College Basketball's 10 Greatest Programs of All Time
One of the great aspects of college basketball is its rich sense of history and tradition. Many schools throughout the sport's history have created unforgettable moments or set incredible records that help give each basketball program its own history and culture.
For many of the greatest schools, they were led in one point or another by an all-time great coach whose legacy defines the school and the program as a whole. Other universities have had unbelievable eras that will be hard to duplicate ever again in the future.
Determining which schools are the best of the best is an extremely challenging, yet very interesting topic to tackle. There is no set way to choose which program is the absolute best. Some people value championships more than anything else, while others value total wins over a long period of time.
With that in mind, I have compiled a ranking of what I believe to be the 10 greatest college basketball programs of all time. Many criteria and statistics are factored in to each decision. Please let your voice be heard in the comments section so we can generate some interesting discussion on the debate. Regardless, advance to the next slide to begin the countdown.
Syracuse Orangemen: 1,847 wins, 1 National Title, 4 Final Fours, 0.692 Win Pct.
Cincinnati Bearcats: 1,623 wins, 2 National Titles, 6 Final Fours, 22 Conf. Season Titles
Utah Utes: 1,670 wins, 1 National Title, 4 Final Fours, 32 Conf. Season Titles
North Carolina State Wolfpack: 1,593 wins, 2 National Titles, 3 Final Fours, 0.621 Win Pct.
Oklahoma State Cowboys: 1,532 wins, 2 National Titles, 6 Final Fours, 0.588 Win Pct.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes
Total Wins: 1607
Win Percentage: .608%
National Championships: 1
Final Four Appearances: 11
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 28
Conference Regular Season Titles: 22
Starting off the rankings are the Ohio State Buckeyes. Hailing from the Big Ten, Ohio State has been a consistent power in college basketball during the sport's long history. The school made their first splash on the national scene by finishing as the National Runner-Up in the 1938-39 season and have not looked back since.
The Buckeyes have advanced to the national semifinal eleven times in its history, which ranks them sixth all-time in the NCAA record books. However, all of those Final Four appearances have only yielded one national championship trophy; Ohio State won it all during the 1959-60 season.
Having only won one national championship is what prevents them from climbing up higher on the list. With that being said, their overall consistency and success is what places them among the ten greatest basketball programs in history.
Ohio State has won over 1,600 games and has won their conference regular season title 22 times, which is an especially impressive feat considering that they play in the tough Big Ten conference.
The school's two greatest runs came under head coaches Fred Taylor and Thad Matta. Taylor led the Buckeyes to three consecutive appearances in the National Final, which includes their first and only NCAA national championship in 1960. Taylor also led the school to a Final Four appearance later that decade.
As for Matta, he led the program to their eleventh appearance in the Final Four last season. He also reached the national final in 2007 with the team led by super freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr.
9. Connecticut Huskies
All-Time Wins: 1,513
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.637%
NCAA Championships: 3
Final Four Appearances: 4
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 30
Conference Regular Season Titles: 29
The Connecticut Huskies are a relative newcomer to college basketball's group of elite programs, but they have certainly made their presence felt by taking home multiple national championships in the past 15 years.
Led by head coach Jim Calhoun, UConn has been one of the most successful basketball programs since he took over in the 1986-87 season. Their total of three NCAA national championships has them tied for sixth all-time in that category. In fact, they are tied with the Kansas Jayhawks in national titles, which is impressive considering that Connecticut has played in 500 fewer games and has appeared in 10 fewer Final Fours than Kansas.
In other words, the Huskies have taken full advantage of their recent opportunities on the sport's biggest stage. In addition to their three championships, they have played in four Final Fours and have actually won 29 conference regular season titles.
It is this conference domination that helps boost them up this high on the list. Also, the school has posted an impressive .637 winning percentage, which is equal with Indiana University and better than programs such as Ohio State, Michigan State, North Carolina State and Cincinnati.
What holds Connecticut back on this list is the lack of any major accomplishments before Jim Calhoun took over. Before his tenure, the Huskies had never reached a Final Four or won a national title. In fact, their best tournament finish was the Elite Eight. They were also an inconsistent program in terms of NCAA tournament appearances.
However, they have performed fairly well over the years. In terms of winning percentage by decade, UConn finished as the eight-best program in the 1950s, the fifth-best program in the 1990s and the sixth-best program in the 2000s decade. That success is likely to repeat itself once the 2010s decade wraps itself up down the road.
Therefore, Connecticut is a difficult team to rank. In terms of national championships, winning percentage and conference championships you would think that they were an all-time college basketball blue-blood program.
