who remains one of the legendary figures in college basketball history. In 24 years, he led Temple to 14 regular-season or tournament championships in the Atlantic-10 and 17 NCAA Tournament appearances, including five trips to the Elite Eight.

The Owls have dropped off recently, but they have over half a century worth of top-notch basketball on their resume.

21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

With an all-time winning percentage of nearly 65%, Notre Dame is more than a football school. 

Ironically, the Fighting Irish lose points for never winning the NCAA Tournament but gain some for getting there more times than any other school that has failed to win it.

With just one Final Four appearance, it’s tough to rank Notre Dame too high. However, the Irish have thrived in the underdog role, been terrific at home and have rarely experienced extended cold spells despite spending most of their history as an independent.

20. St. John’s Red Storm

The Lou Carnesecca era alone is enough to make St. John’s a top 20 all-time program. The Red Storm rarely missed the NCAA Tournament during that time while also helping to form one of the greatest conferences in college basketball history.

The years before and after Carnesecca coached St. John’s weren’t exactly black holes either. The Red Storm aren't what they used to be, but historically, St. John’s is a special program.

19. Arkansas Razorbacks

If nothing else, the Razorbacks can hang their hat on the 1994 National Championship, but Arkansas has done so much more than that. The Hogs started playing basketball in 1923 and won their first conference title in 1926, which turned out to be the first of five in a row.

Under Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson, the Razorbacks also became a dominant program during the latter part of the 20th century, becoming a force in the Southwest Conference and the SEC, as well as a national brand.

18. Georgetown Hoyas

Unfortunately for Georgetown, the Hoyas are suffering from a bad case of “What have you done for me lately?”

The Hoyas have fallen on hard times over the past decade or so and aren’t the program they used to be. That being said, Georgetown deserves plenty of credit for being a national powerhouse for much of the 80s, including their national title in 1984.

You can’t tell the story of the Big East without talking about Georgetown, and that’s enough to carry the Hoyas into the top-20 programs of all time.

17. Maryland Terrapins

Winning the 2002 National Championship did a lot to lift Maryland over some comparable programs. The Terrapins also deserve special recognition for winning regular-season championships in both the ACC and Big Ten. That’s an achievement that no other program can claim.

Maryland ranks this high because of their consistency over the years. The Terps have had just six head coaches since 1950 and ever since Lefty Driesell made them a national power in the 70s, Maryland has been present in the national spotlight.

16. NC State Wolfpack

With three Final Four appearances and two national championships, there should be little doubt that NC State is one of the better college basketball programs. Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, a couple of their in-state rivals hog the spotlight. It’s also been a long time since NC State won a conference championship, although that’s mostly because of the other powerhouse programs in the ACC.

From Everett Case to Norm Sloan to Jim Valvano, NC State has had a long line of great coaches dating back to the 40s, helping make the Wolfpack a quality program for well over half a century.

15. Illinois Fighting Illini

Outside of black hole in the late 60s and 70s, Illinois has been one of the most consistent college basketball programs over the last century. The Fighting Illini had a great run during the first half of the 20th century, especially in the 40s and early 50s.

Hall of Famer Lou Henson got Illinois back on track in the 80s and the program has been in good shape ever since, save for the last decade or so. Remember, Illinois began the 21st century by winning four Big Ten regular-season titles in a five-year span, culminating in reaching the national title game in 2005.

Despite not winning a National Championship, the Illini have a strong resume. 

14. Connecticut Huskies

The UConn men will never match Geno Auriemma and the women’s program, but the Huskies can more than hold their own with the other top programs on the men’s side. 

Before Jim Calhoun arrived in 1986, UConn was nothing more than a regional power within New England.

Once Calhoun took over the program, the Huskies became absolutely sensational.

UConn wasn’t a powerhouse when they helped establish the Big East, but the Huskies were by the 90s and for more than two decades after that. Most importantly, the Huskies won four national titles between 1999 and 2014, which helps make up for not doing much before Calhoun’s tenure.

13. Michigan Wolverines

Take away all of the scandals and vacated wins and you’ll find a Michigan program that belongs among the best. Dave Strack did great work in the 60s, Steve Fisher built a powerhouse in the 90s and for the last dozen or so years, John Beilein has reinforced Michigan’s standing among the elite.

Together, they’ve made the Wolverines a force for over half a century. With eight Final With four title game appearances and one National Championship, Michigan basketball is a lot closer to the top 10 programs of all time than most people realize.

12. Cincinnati Bearcats

There have been two great eras of Cincinnati basketball. First, there was the late 50s and 60s when the Bearcats were arguably the best program in the country while reaching five consecutive Final Fours and winning back-to-back championships in 1961 and 1962.

Of course, Cincy fell off the map for a little while. But the Bearcats came back in a big way under Bobby Huggins in the 90s and have been a fixture on the national stage for the last three decades.

Outside of eight seasons in the Big East, Cincinnati hasn’t had the advantage of playing in a power conference, yet the Bearcats have consistently been able to compete at a high level and remain a threat to make a deep run in March nearly every season.

11. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State is another school whose football success has overshadowed success on the basketball court. Dating back to the 1930s and 40s, the Buckeyes have appeared in 11 Final Fours and still have the 1960 National Championship on their mantle.

After falling off the radar in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, Ohio State eventually worked their way back to the top of the Big Ten and the national spotlight.

Thanks to their longevity and 21st-century renaissance, the Buckeyes are on the cusp of being a top-10 program. 

10. Villanova Wildcats

The Wildcats have undoubtedly made a huge leap up the all-time rankings after winning championships in 2016 and 2018. However, Villanova was a top-notch program long before that.

