Ranking the Most Consistent College Basketball Programs in the Past Decade
Consistency is difficult to maintain in any sport, but it's almost impossible in college basketball. The nature of the game, with elite talent always a threat to leave for the NBA or transfer to some other school, renders any player a potential vagabond. The coaching carousel is a threat to tear away the face of any program that threatens to break into the elite.
Most of the programs that win year after year are models of stability compared to the rest of Division I. The coaches remain long enough to reach iconic status, and they're always prepared to replace a departed star with more talent to fit the system.
There's a very good reason North Carolina vs. Duke is hyped as college basketball's greatest rivalry. The two Tobacco Road giants are virtually always winning enough games to figure prominently in the national discussion, so Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams make natural faces for our rankings.
These 20 programs may have just begun to chart a winning path over the past 10 years, or they may be continuing to build on decades of prior excellence. Either way, they've produced some tremendous basketball over the past 10 seasons and most should be expected to continue the trend this year.
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20. San Diego State
For our purposes, the prior decade begins with the 2004-05 season. That year signaled trouble at San Diego State, with the Aztecs slumping to an 11-18 record. Once that year's sophomore stars Brandon Heath and Marcus Slaughter reached upper-class status, though, coach Steve Fisher began to show his detractors that he was onto something.
Heath led to Kyle Spain, who led to Kawhi Leonard, who led to Jamaal Franklin, who led to Xavier Thames. SDSU hasn't seen the south side of 20 wins since that difficult '04-05 season concluded.
As the Mountain West's national stature has grown, NCAA bids have become more plentiful, and the Aztecs always seem to have a place at the table in recent years. While the team won 68 games without making the Big Dance from 2007-09, the past five years have all seen SDSU winning at least 23 games and getting the call on Selection Sunday.
Fisher's crew is usually a tough out once it reaches the tournament too. The Aztecs have reached a pair of Sweet 16s during the past five years, and it would have made three if not for those meddling kids from Florida Gulf Coast.
The Aztecs should still be favored for their fourth MWC regular-season title in five years, despite the loss of leaders Thames and Josh Davis. The rest of the league has suffered equal or greater attrition, so plan on seeing Fisher on a tournament sideline again this March.
Marquette's 2013-14 season feels like the end of an era. The Golden Eagles failed to win 20 games and make the NCAA tournament for the first time since joining the Big East in 2005. After the disappointing end, coach Buzz Williams bolted for the vacant job at Virginia Tech.
Still, Williams elevated his profile the old-fashioned way: by taking unheralded talent and molding it into skilled, cohesive teams.
As Tom Crean's stars—players like Wesley Matthews, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal—graduated, Williams was able to restock with capable replacements. Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder and Vander Blue were the biggest names, but the teams always appeared greater than the sums of their parts.
Even as last season came tumbling down, Marquette preserved one impressive streak. A 9-9 conference record assured that MU would enter a 10th year without ever suffering a losing season in Big East play. Of course, the new Big East is hardly the minefield that the old one was, but trading blows with powers like Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville made Marquette's solid run all the more impressive.
Now that longtime Duke aide Steve Wojciechowski is in charge, Golden Eagle faithful know they're in the hands of a man who knows what winning feels like. Whether he's the guy to bring them back to a run like 2010-13 (seven NCAA tournament wins in three seasons) remains to be seen.
From 2007 to 2011, Xavier either won or shared five consecutive Atlantic 10 regular-season titles. During that run, the Musketeers shot their way to two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight, averaging more than 26 wins per year.
The three seasons since have seen a slight regression to the mean, although 2012 ended with another Sweet 16 trip. That's four Sweet 16s in five years. For sake of comparison, Louisville hasn't gone that deep that many times since 1993-97.
This past decade began with the Muskies winning 17 games and missing the tournament, followed by 21 wins and a first-round exit. Over the past two years, X has followed the exact same pattern, right down to a loss in the 2014 First Four.
Never mind the past 10 years, Xavier has been one of the nation's better mid-major programs for nearly 30, making 22 of the last 29 NCAA tournaments. It's benefited from the stability that comes when three of your last four coaches—Skip Prosser, Sean Miller and current boss Chris Mack—were Xavier assistants before ascending to the head job.
