The 10 Best Teams in College Basketball History

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 30, 2020

The 10 Best Teams in College Basketball History

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    1971-72 UCLA Bruins
    1971-72 UCLA BruinsAssociated Press

    We bemoaned the lack of elite teams throughout the 2019-20 men's college basketball season, but there have been quite a few incredible squads over more than 80 years of the NCAA tournament era of men's college hoops.

    This was originally going to be a ranking of the best single-season teams of all time, but more than half the top 10 would've been the years that Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton were at UCLA. To combat that, we briefly considered adding a qualifier that a school can only appear in the top 10 twice or that there must be a gap of at least three years between multiple appearances by the same program, but that seemed too arbitrary.

    Instead, any length of time can qualify as a single entry.

    So rather than breaking up UCLA's domination under John Wooden into a certain number of candidates, more than a decade's worth of Bruins squads were considered as one team. The same goes for Kansas' recent streak of Big 12 titles, nearly two decades' worth of Dean Smith's time with North Carolina and the Duke era dating from Ronald Reagan's presidency through the present day.

    The longer a team was consistently a title contender, the better. However, quality is as important as quantity. For instance, a team that was a juggernaut for two or three seasons could rank ahead of one that finished in the AP Top 10 for 10 consecutive years but didn't dominate.

    The basic question in the ranking process was: Could you give an oral history of men's college basketball without including that team during its heyday(s)? The answer was "no" for each team in our top 10, with the most emphatic "nos" ranking at the top.

Honorable Mentions

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Before we embrace the long list of honorable mentions, let's briefly point out one successful program that is nowhere to be found: Connecticut.

    The Huskies are one of just six schools with at least four men's basketball national championships, but consistent success has eluded them. The only time they made it to the Elite Eight in back-to-back years was in the 1998-99 NCAA tournaments. But they missed the Big Dance with 15 losses in 1997 and went 25-10 the year after winning the 1999 title. And that two-year stretch was nowhere near as dominant as the best that other schools can boast.

    The 2008-14 Huskies was the other span briefly considered, as they won two national championships and reached a third Final Four during that time. However, they averaged 10.3 losses over those six seasons, missed the tournament twice and didn't have a single regular-season conference title.

    That Kemba Walker-fueled run through the 2011 tournament will never be forgotten, though, and Connecticut is easily the best "Whack-a-Mole team" in the history of men's hoops.

    Here are 23 other teams that were more seriously considered but omitted. They are listed in chronological order by first season:

    1944-54 Oklahoma State Cowboys
    1951-55 La Salle Explorers
    1954-58 San Francisco Dons
    1959-62 Ohio State Buckeyes
    1967-78 Marquette Warriors
    1972-75 North Carolina State Wolfpack
    1977-82 DePaul Blue Demons
    1979-83 Louisville Cardinals
    1981-89 Georgetown Hoyas
    1982-84 Houston Cougars
    1987-90 Oklahoma Sooners
    1987-94 Arizona Wildcats
    1989-95 Arkansas Razorbacks
    1990-93 Indiana Hoosiers
    1991-93 Michigan Wolverines
    1997-2001 Stanford Cardinal
    1998-2001 Michigan State Spartans
    2004-09 North Carolina Tar Heels
    2005-07 Florida Gators
    2005-09 Memphis Tigers
    2009-15 Kentucky Wildcats
    2013-19 Virginia Cavaliers
    2016-Present Gonzaga Bulldogs

10. 1974-76 Indiana Hoosiers

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    AP/Associated Press

    Overall Record: 63-1 (98.4 winning percentage); one national championship; two Elite Eights

    There's an argument to be made that 1990-93 Indiana was actually better than 1974-76 Indiana. Certainly not from a winning-percentage perspective, but from a "The Big Ten was a whole heck of a lot tougher in the early '90s than it was in the mid-'70s and the Hoosiers were still excellent" point of view.

    However, I've spent my entire career referencing 1975-76 Indiana as the most recent undefeated national champion, so leaving Scott May, Kent Benson and Co. out of the top 10 would feel like a crime.

    What most people don't realize about the disco-era Hoosiers is they were actually better the year before they ran the table.

    The 32-0 team gets all of the attention, as it should. But there were a bunch of close calls along the way to perfection. They twice needed overtime to get a win, and more than one-third (11) of their victories were decided by single digits. They beat UCLA by 14 in the Final Four and smashed Michigan by 18 in the national championship, but they had their fair share of nail-biters before that grand stage.

    The previous year's teamwhich started 31-0 before it lost to Kentucky in the Elite Eight in a game that May played with a cast on his broken left armhad an average margin of victory of 22.1 points. There were a couple of tight games, but nowhere near as many as they played in 1975-76.

    As far as two-season arcs are concerned, it doesn't get much better than this one. We're primarily interested in longer runs than that, though.

