After taking home the 2012 NCAA National Championship trophy, the Kentucky Wildcats are yet again the kings of college basketball. It had been 14 seasons since the school won its previous championship, but head coach John Calipari has put the Wildcats back on top of the basketball mountain, and he does not appear to be changing that trend anytime soon.
However, this 2012 championship is not the only reason why Kentucky is college basketball's greatest program. Over the course of the sport's grand history, no other team has achieved more on-court success than the University of Kentucky.
The Wildcats are the leaders or near the lead in nearly every major category of team success, including wins, championships, Final Four appearances, NCAA Tournament success and even fan attendance. The following pages will use statistical and factual reasoning to determine why the University of Kentucky Wildcats are the single greatest program in college basketball history.
As of the 2011-12 basketball season, the University of Kentucky is the all-time wins leader in college basketball with 2,092 victories. Kentucky is also the all-time leader in winning percentage, winning at a .763 success rate. Kansas and North Carolina follow closely behind with 2,070 and 2,065 victories, respectively. Kentucky was the first team to reach the 2,000 victory plateau, and they have extended their lead in this category since then.
This is an impressive statistic to say the least, but simply having 2,092 wins in school history does not tell the full story of Kentucky's dominance over time. They are the all-time winningest school in college basketball, but the most amazing aspect of their wins record is how consistently excellent the Wildcats have won during each era of basketball.
For example, the University of Kentucky was also the first college program to win 1,000 games in school history. They achieved this feat during the 1968 season, which is remarkable considering the fact that Kentucky was fourth overall in the wins list just 10 years prior to reaching the 1,000 mark. For an excellent illustration of Kentucky's rise up the all-time wins list, be sure to visit the page at BigBlueHistory.net.
With Kentucky being the first program to achieve 1,000 victories and the first to reach the 2,000 victory mark, there is little doubt that the Wildcats have been the most successful program over time. No other university has matched Kentucky's ability to win year in and year out, and even decade to decade.
This is further illustrated by taking a look at the official NCAA record book and examining the winningest programs by decade. The record begins in the 1930-39 decade, and Kentucky has finished among the top 10 winningest programs in every decade on the list except for the 2000-09 decade.
In fact, here is a list of Kentucky's rank per decade:
1930-39: 2nd-best winning percentage (.827)
1940-49: 1st in winning percentage (.851)
1950-59: 1st in winning percentage (.872)
1960-69: 5th-best winning percentage (.741)
1970-79: 5th-best winning percentage (.764)
1980-89: 9th-best winning percentage (.731)
1990-99: 2nd-best winning percentage (.817)
2000-09: 19th-best winning percentage (.712)
With the exception of the 2000-09 decade, Kentucky has consistently won games at a more successful rate than any other basketball program. Below is a list that totals the number of decades that the following schools have finished in the top 10 winning percentage:
Kentucky: 7 (1930's, 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, 1990's)
Kansas: 3 (1930's, 1990's, 2000's)
North Carolina: 3 (1970's, 1980's, 1990's)
Duke: 3 (1960's, 1990's, 2000's)
UCLA: 3 (1960's, 1970's, 1990's)
Indiana: 1 (1970's)
As you can see, Kentucky is not only the wins leader in college basketball. They have been the standard of excellence since the dawn of the sport, and no school has matched their rate of success over the span of basketball history.
Kentucky is not a one-trick pony. In addition to winning more games than any other college program, they have also won an impressive eight NCAA national championships and made 15 appearances in the Final Four.
Although these totals do not place Kentucky at the top of each respective list, they are very close to the top.
UCLA is the all-time leader in NCAA championships, having won a record 11 titles in their school's history. There is no disputing the fact that the Bruins lead the pack when it comes to championships. However, Kentucky's total of eight championships is well ahead of the other rival schools in the sport.
In fact, here is an updated list of the programs with the most NCAA championships in college basketball:
North Carolina: 5
As you can see, UCLA and Kentucky have pulled away from the rest of the pack at the moment. Although UCLA is the leader, here is one interesting fact: the Wildcats are catching up.
The Bruins won 10 of their 11 NCAA titles under coach John Wooden. Without a doubt, the Bruins put together the most impressive championship run of any men's basketball program. It is a feat that is unlikely to ever be repeated and should be commended.
However, those 10 championships occurred during one span, beginning with the 1963-64 title and commencing with Wooden's last championship in 1975. The Bruins did not take home another championship trophy until Jim Harrick's 1995 squad won it all, and they have yet to win another since.
Put this in perspective: UCLA has won one title in the previous 37 seasons. Since that 1975 championship, Kentucky has won four championships, Duke has won four championships, North Carolina has won four championships, Indiana has won three championships and Connecticut has won three titles. For a program that leads the nation in NCAA titles, it is interesting to note that they have not been nearly as successful or as relevant in the sport since the days of John Wooden.
In contrast, Kentucky has won their eight national championships in five different decades, starting with the 1948 NCAA Championship and commencing in this past season's 2012 NCAA Championship. The Wildcats have also won championships in 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996 and 1998.
Even though Kentucky may not have the number of titles that UCLA has, they have won them more consistently over a broader period of time. The Wildcats have continued their tradition of excellence beyond the Rupp era, whereas UCLA has not continued their tradition that John Wooden left in his departure.
In addition to NCAA championships, Kentucky is also near the lead in Final Four appearances. Playing in the Final Four is used to determine how often a program has finished the season as one of college basketball's elite. Here is the list of current leaders in Final Four appearances:
North Carolina: 18
Ohio State: 11
Michigan State: 8
Yet again, UCLA leads the pack and this is to be expected because of their championship tally. The big surprise here is that the Bruins are tied for the lead with the North Carolina Tar Heels, who are ahead of Kentucky and every other school in college basketball history. Kentucky follows up closely in third place, having gained two of these appearances in the past two seasons under John Calipari.
