Building a winning team in college basketball is hard enough, but building a dominant program is another kind of challenge altogether. The most iconic schools in college hoops not only feature decades' worth of winners, but also a track record for producing NBA talent and coaches who have become legends for both their on-court success and their recruiting ability.
These are the kinds of programs that are fixtures on national TV schedules as well as the national rankings. Whether their reputations have been built by one coach (Mike Krzyzewski at Duke) or many (John Calipari and his legion of predecessors at Kentucky), they’ve become the signature names in the college game.
Read on for a closer look at the 10 biggest powerhouses on the current college basketball scene.
A very close call over Florida, the Buckeyes have the advantage of not competing with the same level of 500-pound gorilla in their own conference that the Gators must face in Kentucky.
Thad Matta has established himself as a first-rate (if sporadic) recruiter, a record highlighted by the so-called “Thad Five” class that featured behemoth center Greg Oden.
Ohio State has also shown the enviable ability to survive in the physical Big Ten while still being competitive in games where the referees actually call fouls.
If they want to advance any higher on this list, though, they’ll need to establish themselves as a postseason winner over the long haul, a bar they haven’t quite reached yet.
No longer the behemoth of John Thompson Jr.’s heyday, Georgetown is still in a unique position in the mighty Big East.
The Hoyas have remained the premier program among that conference’s non-football members, making them the single most important non-FBS school in the country.
Coach John Thompson III has kept his team competitive on the national scene, an effort highlighted by 2007’s Final Four trip.
Just as vital, he’s maintained his father’s reputation for grooming NBA big men, with Pacers All-Star Roy Hibbert serving as the current standard-bearer for the program at the next level.
There was a time when the Bruins would have been so far ahead of every other team on this list that they wouldn’t have been visible from second place, but John Wooden retired almost 40 years ago.
Of course, no coach since the Wizard of Westwood has done more to restore UCLA’s glory than Ben Howland, accounting for half of the program’s six post-Wooden Final Four trips.
The Bruins’ prestige took a hit from 2011-12’s disastrous performance, but it’s hard to see that season as anything but an anomaly when Howland bounced back with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
Even if Shabazz Muhammad and company don’t lead UCLA back to the Final Four, they’ll certainly continue the program’s equally valuable reputation for turning out first-round-caliber NBA talent (Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison et al.).
There isn’t a team in the country that’s made itself as synonymous with one system as Syracuse has with the 2-3 zone.
The program that Jim Boeheim built virtually from the ground up has lifted him to third place on the all-time wins list, and as long as Boeheim is at the helm, the Orange will be one of the Northeast’s defining teams.
It doesn’t hurt Syracuse’s reputation any that former national champion Carmelo Anthony is still one of its most visible and successful NBA alums.
It will be interesting to see how Boeheim’s recruiting performance changes (if at all) when the program moves to the ACC next season.
Even more than most of the other top programs on this list, Louisville owes its current mystique to its head coach.
Rick Pitino was the first man to take three different schools to the Final Four, and the former national champion has built the Cardinals into a power to rival even mighty Kentucky.
Pitino’s combination of recruiting pull and exceptional X’s-and-O’s skill—witness the matchup zone he installed for last season’s Final Four squad—is tough to match, even for coaches with more national titles to their credit.
The only thing that keeps Louisville from ranking even higher on this list is the surprisingly poor showing Pitino’s stars have made at the NBA level (see Williams, Terrence).
Consistently one of the most physical teams in all of college hoops, Michigan State has turned a series of punishing frontcourts into a remarkable record of NCAA tournament success.
That said, Tom Izzo’s reputation for valuing toughness over flash belies the impressive NBA talent—Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson—that has keyed some of his most successful teams.
Izzo’s latest demonstration of his recruiting chops was an eye-catching one: stealing Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, shooting guard Gary Harris, from the Hoosiers in a year when IU is a favorite for the national title.
Add in Izzo’s legendarily brutal nonconference schedules, and it’s not hard to see how his Spartans have become the most consistent power in the Big Ten.
Bill Self has had a few postseason hiccups in his Jayhawks career, but his 2008 national title makes up for a multitude of other flaws. So too does the power of the Kansas name, one of the college game’s most revered for better than 50 years.
Few power-conference teams have dominated their own league so thoroughly for so long as Kansas has done in the Big 12, and Self’s recruiting prowess will make sure that trend continues.
The same can be said for Kansas’ outstanding track record of sending its starters to the NBA, even if top rookie Thomas Robinson hasn’t exactly set the league on fire yet in Sacramento.
Roy Williams has an .800 lifetime winning percentage and two national titles, and he’s only the second-best coach in North Carolina history.
The program that brought you Michael Jordan is still one of the most overpowering in college hoops, and Williams is well-equipped to keep it that way.
In addition to the Tar Heels’ litany of NBA star power, they also have Williams’ impressive recruiting skills to keep the talent pool stocked.
After all, how many other programs could lose four starters, all drafted in the top 17 by the NBA, and still have enough left to be ranked No. 11 in the preseason?
John Calipari is the single best recruiter in college basketball.
That alone is worth quite a bit in any assessment of a program’s place in the national pecking order, but Kentucky (No. 1 on the all-time victories list) has quite a bit more working in its favor.
The Wildcats’ combination of recent success (including, of course, last year’s national title) and an unprecedented NBA pipeline—Calipari has produced an absurd total of six top-five draft picks in five years, dating back to his time at Memphis—make them the hottest team in the country.
Assuming they continue making Final Four appearances a routine occurrence, they’ll be a serious threat to take over the top spot on this list down the road.
Duke basketball is one of the few teams in any sport that inspires the kind of hatred that the New York Yankees do, and just like the Yankees, they didn’t get to that point by losing games.
The Blue Devils have gotten used to having more talent than the next team, partly because success breeds success in college sports and partly because Mike Krzyzewski is an asset no other school can match.
History’s winningest coach has brought four national titles to Durham, and the 20 ex-Blue Devils on today's NBA rosters have had a lot to do with that success.
Coach K’s recruiting star has dimmed slightly in recent years, but with the ACC about to resume its position as the nation’s premier basketball conference, Duke will be awfully tough to knock off this perch anytime soon.