Mack has pulled in a top-20 recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, and he's got an eye toward starting another streak of seven straight tournaments—or more, if possible. With a year under their belts in the new Big East, everyone affiliated with the Xavier program understands what it'll take to sustain another strong run.
Speaking of programs that excel outside the major-conference spotlight, BYU continues to sustain a reliably solid program despite—or perhaps because of—its unique circumstances.
Players who are recruited to BYU invariably must leave school for a two-year Church of Latter-Day Saints mission, a requirement that presents a constant reminder that their lives are bigger than what happens on 94 feet of hardwood.
BYU's seniors are older than other schools', and most carry the attendant advantages in physical and emotional maturity. Add to that coach Dave Rose's aesthetically pleasing uptempo style, and it should be small wonder that, even with the majority of recruits being LDS members, the Cougars can recruit the kind of talent that can rack up nine straight 20-win seasons.
The Cougars have been one of the fastest offensive teams in America over Rose's tenure, ranking in Ken Pomeroy's top 20 tempos six times in nine seasons. From 2006-11, BYU won four regular-season Mountain West titles and made the NCAA tournament all five years, averaging 27.8 wins per season.
Now part of the West Coast Conference, BYU hasn't quite been able to get by the league's resident colossus at Gonzaga. Rose has one more year with shooting guard Tyler Haws, one in which the senior could (should?) topple Cougar icon Jimmer Fredette for the school's all-time scoring crown.
With this year's most heralded recruits—including Haws' brother T.J.—taking their missions immediately, it appears Rose will have to do an epic coaching job to keep the 20-win streak alive in 2015-16.
Texas coach Rick Barnes' detractors—and he has quite a few—love to point out how his results don't quite equate to the talent he draws to Austin. Since the class of 2004, Barnes has pulled a whopping 25 RSCI top-100 prospects to UT, including 12 top-25 recruits. By comparison, Big 12 rival Kansas has drawn 32 and 13, respectively.
Of course, while Kansas has been busy winning its 10 straight Big 12 titles, only one program has shared more than one crown with the Jayhawks. That would be Texas in 2006 and 2008.
It's seemed over the past decade that only the NCAA itself can keep Texas out of the tournament. In 2012-13, the governing body did the Longhorns no favors by leaving point guard Myck Kabongo twisting in the wind until December to announce that he would be suspended until February. That's the one time in the past 10 years that UT has failed to win 20 games and reach the field of 65/68.
The Horns reached Elite Eights in 2006 and 2008, with the only semi-upset loss on their record coming in that 2006 regional final. Second-seeded UT lost to fourth seed LSU to miss out on Barnes' second Final Four.
There's no disputing that the Horns have underachieved in Big 12 play, averaging only 9.7 conference wins over the past six years. The 2009 and 2010 teams were sabotaged by shaky conference results, reaching the Associated Press top five only to sink to seventh and eighth seeds in those years' NCAA tournaments.
Still, Texas is always in the national conversation, which is not a claim it could make before Barnes' arrival. He's accounted for nearly half of the school's all-time NCAA bids—15 of UT's 31 have come during his 16-year tenure.
Adding elite recruit Myles Turner to last season's entire 24-win team should put Barnes into his 16th tournament. What he does there is anyone's guess.
Over the past 10 years, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams have had three coaches, one of the few programs on our list with that much turnover in the big office.
Jeff Capel parlayed his success in Richmond into the head coaching job at Oklahoma, back when "success in Richmond" meant one NCAA bid and one 20-win season in four years. His replacement, Anthony Grant, truly kicked the program into overdrive with 76 wins, three CAA regular-season titles, two NCAA trips and an iconic 2007 upset of Duke. That earned him an offer to coach at Alabama.
Under Shaka Smart, the Rams have cemented their rise as a national power. Smart has amassed 27.4 wins per season, but it was his second year that made him a household name. VCU's First Four-to-Final Four run made him every major program's dream hire, but he's spurned countless overtures to remain at a school where basketball is the undisputed king.