Although the Tar Heels can certainly brag about making the Final Four more often than Kentucky, it can also be used as a counter-argument against UNC. If a program has advanced to the sport's final weekend three more times than another school, you would expect that school to have appeared in the national championship game more often, let alone having won the title more often.
This is certainly not the case when comparing the two schools. Kentucky has three fewer appearances in the Final Four, yet they have appeared in the NCAA National Final 11 times, which is two more than the Tar Heels' nine appearances. Also, Kentucky has won the NCAA National Championship three more times than North Carolina, as evidenced above.
Kentucky's collection of championships and Final Four appearances rivals that of any other school, and they have the Bruins' top spot in sight.
This statistic is arguably the most impressive in determining Kentucky's reign as the greatest program in college basketball history.
As a result of winning the 2012 NCAA National Championship, John Calipari claimed his first national championship as a head coach. More importantly, he became the fifth head coach of the University of Kentucky to win a national title at the school. Following is the list of coaches who have reached the pinnacle of the sport during their time at UK:
- Adolph Rupp: 4 championships (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958)
- Joe B. Hall: 1 championship (1978)
- Rick Pitino: 1 championship (1996)
- Tubby Smith: 1 championship (1998)
- John Calipari: 1 championship (2012)
No other NCAA Division I program can match this feat. What this proves is that for whatever reason, the combination of resources, tradition, funding, geography, conference affiliation, and education provided by the University of Kentucky surpasses all other schools in terms of providing a head coach with the best opportunity to succeed and win a championship.
There is no clear reason for this, but what is clear is that Kentucky is unique from nearly every other college program in this regards: the majority of their success is not tied up by one dominant coaching run.
In fact, nearly every other top-flight basketball program achieved most, if not all, of their success during one coaching regime. Here is a quick look at how Kentucky compares to other programs:
- Kentucky: Five head coaches have won an NCAA Championship (Rupp, Hall, Pitino, Smith, Calipari)
- North Carolina: Three head coaches have won an NCAA Championship (Roy Williams, Dean Smith, Frank McGuire)
- Kansas: Three head coaches have won an NCAA Championship (Bill Self, Larry Brown, Phog Allen)
- UCLA: Two head coaches have won an NCAA Championship (John Wooden, Jim Harrick)
- Indiana: Two head coaches have won an NCAA Championship (Bob Knight, Branch McCracken)
- Duke: One head coach has won an NCAA Championship (Mike Krzyzewski)
- Connecticut: One head coach has won an NCAA Championship (Jim Calhoun)
As you can see, only three universities have won a championship with three head coaches. Kentucky stands alone at the top with five coaches owning a championship ring, and this is yet another defining reason why Kentucky is the greatest college basketball program of all time.
The University of Kentucky is college basketball's all-time leader in wins, and that success extends to the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky is the all-time leader in the following categories pertaining to "March Madness":
- NCAA tournament appearances: 53
- NCAA tournament wins: 111
- Sweet Sixteen appearances: 39
- Elite Eight appearances: 34
The school's dominance in these categories should not be overstated. Their record of 53 NCAA tournament appearances is nine ahead of any other school. In other words, they have nearly one decade's worth of appearances more than any other program!
However, this is not just because of the longevity of Kentucky's basketball program, which was established in 1903. While they certainly have longevity on their side, other historic programs such as Kansas (established in 1899), Syracuse (established in 1899) and Indiana (established in 1901) have been around longer than the Wildcats.
Also, Kentucky has played in thousands of games, but they are not the leader in that category. In fact, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina have all appeared in more games than the Wildcats. However, Kentucky still has more appearances in the NCAA tournament than any other school. That in itself is remarkable.
There is one statistic that is worth noting in the above list: out of Kentucky's 39 appearances in the Sweet 16, they have advanced forward to the Elite Eight 34 of those 39 years. No other program has consistently put itself within striking distance of the Final Four than Lexington's finest.
In addition to Kentucky's success in the NCAA Final Four, National Final and National Championship categories, no other school can match the year-in-and-year-out success of the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament.
The Kentucky Wildcats have won at the highest level during the regular season and the NCAA Tournament over the course of its history. Naturally, this tradition of excellence has extended to conference play as well.
The 2011-12 Wildcats completed a rare and impressive feat this season by winning the SEC Regular Season Championship with a perfect 16-0 record. Going undefeated in the SEC has only happened a few times in school history, and it is one factor of many that showcases the dominance that Kentucky has over the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
However, the Wildcats take the lead with their record of 29 conference tournament championships. They hold a small lead over bitter ACC rivals North Carolina (25 titles) and Duke (24 titles), and the fourth-place team in this category is actually Kentucky's in-state rival, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers with 18 conference tournament titles.
It can be said that Kentucky has enjoyed overwhelming success in the SEC because of the lack of other rivals in the conference. Although it is probable that the Southeastern Conference is not college basketball's best conference, it is still a competitive conference with tough arenas to play in that feature some of the most raucous road environments in college basketball.
Regardless of the conference's reputation, Kentucky has completely dominated the SEC conference since the days of Adolph Rupp and they have been as successful against their conference as any other program in college basketball history.
Whether you choose to measure a program's success via NCAA titles, Final Four appearances, NCAA tournament victories, conference championships, Sweet 16 appearances or regular season wins, Kentucky is either at or near the top in every category. In addition, the Wildcats have been among college basketball's elite in nearly every decade of play.
Regardless of how you choose to rank the greatest teams of all time, the University of Kentucky Wildcats are the greatest program in college basketball history and that trend does not appear to be stopping anytime soon.