Jack Kraft turned the Wildcats into a winning program in the 1960s and Hall of Famer Rollie Massimino did the rest. 

Thanks to Massimino, Villanova became one of the early heavyweights in the Big East, winning the 1985 National Championship.

Ultimately, Jay Wright made the Wildcats the pre-eminent program with multiple National Championships. In short, the Wildcats more than deserve a spot among the top-10 programs of all-time.

9. Louisville Cardinals

Louisville is another program where you have to forget about the vacated wins and trophies. The Cardinals have made 10 Final Four appearances and won three National Championships in their history.

Like most top programs, the consistency in coaching has been key with Denny Crum and Rick Pitino being the only coaches from 1971 to 2017.

Louisville’s only caveat is they didn’t play in a major conference until joining the Big East in 2005. But the Cardinals have risen to the challenge and continued to be a top-flight program.

8. Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State’s success under Tom Izzo over the last quarter-century has catapulted them into the No. 8 spot in our ranking. The Spartans reached the top of the mountain by winning the 1979 National Championship after many years of mediocrity.

After struggling in the 80s, Jud Heathcote got things on track in the 90s, setting the stage for Izzo to make MSU one of the all-time great programs.

The Spartans have literally been a lock for the NCAA Tournament since 1998.

And with a few Final Fours and a second national title along the way, they are solidly among the top-10 programs in college basketball history.

7. Indiana Hoosiers

Two words: Bobby Knight. He’s the guy who made Indiana one of the best programs of all time. In fairness, Branch McCracken deserves some credit too. He got the ball rolling in the 1930s and coached the Hoosiers to their first two championships.

Most of Indiana’s success is tied to Knight, who won three national titles and close to a dozen Big Ten championships.

Indiana’s struggles in the two decades since Knight left the program hurt their case a little, but not enough to keep them out of the top 10.

6. Syracuse Orange

Winning the 2003 National Championship is just the tip of the iceberg for Syracuse basketball. The program has become synonymous with Jim Boeheim, which is fine when the head coach stays in place for over 40 years.

At the moment, the Orange hold the longest active streak for consecutive winning seasons, which started all the way back in 1970. That’s almost mind-boggling consistency that even pre-dates Boeheim’s tenure as the head coach.

On top of that, the Orange has been to the Final Four in five straight decades. In terms of wins, NCAA Tournament appearances and NCAA Tournament victories, Syracuse is near the top of the all-time list. 

Few programs can match Syracuse’s consistency and longevity, not to mention the Orange’s propensity for deep runs in March.

5. Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks have accomplished things that no other college basketball program has done. For starters, they won 14 straight regular-season conference titles. Even if the Big 12 isn’t quite the ACC, Big Ten or the old Big East, that level of domination is nothing to scoff at.

At the moment, they also have record streaks of 30 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and 220 consecutive weeks being ranked.

Of course, success is nothing new at Kansas. The Jayhawks were a dominant program as early as the 1920s under legendary coach Phog Allen. There’s been virtually no drop-off over the last 100 or so years, including the domination in recent years under Bill Self.

Alas, with just three NCAA Tournament titles, Kansas falls a little short of the other programs that make up the top five.

4. Duke Blue Devils

The biggest misconception about Duke is that the program’s success is only because of Mike Krzyzewski. In fact, Bill Foster handed Coach K a program that was on the rise and reached the Final Four in 1978 with Krzyzewski taking over in 1980.

Before Foster, Harold Bradley and Vic Bubas established the Blue Devils as one of the early powers in the ACC. The point is that Duke had a great tradition before Coach K. 

That being said, the accomplishments under Krzyzewski are insane, including a dozen Final Fours and five National Championships.

That’s on top of how much the Blue Devils have bullied a majority of the teams in the ACC year after year, making them the most-hated program in college basketball history, largely because of the jealousy of other fan bases.

3. North Carolina Tar Heels

It’s a close call, but the Tar Heels get the slightest of nods over their Tobacco Road rival. North Carolina has been ranked in the polls more weeks than any other program. They’ve also participated in 20 Final Fours, which is a ridiculous number. On top of that, the Tar Heels have won six National Championships compared to Duke’s five.

UNC was winning Southern Conference championships in the 1920s and they’ve won conference titles in every subsequent decade. Between Dean Smith and Roy Williams, North Carolina has had two of the biggest coaching legends of all time. The Tar Heels are one of the true heavyweights in college basketball history.

2. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky doesn’t have as many Final Four appearances as North Carolina, but the Wildcats top the Tar Heels and almost every other program in virtually every other record.

Kentucky leads all programs in NCAA Tournament appearances, as well as Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances. Oh yeah, winning eight National Championships isn’t too bad either.

Perhaps even more impressive is that five different coaches have contributed to those eight titles. From Adolph Rupp to Eddie Sutton to Rick Pitino to John Calipari, the Wildcats have never stopped winning since their first conference championship in 1921. 

1. UCLA Bruins

When it comes to the top-five programs of all time, deciding the best is a little like splitting hairs. However, UCLA’s run of seven consecutive national titles and 10 championships in 12 years under John Wooden separates the Bruins at the top. No other program can claim to have a dynasty like that. In fact, nobody has ever come close.

UCLA is about more than Wooden and the famous UCLA dynasty. The Bruins were dominating from the 1920s during the early day of the program and they continue to be one of the pre-eminent programs in the Pac-12 today, going to over a dozen NCAA Tournaments and winning multiple conference championships since the turn of the century.

All things considered, no college basketball program has accomplished more than UCLA, and it’s not even that close.

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