Smart has sustained VCU's high level of performance through a move to the Atlantic 10, a transition that has helped the Rams earn at-large NCAA bids the last two seasons. These bids, unlike the one in the 2011 Final Four season, have not unleashed a torrent of incredulous venom from ESPN talking heads.
Perhaps that's the true measure of how strong the Rams have been over the past eight seasons. When Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale stop complaining about you, you've truly made it big, right?
Certain things are guaranteed in Syracuse, N.Y. Death, taxes, snow and Jim Boeheim pulling the strings on a vicious 2-3 zone defense. The Orange win plenty of games every season, but there can sometimes be a sense that something's missing.
Syracuse has missed only five NCAA tournaments since 1983, but two of those came as recently as 2007 and '08. The Orange have failed to win 20 games only once since 1981-82 and have been ranked in the AP Top 25 at some point every year since then. But over those 32 years, how many Final Fours have the Orange reached? Just four, with a national title in 2003.
After a rough start to our 10-year evaluation period—including a pair of first-round tournament losses to double-digit seeds in 2005 and '06—the Orange have rediscovered some swagger in the past six years.
Without coaching an array of future pros—2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams being more exception than rule—Boeheim has averaged 29.5 wins over that span, reaching two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and a Final Four. Last season's team stormed to a 14-4 record in its first year as an ACC member, proving that SU could win without fattening up on the South Floridas, DePauls and Rutgerses of the world.
Boeheim's teams usually have a very defined identity, bigger than any player who might don a Syracuse jersey—yes, even Carmelo Anthony. Even though that identity has its naysayers, Boeheim's been doing it long enough to know what he's doing and the kinds of players he needs to keep succeeding.
The 2013-14 season felt like Villanova getting back to the form that saw it reach two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and a Final Four from 2005-09. Of course, that narrative was ripped to shreds by Shabazz Napier and his pack of ravenous UConn Huskies. Still, it's a welcome return to form for fans who hadn't seen a top-10 team in three years.
Despite the absence from the polls, Nova has still been a threat in the Big East, both old and new. The woebegone 2011-12 team aside, the other nine Wildcat teams in the past decade finished .500 or better in conference, won at least 20 games and made the NCAA tournament, whether or not poll voters were willing to give up the love.
The biggest issue with coach Jay Wright's performance in recent seasons has been in playing up to seed in the Big Dance. In both 2010 and 2014, Villanova entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed and was unceremoniously booted in the round of 32. Those exits burn some of the good will Wright amassed by leading a No. 12 seed to the Sweet 16 in 2008 and a No. 3 seed to the next year's Final Four.
Wright's Cats are a threat when they can hit perimeter shots and win the turnover battle. This season's team should be equipped to do those things, with shooters like Darrun Hilliard and Kris Jenkins taking passes from capable floor general Ryan Arcidiacono. With the Big East being somewhat—shall we say—watered down these days, a second straight conference title should be well within reach.
Now, about March...
Is Memphis anywhere close to the epic form that John Calipari finished on? Not really, but no one else is either. Calipari's last four Tiger teams went a cool 137-14 with a Sweet 16, two Elite Eights and a blown lead in a national championship game.
Current Tiger coach Josh Pastner has at least kept winning games, averaging 26 per year over his five years in charge. He keeps drawing recruits, including last season's five RSCI top 100 signees. Where he's causing some friction is in the lack of NCAA tournament results.
Pastner's teams have made four straight tournaments but only won two games. That's tough for the more spoiled segments of the fanbase to accept, but at least UM hasn't been suffering any egregious, Florida Gulf Coast-caliber upsets. The Tigers lost in the second round as No. 12 and No. 8 seeds, while reaching the third round as a No. 6 and a No. 8.
The Tigers left the cozy confines of Conference USA for the similarly named American Athletic Conference, but even the new league is beginning to look like the old league. Aside from UConn and Temple, all the other current American members were CUSA schools at some point in the last 10 years.
