Putting together one winning team in college basketball is hard enough, but the far bigger challenge is to keep winning year after year after year. There aren’t many programs that can survive the caprices of the recruiting trail and the grind of the college hoops schedule and keep themselves among the nation’s best on a regular basis.
One exception that’s emerged comparatively recently is the Gonzaga Bulldogs. In 1990, few fans even knew what conference the Zags played in, and now players such as Kevin Pangos have them winning the WCC and ranked in the Top 25 virtually every year.
Herein, a closer look at Mark Few’s success story and the rest of the 20 NCAA squads in the best position to stay in the spotlight over the long haul.
The Missouri Valley Conference has traditionally seen teams rise to the top for a few seasons, then fade back into the pack as another program ascends.
Through a confluence of remarkable events, Wichita State has a great chance to break that cycle and rise to a level of mid-major dominance pioneered by Gonzaga two decades ago.
The Shockers grabbed national headlines with their astounding Final Four run last season, just as the conference’s other prominent program (Creighton) departed for the Big East.
With its toughest rival gone and coach Gregg Marshall handed his best-ever recruiting tool, WSU is in position to build a team that nobody in the MVC can touch.
Last year’s debacle in Lexington raises legitimate questions about whether the Wildcats belong on a list like this one. However, when a 21-12 season is considered an abject failure, that says a lot about where the program stands.
John Calipari is the best recruiter in college basketball, and he can legitimately bring in a new team's worth of stars every year if he needs to.
That factor, combined with Kentucky’s cachet as one of the historically great programs in the country, outweighs the perennial inexperience that reared its head last season.
In other words, Calipari’s other UK finishes—Elite Eight, Final Four, national title—are the rule, not the exception.
Notre Dame hasn’t been a great postseason team, but Mike Brey has built a reliable regular-season winner. The Irish have missed just one NCAA tournament since 2007 despite playing in the country’s toughest conference.
As a result, their move to the new “country’s toughest conference,” the ACC, shouldn’t do much to hurt their string of strong win-loss records and at-large bids.
Much of that winning run has been built on the dual recruiting advantages of Brey’s scorer-friendly offenses (see Luke Harangody and Ben Hansbrough) and the inexhaustible recruiting pool of Indiana high-school hoops.
As crowded at the top as the Big Ten standings are, and as few individual stars as Wisconsin produces, the Badgers still show up in the NCAA tournament every year.
That’s because Bo Ryan excels at recruiting players who will buy in to his grinding defensive system and force the opposition to make every possession count.
Ryan’s had his share of postseason success, too—especially a surprise Final Four run in 2000—giving him another valuable recruiting tool.
Of all the programs on this list, Wisconsin is also one of the most likely to sneak up on non-conference foes lulled by the Badgers’ lack of name recognition, earning them a few extra victories.
Sean Miller hasn’t yet built the name for himself that Lute Olsen did in Tucson, but that hasn’t stopped him from recruiting at an elite level. By ESPN’s reckoning, Miller has brought in top-10 recruiting classes in each of the last three seasons.
Arizona’s reputation as one of the Pac-12’s elite teams has also done its part to help that recruiting performance.
With UCLA looking for a new identity under Steve Alford, the Wildcats have become the team to beat in the only power conference west of the Rockies.
Tom Crean’s rebuilding effort has already taken the Hoosiers from cellar-dwellers to No. 1 seeds. Now he just has to keep them at the top, and luckily for IU’s fans, he’s set up to do it.
Crean has already proven what a potent combination the Indiana name makes with his own recruiting prowess.
He’s also managed to improve the Hoosiers’ defense from appalling to competent in just a few seasons, an apt demonstration of his effectiveness as a teacher.
One of the most valuable commodities a coach can offer recruits is stability.
Now that Jim Crews has shed his interim label and proven he can win as the Billikens’ head coach, there won’t be any further concerns about a new regime turning the St. Louis program upside down in the immediate future.
There won’t be too many concerns about winning, either, as Crews’ ability to teach defense rivals that of predecessor Rick Majerus.
In addition, the departures of Butler, Xavier and Temple from the Atlantic 10 leave the Billikens as one of two big fish (along with VCU) in a pond that’s gained a lot of national recognition in recent seasons.
Skeptical though many fans were about John Beilein’s prospects at Michigan, the former West Virginia coach has the Maize and Blue back among the Big Ten’s big boys.
Trey Burke’s sweep of the national Player of the Year awards will have recruits clamoring to play in Beilein’s high-scoring offense.
Critically, Beilein also won the Mitch McGary recruiting sweepstakes, proving that he can sell his approach to big men as well as perimeter shooters.
Another bonus for the Wolverines is that they’re among the few elite hoops programs with a correspondingly high-powered football team to attract two-sport athletes.
No college basketball team is going to be great without a top-flight player or two, but Georgetown has shown that it can be awfully, awfully good.
With a Princeton offense and bruising defense that both emphasize the team over the individual, the Hoyas are equipped to weather the loss of stars such as Otto Porter Jr.
John Thompson III hasn’t quite reached the level of success his dad brought to Georgetown, but he’s built a name of his own to go with his famous pedigree.
With the Hoyas now the most recognizable program left in the Big East, he has plenty of territory to cover with those recruiting advantages.
Thad Matta’s recruiting tends to run in cycles, one of which is ending after next season with the departures of Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Those two, plus more heralded classmates Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, have done their parts to keep the Buckeyes near the top of the national rankings every year.