That is not the case, as they have only had one extremely successful coaching tenure in their program's history. With that being said, Jim Calhoun has had a career for the ages and has firmly placed the Connecticut Huskies among basketball's all-time elite programs.
8. Michigan State Spartans
Total Wins: 1523
Win Percentage: .597%
National Championships: 2
Final Four Appearances: 8
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 26
Conference Regular Season Titles: 13
The Big Ten makes another appearance on the top ten list as the Michigan State Spartans make their claim as one of college basketball's greatest programs. This institution has provided fans with plenty of historic basketball memories and is an annual challenger for the national title.
Led by head coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans have been one of the most dominant basketball teams of the past 20 years. Izzo has led them to an incredible six Final Four appearances during his tenure, which includes the school's second national championship run in 2000.
Speaking of national titles, the Spartans are one of a handful of schools that have won multiple NCAA championships. In addition to Izzo's trophy in 2000, the school also won one in 1979.
That team was coached by Jud Heathcote and was led by the school's most famous alumni—Magic Johnson. The greatest point guard in NBA history squared off against Indiana State and Larry Bird in that 1979 final, which is still considered to be one of the most incredible title games in the history of the sport. Johnson will always be a key figure in the school's reputation and history, similar to Michael Jordan's long-lasting impact on the University of North Carolina.
Michigan State's most successful period is certainly its current era with coach Izzo. They have played on college basketball's final weekend in six of the previous fourteen seasons. He had an incredible three-year stretch from 1999-2001 in which he took the Spartans to three consecutive Final Four appearances, with the national championship stuffed in the middle year of that run.
What elevates Michigan State's standing on this list is what they accomplished before Tom Izzo came to the university. They were certainly no world beater, but Heathcote did win a national championship in his tenure. Also, head coach Forddy Anderson led the Spartans to their first Final Four appearance and a spot in the Elite Eight during the late 1950s.
Therefore, the program has been successful across multiple eras, produced one of basketball's most transcendent players in its history and features one of the great college coaches in the sport's history. All in all, Michigan State is certainly one of college basketball's elite programs and are more than deserving of their placement on this list.
7. Louisville Cardinals
All-Time Wins: 1,662
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.658%
NCAA Championships: 2
Final Four Appearances: 9
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 38
Conference Regular Season Titles: 21
The Louisville Cardinals returned to college basketball's biggest stage last season as they advanced to the Final Four for the second time under head coach Rick Pitino. Louisville has always had a proud basketball tradition and they are truly one of the premier programs in the country.
Perhaps their best claim as an elite basketball school is their performance in the Final Four. The Cardinals have advanced to nine of them, which is spread out among three head coaches.
None were more successful than Denny Crum. He took over the program in the 1971-72 season and immediately led U of L to the Final Four. This became a common occurrence for Crum's Cardinals as he led them there six times in his first fifteen seasons as head coach.
Louisville's best decade was the 1980s. They won their only two NCAA national championships in 1980 and 1986, which sandwich two Final Four appearances between those title runs.
Before Crum, the school was not a dominant power but they were a major player on the college basketball landscape. Led by Peck Hickman, the Cardinals advanced to their first Final Four appearance in 1959 and have failed to look back ever since.
They are now led by coach Rick Pitino, who left the green pastures of the University of Kentucky and the NBA to follow in Denny Crums' footsteps as the head of Louisville's basketball team. He has taken them to two more Final Four appearances and enters next season as one of the favorites to win it all.
Beyond tournament success, Louisville boasts an impressive .658 all-time winning percentage. This is a better rate of success than Indiana, Arizona, Ohio State, Michigan State, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Illinois, among others.
Holding back the Cardinals are their lack of more all-time wins and their two all-time appearances in the national final. Regardless, though, the rest of their resume speaks for itself and they are certainly a proud program.
6. Indiana Hoosiers
All-Time Wins: 1,687
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.637%
NCAA Championships: 5
Final Four Appearances: 8
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 36
Conference Regular Season Titles: 20
The Indiana Hoosiers are the third Big Ten team on this list and for good reason. They are simply one of the most blue-blood programs in the history of basketball.
There are many things going for the Hoosiers in terms of their all-time rank in the sport. First of all, they were led by Bob Knight, one of the greatest coaches to ever grace college sidelines. Knight took a good basketball program and turned them into legends as his teams ruled the 1970s and 1980s.
In fact, there is an interesting parallel between Indiana and their cross-river rivals, the Louisville Cardinals. After Knight won his first national title in 1976, he closely matched the success of Denny Crum and contended with Louisville for the title of best team in the 1980s.
