There have been many magnificent single-season teams in NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
There was the very first undefeated team: Bill Russell and K. C. Jones’ 1955-56 San Francisco Dons (29-0). The last undefeated National Champion was Indiana in 1975-76, who finished up 32-0 behind Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, Scott May, and Bobby Wilkerson.
And who could forget Jerry Tarkanian’s astonishing 1989-90 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels? One of the most dominant squads of all-time, the Rebs finished the season 35-5 and smashed Duke, 103-73, in the championship game. The 30-point margin of victory set a record which still stands to this day.
However, it is next to impossible to rank all of the astounding single-season juggernauts by any objective standards. How, for instance, could an impartial observer compare the Dons of 1956 to Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebs?
It just can’t be done; it all boils down to a matter of preference. Dozens of different teams could be chosen for countless reasons, and who could really provide evidence that their choice was undeniably the correct one?
It is a little simpler, however, to compare—in the parlance of the Tournament Selection Committee—"the entire body of work" of the major NCAA teams.
Statistics work on the mathematical “Principle of Large Numbers.” In laymen’s terms, it means that the larger the sample of numbers one examines, the more likely the results of the comparison will be accurate.
With well over 100 years of NCAA basketball in the record books, we now have a significant amount of data that describes the performance of various Division I basketball programs.
All things—all-time wins, NCAA titles, undefeated seasons and more—considered, which schools have amassed the best resumes of all-time?
It all comes down to a Mount Rushmore of four schools (listed alphabetically): Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and UCLA. By the end of this presentation, one will stand out as the best basketball franchise of all time.
First team: 1899; All-time record: 1943-785; Winning percentage: .712; 3 NCAA Tournament Titles: 1952, ’88, 2008; 2 Helms Athletic Foundation National Titles: 1922, ‘23
The University of Kansas is the birthplace of college basketball. The sport was originally conceived by Dr. James A. Naismith in 1891.
Naismith’s original purpose, according to the school’s administration, was to make up a game that would not take up much room; was not too rough; and that could keep the track athletes in shape, while being performed indoors.
Naismith was a star gymnast, lacrosse player, and Canadian football player at McGill University where he earned a BA in Physical Education. Physical fitness was incredibly important to him, so he eagerly accepted the challenge.
He took inspiration from a childhood game called “Duck on a Rock”. On December 14, 1891, Nasimith debuted his new game with thirteen rules, a peach basket nailed to either end of the school’s gymnasium, and two teams of nine players.
Naismith studied for a time in Denver, CO before moving to Lawrence, Kansas in 1898 to become a phys ed instructor and the athletic director at Kansas. He brought along the recently invented game of basketball.
He served as the school’s first basketball coach from 1898 to 1907. However, as coach, he was mostly a cheerleader and only offered token advice. He believed in letting his players control what they did on the floor. He ended his coaching career with a 55-60 mark.
Kansas hired Forrest “Phog” Allen, one of Naismith’s lettermen, to be the next head coach. He coached from 1907-’09, and returned to head the basketball squad from 1920-’56.
Eschewing Naismith’s scolding admonition, “You don’t coach basketball, Forrest, you play it,” Allen revolutionized his craft, becoming known as “Father of Basketball Coaching.”
Teacher and pupil pose with a basketball above.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Allen went on to win 590 games during his KU tenure. Kansas was awarded consecutive Helms Athletic Foundation national titles in 1922 and 1923. Allen also led the Jayhawks to an NCAA Tournament title in 1952.
Kansas added titles in 1988 and 2008.
Kansas plays basketball at Allen Fieldhouse and on James Naismith Court, in honor of their first great coach—Dr. Forrest “Phog” Allen—and the inventor of Basketball, Dr. James A. Naismith.
Allen Fieldhouse is the largest basketball arena in the state of Kansas and the second-largest facility in the Big 12, behind only Texas.
Dedicated in 1955, the Fieldhouse is known as one of the best places to watch a college basketball game. The history in the building can be seen in the banners of achievement displayed throughout the rafters.
650,000 bricks were used to erect the beautiful building, which originally cost $2.5 million to construct.
A $3.5 million renovation was recently completed. This made the arena much more fan-friendly, providing more easily accessible entries and exits, modern and larger bathrooms, and better concession areas.
A plethora of historic players have worn the blue-and-red of Kansas. Wilt “The Big Dipper” Chamberlain (he hated being called “The Stilt”, which he found disrespectful) averaged 29.9 PPG and 18.3 RPG during his two seasons as a Jayhawk.
Chamberlain is shown soaring for a dunk in the photo to the left.
Nick Collison, Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Raef LaFrentz, Danny Manning, Paul Pierce, Scot Pollard, Wayne Simien, Jacque Vaughn, Rex Walters, Jo Jo White and Julian Wright are only a few of the stellar college athletes who have graced James Naismith Floor at Allen Fieldhouse.