Being surrounded by so many old victims may be beneficial to the Tigers, whose recent hoop tradition and recruiting successes dwarf all their opponents save UConn. Meanwhile, having the always-dangerous Huskies around can help the RPI if Memphis can win some head-to-head matchups. Either way, Pastner's Tigers aren't showing signs of slowing down, even if they're also no longer a national title threat.
Just as Memphis fell from an elite program to merely a strong program once John Calipari left, his next stop restored Kentucky to its accustomed blue-blood status after a stint among the mortals. That said, Kentucky's definition of disappointment would be quite satisfactory anywhere else.
Before the truly dysfunctional Billy Gillispie era, Tubby Smith reached 10 straight NCAA tournaments, won 23 games and a national title in those trips, took seven SEC regular-season and five tournament titles, all while never winning fewer than 22 games in any season. Most programs are perfectly cool with a run like that.
At Kentucky, though, more is needed, and no one epitomizes "more" like Calipari. More McDonald's All-Americans, more neutral-site extravaganzas in fertile recruiting grounds like Dallas and Chicago, more wins, more headlines, more hype.
Even a team like the 2013-14 crew, with its array of McDonald's All-Americans, couldn't get out of its own way but had more than enough talent to be dangerous in a single-elimination tournament. A 10-loss team that slumped from third to nowhere in the Associated Press poll stormed to a national runner-up finish.
Calipari's 2011 Final Four team ranked 11th in that year's final AP poll, the first-ever UK Final Four team from outside the top 10. The 2014 team was the second. Kentucky will never be considered a "Cinderella" program, no matter what ranking or seed it's coming from, but it's now always a threat. For Big Blue Nation, that's as it should be, even as the supporters complain about the bumpy ride.
Consistency isn't always packaged in the guise of perennial greatness. Some programs get into a certain groove and stay there, never rising above or falling below their level for very long. Under coach Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh has found itself always in the national conversation but never spoken about very loudly. And part of that is on the coach himself.
College basketball coaches have more sway over their schedule than their football brethren, whose nonconference games are largely brokered by athletic directors. Dixon's teams have won at least 20 games in 13 straight seasons—24 or more in 11 of those. Pitt has had only one losing record in its two behemoth conferences, the old Big East and the ACC, so it's beating quality foes in league play.
The nonconference foes, however, have proved to be Twinkies, momentarily satisfying wins with very little nutritional value for Pitt's postseason resume.
The Panthers routinely find themselves near the bottom of the strength of schedule rankings compiled by hoop stat guru Ken Pomeroy. Over the past 10 seasons, Pitt's non-league schedule has ranked outside the national top 200 seven times, peaking at No. 129 in 2006-07.
In the Panthers' three toughest seasons, they reached a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight. When they've gorged on cream puffs, they've been routinely bounced in the first weekend, including as a No. 1 seed by Butler in 2011.
This year's Panthers will play the likes of Samford, Oakland, Holy Cross and Bryant. Indiana offers name value but is expected to struggle in the Big Ten. A potentially brutal run through the Maui Invitational may need to pay for a lot of scheduling sins come March, but that's only if Pitt can defeat some of its potent opponents.
9. Ohio State
Our 10-year period perfectly coincides with Thad Matta's tenure as head coach at Ohio State. It's been a decade that has seen the Buckeyes figure in the national conversation more prominently than any time since the early 1960s.
Over his decade in Columbus, Matta has won 275 games, reached two Final Fours, an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s. He's brought in star-quality recruits like Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger. He's won five Big Ten regular-season and four tournament titles. Six of Matta's 10 teams have finished the season ranked seventh or better in the AP poll.
Of course, postseason disappointment often follows such heady regular-season success. Four times under Matta—three in the last five years—the Buckeyes have lost to teams seeded four-plus lines below them in the NCAA tournament. Wins over OSU propelled Tennessee and Dayton to Elite Eights in 2010 and 2014, while ninth-seeded Wichita State completed its wild ride to the Final Four over OSU in 2013.
Matta's Buckeyes have succeeded through a tough defense and solid two-point shooting. Only one of his first 10 teams finished outside Ken Pomeroy's top 30 in defensive efficiency, while his first eight teams all ranked 31st or better in shooting percentage inside the three-point arc. Big men like Oden and Sullinger, along with skilled wings like Thomas and Evan Turner, fit those strengths perfectly.