When the Cardinals won their title in 1980, Indiana claimed the title in 1981. Then when Louisville returned to the top by winning it all in 1986, Bob Knight led his Hoosiers to the national championship in 1987.
Surrounding those national title runs were two other appearances in the Final Four and a literal perfect season in 1976 when Knight's Hoosiers finished the season 32-0. Their undefeated record still stands to this day and is one of the most impressive feats in the sport's history.
Before the successful tenure of Bob Knight was the successful era of Branch McCracken. He coached the school on and off from 1938 to 1965 and achieved great success during his tenure. McCracken led the 1940 and 1953 Hoosiers on national championship runs, which were also the school's first Final Four appearances.
With that being said, Indiana is being held back from a higher ranking because of a few reasons. First of all, the school has been to one Final Four since Knight's departure. They also missed the NCAA tournament multiple times during that time span and are just now resurrecting their national brand.
In addition to this, Indiana lacks a single conference tournament championship in their history. They also have a lower win percentage than schools such as Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville.
However, they are clearly one of the great schools in basketball history and have a proud and storied tradition. Indiana is the sixth-greatest college basketball program in NCAA history and have plenty to be proud of when wearing their school colors.
5. Kansas Jayhawks
All-Time Wins: 2,070
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.720%
NCAA Championships: 3
Final Four Appearances: 14
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 41
Conference Regular Season Titles: 55
The Kansas Jayhawks are one of the most difficult teams to rank on this entire list. When viewing their overall resume, few schools can match their program in terms of history, tradition and longevity.
For example, Kansas is second all-time in wins with 2,070 and counting. They trail Kentucky by only 22 victories and hold a narrow lead over third-place North Carolina.
Kansas' impressive winning percentage is third-best in NCAA basketball history, and they have won more conference regular season championships than any other program.
However, Kansas simply lacks the championship pedigree to back up their regular season success. They have won three NCAA titles in their school's history, which is certainly impressive.
With that being said, that is the same amount as Connecticut, who has appeared in 10 fewer Final Fours than Kansas yet has won the same number of championships. Also, their three title wins rank below programs such as Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina and Duke.
The Jayhawks have appeared in nine NCAA national final games, but they have only walked away with the trophy three times. Simply put, college basketball's finest programs need to win on the biggest stage in order to be considered the best of the best.
Besides their lack of championships, Kansas has other impressive historical figures. They rank fifth all-time with 14 Final Four appearances and only trail Duke and Kentucky by one in that category. Their conference championships best any other school and are truly the class of the Big 12.
Kansas has had more recent success in the past few decades, but they do feature great success from across the basketball spectrum. In terms of winning percentage by decade, Kansas appears among the top 20 schools in the 1930s, 1950s, 1990s and 2000s.
The school has a proud history, as former head coach Phog Allen was one of the early innovators of the sport. He led the school to three appearances in the national title game and is honored by having Kansas name their arena after him.
Kansas also produced a player by the name of Wilt Chamberlain who became one of the most dominant forces of all time during his playing career in college and the NBA.
All in all, Kansas boasts one of the most historical and impressive basketball programs of all time.
4. Duke Blue Devils
All-Time Wins: 1,971
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.703%
NCAA Championships: 4
Final Four Appearances: 15
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 36
Conference Regular Season Titles: 22
The Connecticut Huskies made this list of the 10 greatest basketball programs completely because of Jim Calhoun and his accomplishments during his tenure. Without Calhoun, though, UConn would be nowhere on this list.
This same principle applies to the Duke Blue Devil basketball program. There are two distinct eras in Duke's history: before Mike Krzyzewski and after Mike Krzyzewski. The legendary coach took over the team in 1980 and has produced arguably the greatest coaching run by anyone not named John Wooden.
"Coach K" has completely put Duke basketball on the map and is still writing his legacy to this day. He is college basketball's all-time winningest coach and has led the Blue Devils to four NCAA national championships and 11 Final Four appearances.
His personal Final Four tally equals the entire output of Ohio State's program and exceeds that of Indiana, Louisville, Michigan State and Connecticut, among many more Division I schools.
Krzyzewski's greatest five-year run was from 1988-1992, in which he led the Blue Devils to five consecutive appearances in the Final Four, including three straight trips to the national final and winning back-to-back championship trophies in 1991 and 1992.
Duke's history before "Coach K" is limited, but it is more prolific than most casual fans think. Led by head coach Vic Bubas, Duke made its presence known on the national scene by advancing to three Final Fours in a four year span, from 1963-1966.