The ‘Hawks have made 36 appearances in the Big Dance, compiling a 76-36 mark.
There have been a record 52 regular season conference championships in a total of five (Missouri Valley, Big Six, Big Seven, Big Eight and Big 12) conferences.
First team: 1911; All-time record: 1950-699; Winning percentage: .736; 4 NCAA Tournament Titles: 1957, ’82, ’94, 2005; 1 Helms Athletic Foundation National Titles: 1924
The North Carolina Tar Heels play basketball at the Dean E. Smith Students Activity Center. It is commonly referred to as the Dean Smith Center, or just the Dean Dome. The building was christened in 1986.
Smith vigorously opposed having the arena named after him. However, as the project lagged, university officials persuaded him to relent, convincing the legendary coach that having his name associated with the building would encourage donors to contribute the funds needed to complete the structure.
The huge facility seats 21,750 after two renovations. That makes it the fifth-largest stadium in college basketball, with the fourth-highest capacity of basketball only venues.
Nestled in the woods of the North Carolina hills, the Dean Dome is both modern, yet thoroughly steeped in tradition. Not only are there dozens of banners enumerating postseason success, but also 44 jerseys erected in the rafters to honor legendary players who have helped make the program one of the ultra-elite in college basketball.
It is arguable that North Carolina has had the most impressive run of top-flight athletes. Tar Heel stars comprise a ‘Who’s Who’ of basketball’s best.
Probably the two best-known alumni of UNC—Michael Jordan and James Worthy—won a national title together (1982), numerous NBA titles (nine between them: six for Jordan and three for Worthy) and were both named among the 50 best NBA players of all-time.
The 1956-57 Heels were known as “McGuire’s Miracle”. To the left you see Coach Frank McGuire and his starting five from that season.
McGuire led the team to a perfect 32-0 mark, including two overtime wins, two triple overtime wins in the Final Four, and an ACC regular season & postseason tournament double play.
The victory in the title game that year came against none other than Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks, 54-53, in triple overtime. The contest played like a road game in Kansas City, MO.
The Tar Heels have one of only seven undefeated national champions (1957) and three other NCAA Tournament championships: 1981-‘82, 1993-’94 and 2004-’05. The ’82 team eventually had eight players from its roster to be drafted by the NBA.
A very short sampling of the legends who have played for UNC would include Jordan, Worthy, Larry Brown, Vince Carter, Billy Cunningham, Brad Daugherty, Walter Davis, Bob McAdoo, and Sam Perkins.
North Carolina was one of the original national powers. They were accorded their first national championship in 1924 by the Helms Athletic Foundation.
Frank McGuire, their fiery, legendary head coach, was a pupil of the very first college basketball coaching legend, Kansas’ Phog Allen.
Dean Smith, of course, had the Heels’ playing arena named after him while he still roamed the sidelines.
In addition to the five national titles, UNC has spent a total of 99 weeks atop the AP Poll (as of the 2007-08 season), began the 2008-09 season second to only Kentucky in total wins (1,950 in 98 season, a college-best 19.9 wins per season), had the best winning percentage of the 1980s (.817) and the ninth-longest winning streak of all-time (37 games).
39 NCAA Tournament berths puts them third behind only UCLA and Kentucky. They have won 94 tourney games (as of 2007-’08), tied with UCLA for second place all-time. The Heels have also won 16 ACC Tournament titles.
The 1981-'82 team remains one of the most highly regarded aggregations in history. Additionally, it is not a stretch to say that the biggest stars on that team (Jordan [pictured, left], Perkins, and Worthy) have an NBA pedigree second to no other trio of teammates in college basketball history.
First team: 1920; All-time record: 1646-717; Winning percentage: .697; 11 NCAA Tournament Titles: 1964, ‘65, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, ’75, ’95
This list would be woefully incomplete without UCLA. Just look at Wooden in the trophy room (left).
Under the legendary John Wooden, UCLA won 10 NCAA titles in basketball. They began a tradition that has since been carried on: the only banners erected in the catacombs of Pauley mark national titles.
Perhaps the truly astonishing fact about Wooden is this: for the first 16 years of his coaching career, he could not win a national title. Over the last 12 years, he won 10.
Time would fail us if we attempted to list every significant contributor to the continuing UCLA dynasty. The Bruins have rung up four of the seven undefeated national title campaigns in Division I history: 1963-’64, 1966-’67, 1971-’72, and 1972-’73.
Lew Alcindor (who has since taken the legal name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to honor his conversion to Islam) anchored what John Wooden himself called UCLA’s best team ever, the 1967-’68 team that went 29-1.
The only loss came to Houston in the so-called “Game of the Century” when Alcindor was still far from 100% due to a scratched cornea.
