There are good college basketball teams that win games, challenge for conference championships and perform well during March Madness.
Then, there are programs that consistently do all of those things year after year and regularly find themselves in contention for national championships.
These are the elite programs of college basketball. While these elite programs have unique features, they also share some similar characteristics.
Here is a short list of five things every elite college basketball program has in common.
Elite programs do not have casual followers or seasonal supporters. They have raw, meat-eating, rabid fans that eat, drink and sleep their team. To the outsider, these rooters can be borderline annoying in their allegiance.
Zealous student appeal and passionate booster backing are unconditional absolutes.
Some of the best "branded" student sections are Duke's Cameron Crazies, Kentucky's eRUPPtion Zone, Florida's Rowdy Reptiles, Arizona's Zona Zoo and Michigan State's Izzone. Just because Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina and others lack a catchy name does not mean that their student sections lack intensity.
Places like Allen Fieldhouse, Rupp Arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Smith Center, the Carrier Dome and Assembly Hall are nearly considered temples instead of arenas. Home games are loud, proud and usually sold out. Road games are surprisingly well attended by school color-wearing fanatics.
This level of fan commitment and devotion comes with a price tag. Expectations can get crazy and the pressure to produce is a given.
However, the obsession and hysteria is still one of the best features of elite hoops programs.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of elite college basketball programs. If coaches and their staffs do not consistently bring in top-level talent, then their program is not going to stay competitive or even relevant for very long.
The programs themselves are a major recruiting factor in pulling in the best of the best high school players. These are "destination programs" that blue-chip players are interested in before they are ever contacted by the coaching staff.
There is no formula for elite programs' recruiting effectiveness. One thing is true: Coaches in these programs are not restricted to local or statewide prospects.
Since John Calipari (pictured) arrived in Lexington, he has signed 25 of his 29 recruits from outside of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Syracuse's Jim Boeheim targets players from the northeast region of the United States and Canada.
Indiana's Tom Crean is a little more balanced in his approach. He successfully draws from his massive in-state talent pool, but he has also inked almost 60 percent of his recruits since arriving in Bloomington from outside the Hoosier state.
Arizona's Sean Miller has maintained his East Coast recruiting roots while quickly establishing in-roads out west.
The best coaches are selective in going after players whose skills match their system. They look for talent that matches their style of play.
There's no reason to go after a bunch of hulking low-post beasts if you want to keep the lane open for your slashers and gashers. Why target combo guards if what you really want is a true PG to run your show?
In his ESPN Insider (subscription required) article “How Much Does Recruiting Matter,” Drew Cannon states that “landing top-100 talent is absolutely paramount to building a national title contender.”
Cannon continues to make his point by stating that from 2002-2011 "the eight best recruiting programs accounted for all nine national championships."
It doesn't get much more simple than that.
The pictured banner hangs in the Kentucky basketball weight room at their Joe Craft Center, but it typifies the mindset and commitment to improvement at the elite programs across the country.
Every college and university has a weight room. The best collegiate hoops programs invest heavily in state-of-the-art facilities and utilize the most effective techniques for their players benefit.
Full-time strength and conditioning directors are employed to lessen injury risk and enhance performance. Richard Paige of UA News points out that, in his eight years as a college head coach, Arizona’s Sean Miller “has worked with seven assistant coaches, but just one strength coach" (Chris Rounds).
In an article by ESPN’s Jason King, Andrea Hudy, Kansas’ strength coach, was labeled as the Jayhawks' “secret weapon” by Jeff Withey. 2011 All-American Marcus Morris said Hudy “was the main reason he became an NBA lottery pick.”
This video shows that it’s no accident that Michigan State’s players are sturdy and strong. Spartans strength coach Mike Vorkapich’s philosophy is “If you take two good players with all other things equal, strength will make one stand out.”
Several years ago, coaches and players were leery about the negative impact that weight lifting would have on basketball skills. That fear has been discarded and the day of scrawny basketball players is long past.
Wins are important at any time during a college basketball season. Regular-season victories and conference championships are noteworthy.
However, trips to the Final Four put coaches and teams into a different category. A program moves into select status by what it accomplishes late in March (or now into April).
Wikipedia’s list of “NCAA Men’s Division I Final Four appearances by school” tells the story. If you want to know who the elite of the elite programs are, look at the teams that are at the top of this Final Four appearance listing:
North Carolina (18)
Duke, Kentucky (15)
Louisville, Ohio State (10)
Indiana, Michigan State (8)
Cutting down the nets as NCAA champions more than twice further delineates which programs are elite:
North Carolina (5)
Note: Of this list, only Indiana (1987) and UCLA (1995) have not won at least one of their championships since 2000.
The most common and most significant factor among elite college basketball programs is exceptional leadership from their head coaches.
They are the ones that set the course, establish the culture and put the face on the program.
Their influence with recruits, their players and staff, the media and boosters shapes what the program is and how it is perceived.
Some of the elite programs in college basketball have been led by the same coaches for decades. This fall, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim will be entering his 38th season as the Orange's head coach. Mike Krzyzewski will be starting his 34th season at Duke.
Other elite programs have changed coaches more recently. Tom Crean was hired as the Hoosiers head man in 2008. John Calipari took over at Kentucky in 2009.
These coaches' exceptional leadership drives game preparation and in-game adjustments. The best coaches consistently position their players, their team and the program for success and distinction.