Over the last two years, there hasn't been a go-to big man, with McDonald's All-American Amir Williams being a collegiate flop. The defense has geared more toward stopping the perimeter players, thanks to pesky guards like Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott. The offense struggled to do much of anything last year.
Still, OSU is always dangerous. The Buckeyes won 54 games these past two seasons, including a 23-13 Big Ten record and the 2013 conference tournament title. It'll take something very unusual to slow Ohio State's momentum now.
In the middle of our decade, the Florida Gators took a two-year siesta from the NCAA tournament, as if the entire program was collectively spent after storming to consecutive national championships. Its 2010 return to the Big Dance was a brief cameo as well.
Since then, coach Billy Donovan has assembled teams built to reach the tournament's second weekend, and they've all done just that. Three straight Elite Eights built anticipation for a Final Four return in 2014, when UF and Kentucky did their best to make up for the SEC's lackluster regular-season showing.
Florida and Kentucky have been carrying the flag for their conference almost single-handedly during the Gators' entire four-year run. In fact, Tennessee is the only SEC school aside from UF or UK to reach the Sweet 16 since 2007.
Donovan has shown that his teams can win when led by perimeter bombers like Kenny Boynton, potent inside scorers like Joakim Noah and Al Horford or fierce defenders like Scottie Wilbekin. There's still not a lot going on in this season's SEC to distract from the Florida-Kentucky title fight, so expect UF to stay prominent even while this season's club tries to find its identity after the loss of five senior starters.
Louisville was a strong program under Denny Crum, winning two national titles and going to two more Final Fours in seven years during the 1980s. By the time Crum retired in 2001, though, the shine had worn off. Only seven of Crum's final 15 teams could even win 20 games, and he could only reach one Elite Eight.
Under former archrival Rick Pitino, however, Louisville basketball has enjoyed a serious renaissance.
Over the past 10 years, Pitino has shot right past 20 wins to 30 five times, and only one of those seasons ended short of an Elite Eight. The Cards have won a national title and reached two other Final Fours, all while migrating from Conference USA to the Big East to the American Athletic Conference.
Now, Louisville embarks on another daunting journey, moving to the ACC, where Pitino will butt heads with fellow Hall of Famers Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski and renew pleasantries with Jim Boeheim. None of this is possible if Pitino only leads the Cards to, say, one Elite Eight and one Sweet 16.
When Pitino arrived, Louisville had lapsed into being a solid mid-major program with a strong tradition. Now, it's in arguably the nation's most loaded conference, being recognized as one of the true elite programs in the country.
What a difference 10 years make.
Sometimes, a program's consistency boggles the mind. Despite the frequent appearance of a talent disadvantage compared to other Big Ten programs, Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers have never finished outside the conference's top four. Quite obviously, such a streak means that UW has also never missed the NCAA tournament under Ryan.
The Badgers' 2014 Final Four trip took away a large piece of ammunition for Ryan's detractors. Overall, though, the tournament has been frequently unkind to Wisconsin. UW has tumbled out of the Big Dance to a major underdog (four or more seed lines) in six of the last eight tournaments. That does include the Final Four loss to a woefully underseeded Kentucky team, but it still counts.
The only other major critique left of the Wisconsin program may be that UW has won only two Big Ten titles—one regular-season, one tournament, both in the same season—over the past 10 years.
Still, 13 straight top-four finishes in any of the power conferences equals an impressive run. Ryan has carded three 30-win seasons, all truly epic accomplishments at a program that once went 58 years without even a 20-win campaign.
Ryan has elevated himself into the rarefied air occupied by the likes of Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino or Billy Donovan, the kinds of coaches that you simply don't bet against even if they appear to be leading subpar teams into a season.
(Take it easy, Self/Calipari/Krzyzewski fans: How often do your teams appear to lack talent, really?)
Ever since Gonzaga burst onto the national scene with an Elite Eight run in 1999, the West Coast Conference has been its personal playground. The Bulldogs have claimed 14 of the last 16 regular-season titles and 12 of the 16 tournament titles since '99.