The school also reached the 1978 NCAA national final with head coach Bill E. Foster, where the Blue Devils fell to eventual champion Kentucky.
In addition to the school's championship pedigree, they boast an incredible conference record playing in the competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Their rivalry with the North Carolina Tar Heels is perhaps the most famous rivalry in American sports and is always full of intensity, tough play and memorable moments.
Duke has also won 24 ACC Tournament titles, which is good for the third most all-time. Despite the assumption that they achieved nothing before Mike Krzyzewski's arrival, their 36 appearances in the NCAA tournament ranks sixth in the sport's history.
All in all, Duke has arguably been the best team of the previous 30 years. Even though they lack the more consistent all-time success of programs such as Kentucky and Kansas, they can boast about having the best head coach in college athletics and will likely be a key title contender long beyond the eventual departure of "Coach K."
3. North Carolina Tar Heels
All-Time Wins: 2,065
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.738%
NCAA Championships: 5
Final Four Appearances: 18
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 43
Conference Regular Season Titles: 36
Ranking this entire list has been an extremely difficult process. It is difficult separating programs that are only one championship, one conference title or a few regular season victories apart from each other.
With that in mind, I do believe that there are three clear choices for the best programs in college basketball history. On one hand you have the UCLA Bruins, who lead the nation in national championships and produced the greatest dynasty in college basketball history.
The Kentucky Wildcats are another clear contender, with their all-around blend of dominance in the early and latter days of basketball history and their status as the all-time wins leader.
Finally, you have the North Carolina Tar Heels. They are tied with UCLA for the most Final Four appearances by any program with 18 apiece. Playing in the Final Four on a consistent basis is a good barometer of seeing how often a particular program was one of the very best teams year in and year out. North Carolina certainly passes that test with flying colors.
The difficulty in ranking these three programs is placing them in order. As you can see, I have the Tar Heels rated third all-time and although there is certainly a valid debate for them to place higher, I believe that three is the correct placement on the all-time list.
In terms of wins, North Carolina is third all-time behind Kentucky and Kansas. However, they are second in history in terms of winning percentage, topping that of UCLA.
North Carolina has certainly produced countless memorable figures, including former head coach Dean Smith and former player and all-time great Michael Jordan. Those two people still keep North Carolina relevant to this day with their historical impact and how they changed the game of basketball forever.
The Tar Heels are also second all-time in conference tournament titles, finishing one spot ahead of rival Duke with 25. They only trail Kentucky in this category.
In terms of all-time history, North Carolina certainly has an impressive spread of dominance across multiple eras of basketball. Their first national championship occurred in 1957, when head coach Frank McGuire guided his team to a perfect 32-0 season record.
Dean Smith won the school's following two championships in 1982 and 1993, with many Final Four appearances occurring during that time period. When Roy Williams took over the program in 2004, he guided the Tar Heels to championships in 2005 and 2009.
Of the schools on this list, North Carolina is the only one to have two head coaches win multiple national titles. However, the school's overall championship pedigree is what ultimately places it third all-time instead of further up on the list.
The Tar Heels can brag about reaching 18 Final Fours. However, having won only five championships out of those 18 trips suggests that North Carolina is a program that is consistently near the top of the mountain, but also one that ultimately fails at the end more often than not.
Out of those 18 trips to the sport's final weekend, they only advanced to the national final game nine times. When ranking the absolute best programs in the sport, a program simply must perform better on basketball's biggest stage to be considered as the best of all-time.
With that being said, their overall resume is extremely impressive and Roy Williams has their future headed in a great positive direction. They are one of college basketball's most elite schools and boast a tradition and history that would be the envy of any program.
2. UCLA Bruins
All-Time Wins: 1,731
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.691%
NCAA Championships: 11
Final Four Appearances: 18
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 44
Conference Regular Season Titles: 30
With North Carolina sitting in third place, the final showdown for basketball's best program came down to its two greatest champions in Kentucky and UCLA. The two greatest schools in basketball have incredibly rich traditions and have consistently won at the very highest level of the sport.
UCLA can certainly boast about its most proud accomplishment: they are the all-time leader in NCAA championships. Having won 11 national titles, they have won three more championships than Kentucky, six more than North Carolina and Indiana, seven more than Duke and eight more than Kansas and Connecticut.
The Bruins are also tied with North Carolina for the lead with 18 appearances in the Final Four. Granted, this is not surprising considering the number of championships that they have contended for and won. It is still an impressive feat none the less.
