Is Kentucky the Best College Basketball Program Ever?

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Is Kentucky the Best College Basketball Program Ever?
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The road to being the all-time leader in college basketball wins started with an 11-10 victory against the Lexington Y.M.C.A. in 1903 and reached the 2,001 plateau in a game the Kentucky Wildcats won 86-73 over Long Beach State. Here is the question we have been pondering at College Sports Matchups with all of the excitement generated by the magic 2000th victory over Drexel: Does it matter that Kentucky is the all-time leader in college basketball wins?

Kentucky basketball is not the stuff of legends, it is legendary. There are NCAA Tournament MVPs everywhere in the Wildcat media guide starting with 1948 and '49 when Alex Groza was recognized for his play through Jeff Shepherd being honored in 1998. Kentucky has produced more consensus All-Americans (15) than any other school and produced 47 others that have been given this title for their play. You know their names because they are synonymous with college basketball: Dan Issel, Kyle Macy, Rex Chapman, Tony Delk, and most recently Jodie Meeks. These are just a few of the Wildcats immortalized in basketball lore.

Say Adolph Rupp and you think basketball, Kentucky basketball. During his 41-year tenure at the Wildcat helm, Rupp produced 876 wins, four NCAA titles, and is one of the few coaches that could cast a shadow over Paul “Bear” Bryant. While Rupp is the standard bearer for Kentucky basketball coaches, there are other names that produced outstanding results leading the Wildcats. When Rupp retired, Joe B. Hall stepped in and produced 297 wins along with a national title in 1978. Rick Pitino posted a 219-50 record and another national title during eight seasons in Lexington.  

Conference play in the SEC has been Kentucky’s playground for decades, with the 'Cats capturing a gaudy 43 SEC titles and cutting the net down at the SEC tourney 25 times. How dominating has Kentucky been in the SEC? Alabama is second in conference crowns with six, while LSU has won the tournament 10 times. That is pretty good separation from the herd. The last place SEC teams want to visit is Rupp Arena; since it opened in 1976 the Cats have won 90 percent of their home games.

So, does it matter that Kentucky has won more games than any other team in college basketball history? Your answer probably depends on who you pull for each week, but people in some college basketball circles say it is not that big a deal, but a tribute to playing the game for a long time with a high level of success. They will also point to other programs as being equal to Kentucky in accomplishment and tradition, if not better.

Who are these other teams that have reached these lofty standards? The best place to start is with the Wildcats two counterparts in the 1900-win club at the start of the season. Kansas started playing basketball in 1898 with Dr. James Naismith serving as head coach. You know, the guy that created the game.  He also taught it to Kentucky’s Rupp. From a historical perspective, that is a good place to stake a claim. Winning three national titles is also a positive. The other member of the 1900-win club is North Carolina. The Tar Heels are third in line for the most national titles with five.  Carolina has their own basketball genius in Dean Smith. The former coach won 879 games from 1961-1997 and is second on the all-time win list. One spot ahead of Rupp.

If winning the most games does not matter, then the question has to be what is the most significant numerical  achievement in college basketball? There is only one answer. Eleven. That is the number of NCAA Championship banners that UCLA can hang in Pauley Pavilion.  In the '60s and '70s the Bruins won 10 NCAA titles and went undefeated in 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973. From Jan. 30, 1971 through Jan. 19, 1974 the Bruins won an incredible 88 games in a row. All of this success came under the leadership of their own legend, John Wooden.  UCLA’s 11th, and most recent, title came in 1995 with Jim Harrick as head coach.

So while these are exciting times for Kentucky fans as they puff out their chest and lay claim to the title best college basketball program of all time, there is a problem. They need four more national titles to really be able to lay claim to that distinction. While there is no doubt Kentucky basketball can honestly claim they are among the best basketball programs of all time, it will take four more titles for John Calipari’s team to say they are the “top dog” without peer. If he keeps the team playing like they are right now and keeps delivering players like freshman sensation John Wall, well, it might just happen.  Number eight could even come this season.

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