The Bruins avenged the loss with a 101-68 rout in the national semis and blitzed UNC, 78-55, to take the title.
It is worth noting, however, that the 1971-’72 Bruins, who finished 30-0, were anchored by the resplendent Bill Walton and eight players drafted by the NBA.
The UCLA Bruins play home games at the venerable Edwin W. Pauley Pavilion in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, CA. The building was completed in June, 1965, at a cost of over $5 million.
University of California Regent Edwin W. Pauley matched the contributions of UCLA alumni who had donated to the project. This amounted to about $1 million, and the arena bears his name because the generous endowment guaranteed that the building would be completed on time.
Pauley is a cozy venue, seating 12,819. In 1990, a high-efficiency lighting system that doubled the lighting capacity was installed. A state-of-the-art scoreboard was added in 2000.
UCLA has won a staggering amount of games at Pauley Pavilion. At one point, they reeled off an NCAA-record 98 consecutive wins there, from 1970 through 1976.
As of 2007-08, the Bruins had amassed a jaw-dropping 579-87 (.869) record at Pauley Pavilion, one of the most incredible home court advantages in sports today.
UCLA’s days as a power began in the 1960s, so they lose points for longevity.
However, 11 total titles makes up for that.
The Bruins have played for 89 seasons and, as of 2007-08, stood ninth all-time in victories with 1,646. That comes to 18.5 wins per year.
The program has the longest winning streak (88 games), the third longest (47) and the eighth longest (41) in the annals of NCAA men’s basketball history.
UCLA also had the highest winning percentage for two consecutive decades: the 1960s (.818) and the ‘70s (an astounding .910).
41 trips to the NCAA Tournament (second to only Kentucky) have produced a 94-34 record and those 11 titles.
UCLA created their place in history on the backs of some of the giants of the college basketball landscape, men who are so renowned that they need only be identified by their last names:
Wooden. Alcindor (pictured above). Walton.
First team: 1903; All-time record: 1966-621; Winning percentage: .760; 7 NCAA Tournament Titles: 1948, ’49, ‘51, ’58, ’78, ’96, ’98; 1 Helms Athletic Foundation National Titles: 1933
The Kentucky Wildcats play in historic Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. The 23,500 seat arena was the largest basketball-only facility in the country when it was completed in 1976 at a cost of $53 million.
The Wildcats are the only team in the SEC to play in an off-campus facility.
Since beginning play in the arena, Kentucky has won an incredible 88.5 percent of their home games (415-54). The ‘Cats have led the nation in attendance 20 times since 1976, and 12 of the last 13 seasons.
Only Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, with an official capacity of 33,633, has edged out Kentucky during that period of time.
Kentucky’s ridiculously long, rich history has spawned legend after legend of men’s basketball. Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith are among the accomplished head coaches to grace Lexington, KY.
Between them, they managed seven titles in four different decades (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998), as well as a Helms Athletic Foundation championship in a fifth (1933).
The stars have long shone brightly in Bluegrass country. Ralph Beard and Alex Groza were All-Americans for the dual 1947-’48 and 1948-’49 champs.
Dan Issel was a college legend of the late 1960s before a long, stellar NBA career.
The Wildcats rode the gritty Jack Givens, Kyle Macy and Rick Robey to a title in 1978.
Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin and Kenny “Sky” Walker roamed the Rupp Arena hardwood during the 1980s.
Perhaps the greatest team of all-time (with apologies to any of a half-dozen UCLA teams) was assembled by Rick Pitino in 1995-’96. Nine of the players on the roster were drafted by the NBA, with another (Jared Prickett) landing in a European pro league.
Tony Delk and Ron Mercer (pictured, above) were consensus First Team All-Americans that historic year.
The team went 34-2 and won a title.
Kentucky came out on top, in my eyes, because of their metronome-like consistency. Their first title (from the Helms Athletic Foundation) came way back in 1933; the first NCAA Tournament Title in 1948; and their most recent title was in 1998, for a total of eight overall, second only to UCLA.
The trophy that Adolph Rupp won (pictured left) was the first, but far from the last.
All-time, as of 2007-08, Kentucky has won more games (1,966) than any other program in history. For 105 years, they have clocked 18.7 victories per campaign. The .760 winning percentage leads Division I far and away.
UK has won a mind-boggling 27 conference tournament titles.
Kentucky has never had an undefeated season, but 34-2 is far from shabby.
An NCAA-record 49 trips to March Madness have yielded a record 100 wins, as well as the seven titles.
The Wildcats were the second-winningest program by winning percentage in the 1930s (.827); first in the 1940s (.851) and 1950s (.872); fifth in the 1960s (.741) and 1970s (.784); ninth in the 1980s (.731); and second in the 1990s (.817).
No other school can brag of anything close to that type of consistency and overall excellence. This makes Kentucky the top basketball program of all-time.