Even if Matta’s next uber-class doesn’t arrive for a year or two, it’s hard to picture Ohio State falling out of the Top 25 anytime soon.
The Buckeyes routinely have the defense and toughness down low to bang with Big Ten foes, and Matta has always managed to coax enough offense out of his players to keep the wins coming.
When the dust settles and Louisville departs the AAC for the ACC, the country’s newest conference will be very short on established basketball powers.
The obvious exception is in Storrs, where the Huskies have been an elite program for almost a quarter-century.
Jim Calhoun’s retirement took a bite out of UConn’s reputation, but Calhoun protégé Kevin Ollie appears to be ready to keep the Huskies on their accustomed lofty perch in the standings.
The fact that Ollie won 20 games as a rookie Big East coach (in a year when his team had also been gutted by transfers) says a lot about his abilities in the X’s-and-O’s department.
In 2011-12, Marquette had two effective players (Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler) and a supporting cast. In 2012-13, the Golden Eagles lost both of those players to graduation and still made the Elite Eight.
That’s the kind of continuity Buzz Williams has built in Milwaukee, thanks in large measure to a punishing defense that thrives regardless of the star power (or lack thereof) on the other end.
With DePaul floundering, Williams also has home field advantage over other Big East coaches in recruiting the Midwest and its wealth of basketball talent.
In the space of a decade, Gonzaga went from David to Goliath, and the latter role is starting to suit the Bulldogs a little better. Over the last 20 years, they’ve won a WCC title (regular-season or tournament) in all but two.
Mark Few, coming off his first 30-win season and first No. 1 ranking, will have an even stronger recruiting pitch than usual.
With the Zags’ ability to recruit international talent—most recently Canadian center Kelly Olynyk and PG Kevin Pangos—they don’t always have to battle the power-conference schools to get high-level talent, either.
Most high school basketball players love to get out and run the fast break, making Billy Donovan’s attacking offense an easy sell to recruits.
Donovan’s two national titles (still one more than conference rival John Calipari) are another worthy asset on the recruiting trail.
At the same time, Donovan’s commitment to defense—especially his beloved full-court press, inherited from mentor Rick Pitino—keeps his teams competitive in the postseason.
Florida would’ve been a few spots farther down this list last year, but the Gators’ newfound defensive versatility (including one of the SEC’s best-executed zones) makes them an even scarier team over the long haul.
The Spartans don’t produce high-end NBA talent at the same rate as some big-name programs, but that hasn’t kept them from winning at the college level over and over again.
Tom Izzo’s dedication to physicality and rebounding appears in every recruiting class and produces in every NCAA tournament.
Izzo’s repeated trips deep into March have made sure that he’s in the running for any recruit he sets his sights on.
He also has the advantage that, unlike many defense-oriented coaches (including conference rival Bo Ryan), he has no problem letting his charges flex their muscles on offense when the opportunity presents itself.
No team in the country plays a better 2-3 zone than Jim Boeheim’s Orange. That fact alone makes Syracuse a contender year in and year out, and it’s far from the program's only edge.
Boeheim himself is one of the nation’s most respected coaches, capable of convincing (for example) McDonald’s All-American Michael Carter-Williams to sit on the bench for a year before his dazzling 2012-13 campaign.
The only thing keeping the Orange from climbing even higher here is the rarity of Final Four runs in Boeheim’s career like the one Carter-Williams led.
Once a haven for such four-year stars as Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, Kansas has seen a lot more of its players jump to the NBA early under Bill Self.
However, Self has proven time and again that he can replace even his best individual talents and still keep the Jayhawks at the top of the Big 12.
Not only is Self a premier recruiter in his own right, but he has the KU reputation and Kansas’ overwhelming dominance of its conference on his side.
The Jayhawks could be even higher on this list if their coach were a bit sharper on the X’s-and-O’s side, a problem that’s produced a worrying number of Sweet 16 exits for high-seeded squads.
Even 10 years after Michael Jordan’s last NBA retirement, North Carolina still needs few other recruiting tools besides having produced His Airness.
Of course, the Tar Heels have plenty more on their side as one of the NCAA’s winningest programs and most successful NBA factories.
Roy Williams’ love of the fast break earns him plenty of points with recruits, and he’s proven that his approach works in the postseason by bringing two more national titles to Chapel Hill.
On top of all that, the Tar Heels offer a chance to participate in college hoops’ best rivalry with their twice-yearly (at least) meetings with Duke.
As if Rick Pitino wasn’t a tremendous recruiter before, now he has a second national title on his resume. The veteran coach has built Louisville into a program so good that it doesn’t care what conference it plays in.
That’s just as well, as the Cards will have a year in the AAC before jumping to the stacked ACC to stay in 2014-15.
With recent success, a great tradition and a big-name coach who knows how to win with defense, Louisville has almost all the advantages it could ask for.
Mike Krzyzewski might well be the best coach in NCAA basketball history, and he’s indisputably the most successful active coach. No other program offers recruits a chance to play for a four-time national champion.
Coach K’s track record of sending his pupils on to the pros, not to mention his affinity for the three-point shot, provide extra incentive for high school stars to keep Duke at the top of their lists.
The final factor that pushes the Blue Devils into the top spot here is a recruiting incentive few other programs anywhere near Duke’s caliber can offer: a top-flight academic school to sell to the parents of those high school hoopsters (and, occasionally, even the players themselves).