Perhaps even more impressively, GU has single-handedly turned the WCC into a multi-bid league. That regional final run started a string of 16 straight NCAA tournaments that continues unabated today.
Gonzaga's major-program credentials are still a hot-button issue nationally, as many analysts refuse to acknowledge its accomplishments due to its conference affiliation. The Zags do little to defuse the debate, especially through their failure to return to the Elite Eight since that 1999 tournament.
The 2013 championship seemed to be GU's chance to quiet the critics, but instead Gonzaga launched a new mid-major juggernaut by wilting against Wichita State in the third round.
Overall, coach Mark Few's teams have a dead-level 10-10 record in the last 10 NCAA tournaments, a ledger that doesn't scream national powerhouse. Still, GU is always at the dance, and it perennially brings some sharp-looking talent. Perhaps one of these seasons the Zags will stop spilling the punch all over themselves.
4. North Carolina
Once Roy Williams found a groove at North Carolina, it seemed that very little could stop his loaded Tar Heel teams. Over the first eight years of our 10-year evaluation period, the Heels stomped their way to six seasons of 29 or more wins, all of which culminated in at least an Elite Eight. UNC reached three regional finals, one Final Four and claimed two national championships.
Oh, and six ACC regular-season titles, but those are small potatoes when you start making room for the big trophies in your case.
Even in a miserable season like 2009-10, Williams was able to motivate the troops for a run to the NIT final after they'd won all of five games in two months.
Carolina has struggled—relatively speaking, of course—over the past two years, winning 49 games, 25 in the ACC, and earning disappointing eighth and sixth seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Still, Williams keeps attracting top talent to Chapel Hill, with skilled wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson joining an experienced team along with fearless point guard Joel Berry. Jackson's shooting will be key, as UNC lacked perimeter threats in 2013-14.
The Tar Heel title teams combined deadly shooters with potent interior scorers, and this year's side has sophomore Kennedy Meeks and junior Brice Johnson to put in work inside. There may not be enough on hand to get North Carolina back to a Final Four, but another No. 6 seed would be even more surprising.
Everything touching on Tobacco Road basketball gets viewed through the prism of Duke vs. North Carolina, and our rankings are no exception.
UNC has two national titles in the last 10 years, but it also dipped into NIT purgatory in 2010. Duke has one national title, but it also suffered through disappointing tournament losses to the likes of Lehigh and Mercer. Both programs have gone to six Sweet 16s in 10 years.
UNC has six ACC regular-season titles, but Duke has five tournament championships—which, for some reason, the conference recognizes as its official championship.
Carolina has four seasons of fewer than 26 wins, Duke has one. UNC has ranked outside the AP top 10 three times, Duke once.
It comes down to personal biases. Do you hold tournament success as the end-all and be-all, or do you actually remember that college basketball has a regular season too? If it's the former, you likely favor North Carolina. The latter, Duke.
Feel free to discuss the matter in the comments, but be intelligent about it.
2. Michigan State
It was major news when UConn stopped Michigan State's NCAA tournament run, and not just because a No. 7 seed was headed to the Final Four. Adriean Payne and Keith Appling became Tom Izzo's first senior class to never experience a national semifinal. It took 19 years for Izzo to have a group fall short in such a manner.
The Spartans aren't just a tournament fixture under Izzo—17 years and counting—but they're usually a good bet to hit the regional rounds. Over our 10-year evaluation span, MSU has crashed three Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight, two Final Fours and a national title game. The two Final Fours were accomplished from No. 5 seeds, suggesting that Izzo's teams may be better when overlooked, carrying a chip on their shoulders.
Every Izzo team will be difficult to score against. Michigan State has finished in the top 32 of Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings in nine of the last 10 seasons. The one team that didn't? A sixth-seeded first-round loser that jump-started George Mason's historic Final Four run in 2006.
This year's Spartans appear thin on talent, as senior forward Branden Dawson is the only player who ranked in his recruiting class's top 90, according to 247 Sports. Still, just like Bo Ryan, only a fool bets heavily against Tom Izzo.