UCLA is second all-time in NCAA tournament appearances, an especially impressive feat considering that they have played in 200-300 fewer games than Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas.
When someone thinks of the University of California Los Angeles, the first thing that comes to mind is often John Wooden. The Hall of Fame head coach is the sole reason for the school's placement on this list because his tenure defines the majority of the school's all-time success.
Wooden led the university to a record 10 national championships during his time on campus. Winning his first title in 1964 sparked the most dominant run by a single team in college athletics, regardless of sports. UCLA steamrolled the competition and won all but one title between 1964-1975.
What the university and Wooden accomplished will likely never be matched again. It was simply incredible and a once-in-a-lifetime feat that Bruin fans can always hold their head up high about.
So with all of this being said, why is UCLA not ranked atop the list of greatest programs? You will find out most of that in the following slide, but there are a few key factors that significantly hinder their case to be the all-time best program.
First of all, nearly all of the school's major accomplishments occurred during that one coaching run. Without John Wooden, UCLA is a middle-of-the-road program at best. Before Wooden was coach, UCLA never appeared in the NCAA tournament. After Wooden, the school only won one more championship and has not won in the regular season or tournament as consistently as programs such as Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky.
In fact, a lot of things have happened since the Bruins won their last championship in 1995: Kentucky has won three national titles, Connecticut has won three, Duke picked up two championships and North Carolina has also shrunk the distance.
In terms of all-time wins, UCLA ranks eighth all-time in victories and is behind North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas in winning percentage.
In other words, the Bruins have an unmatched championship pedigree that comes from winning at the highest level of their sport. However, they have failed to recapture that dominance since John Wooden left and have nowhere near the modern-day accomplishments of their peers.
Therefore, move on to the final slide and view college basketball's premier basketball program of all time.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
All-Time Wins: 2,092
All-Time Win Percentage: 0.763%
NCAA Championships: 8
Final Four Appearances: 15
NCAA Tournament Appearances: 53
Conference Regular Season Titles: 52
In the final showdown to determine college basketball's single greatest program of all time, the Kentucky Wildcats delivered the knockout punch to win the title. No other program leads the country in so many key areas over such a long period of time as Kentucky.
First of all, the Wildcats lead all of college basketball in wins. Their 2,092 victories are more than any other school, but what is more important is their .763 winning percentage. This is also the best percentage in the country and shows how dominant and successful Kentucky has been during its history.
With that in mind, total wins and win percentage are not enough to solely decide college basketball's finest team. Therefore, it is important to consider Kentucky's amazing success in the NCAA tournament.
The university has won eight national championships, including last season's team that was led by Anthony Davis. That eighth title was the Wildcats' first since 1998, snapping a fourteen-year gap.
Kentucky is easily in second place all-time in terms of championships, and they are also third all-time in Final Four appearances with 15. The school also leads all programs in total NCAA tournament victories, Sweet 16 appearances and Elite Eight games.
Even though the Wildcats are tied for third in Final Fours, they are solely in second place in NCAA national final games with 11 appearances. UCLA is first with 13, as expected based on their championship totals.
This is interesting because Kentucky has appeared in three fewer Final Fours than North Carolina, yet have advanced to three more national final games than the Tar Heels. In other words, Kentucky follows UCLA's pattern of taking care of business on the sport's biggest stage.
When it comes to coaching, Kentucky is the only school to have five different head coaches win a national championship. Adolph Rupp won it all in 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1958. Joe B. Hall followed suit by winning in 1978. Rick Pitino blazed through college basketball with his 1996 title team, while Tubby Smith kept the run alive by winning it all in 1998. Finally, John Calipari joined the club and won in 2012.
This is a statistic that cannot be understated. Kentucky is not dominated by a single great coaching run. Sure, Adolph Rupp's four titles make up a significant portion of the school's traditions and totals. At the same time, Kentucky would match Duke and surpass Kansas by still having four national championships leftover without Rupp's contributions.
One final statistic that really illustrates Kentucky's success over time is their winning percentage by decade. They rank second overall in the 1930s, first overall during the 1940s and 1950s, fifth overall in the 1960s and 1970s, ninth overall in the 1980s and second overall during the 1990s. In fact, the only decade that they do not finish among the top ten is the 2000s, and they still finished 19th during a "down" era.
All in all, the Kentucky Wildcats possess a potent blend of thousand of wins, a great championship pedigree, numerous NCAA tournament appearances and a consistency over time not seen by other schools. These factors combined together form a strong argument that the University of Kentucky is college basketball's premier college basketball program.