9. 1989-92 UNLV Rebels

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    Jerry Tarkanian
    Jerry TarkanianPAUL J. RICHARDS/Getty Images

    Overall Record: 95-8 (92.2 winning percentage); one national championship; two Final Fours

    If you wanted to broaden UNLV's scope to an entire decade, that's fair. Beginning with the 1982-83 season, the Runnin' Rebels were a No. 5 seed or better in nine consecutive NCAA tournaments, including a 1986-87 campaign that ended in the Final Four with a 37-2 record. However, adding those seven seasons decreases the overall winning percentage considerably while only adding that one trip to the Final Four.

    It's more impressive if we just home in on Jerry Tarkanian's final three seasons in Las Vegas.

    Led by Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson, UNLV won the 1990 national championship, demolishing Duke 103-73 in the title game. It was UNLV's third 30-point win in that tournament.

    The Rebs were substantially better the following year too. They went 30-0 during the regular season and entered the 1991 NCAA tournament with an average margin of victory of 28.9 points. They spent the entire year ranked No. 1 and only had one game decided by fewer than a dozen pointsa 112-105 road win over AP No. 2 (and eventual No. 1 seed) Arkansas.

    However, Christian Laettner and Co. got their revenge from the previous year's blowout, upsetting UNLV 79-77 in the Final Four.

    Despite losing Anthony, Augmon and Johnson after that 34-1 season, UNLV continued to thrive the following year. It went 26-2, finishing the regular season on a 23-game winning streak. It was ineligible for postseason play, though, as part of a settlement in an investigation into recruiting violations that Tarkanian allegedly committed in the 1970s.

    Tark the Shark was forced to resign after that season, but he went out with a bang. And UNLV hasn't even gotten back to the Elite Eight since.

8. 2014-18 Villanova Wildcats

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Overall Record: 136-16 (89.5 winning percentage); two national championships

    Early exits from the 2015 and 2017 NCAA tournaments kept a lot of people from properly appreciating Villanova's greatness as it was happening. However, two national championships in three years and a four-season stretch with an average of 34 wins is hard to ignore in retrospect.

    Jay Wright's mini-dynasty began in 2013-14 with a significant uptick in three-point reliance and ball movement. The Wildcats spread out opposing defenses with their perimeter attack, which in turn made it much easier to score in the paint.

    They kicked it up a notch the following season with five players averaging at least 3.1 three-point attempts per game. And by the 2017-18 season, Villanova had perfected the art of positionless basketball with a center (Omari Spellman) who had a respectable perimeter game and a point guard (Jalen Brunson) who had remarkable post moves and presence. The Wildcats became virtually unstoppable on offense, winning each of their NCAA tournament games by a double-digit margin.

    Blowouts were par for the course, though. Beginning with the 2014-15 season, Villanova's average margins of victory were: 15.6, 14.4, 14.5 and 16.4 points.

    Say what you will about the "new" Big East not being as formidable as the "old" Big East, but Villanova was a freight train. Sure, that train was twice derailed in the round of 32 by poor shooting performances against No. 8 seeds, but the Wildcats still set the record for most wins in a four-year span, breaking the previous mark of 133 held by the 1997-2001 Duke Blue Devils.

7. 1991-99 Kentucky Wildcats

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    Antoine Walker (24) and Anthony Epps (25)
    Antoine Walker (24) and Anthony Epps (25)Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Overall Record: 246-43 (85.1 winning percentage); two national championships; four final Fours; seven Elite Eights

    If you think Kentucky is consistently good these days, John Calipari's one-and-done brigade can't even hold a candle to what Rick Pitino built in the 1990s and subsequently handed off to Tubby Smith.

    From Feb. 24, 1992, through Feb. 16, 1999, Kentucky was ranked No. 11 or better in the AP poll in every week. That's 127 consecutive weeks of an eight-season stretch in which the Wildcats won at least 27 games in each season.

    At the beginning of that run, they didn't have much NBA talent. Jamal Mashburn was the only future NBA player on the roster that ended up on the losing side of "The Shot" in 1992.

    By 1995-96, though, Kentucky had platoons of soon-to-be professionals. There were nine eventual NBA players on the squad that went 34-2 and won the 1996 national championship, five of whom were either juniors or seniors. Tony Delk and Antoine Walker were the stars of that bunch.

    Two years later, it was Scott Padgett, Nazr Mohammed and Jeff Sheppard who shined brightest en route to a second title in three seasons.

    The Wildcats almost won it all the year in between, too, falling to Arizona in overtime in the national championship game. Had they actually won three in a row, they would have joined 1967-73 UCLA as the only program to accomplish that feat.

    Despite falling just short of making that history, what an incredible run this was. Not only was Kentucky a No. 3 seed or better in eight consecutive NCAA tournaments, but it at least reached the Elite Eight in seven of those Big Dances.

6. 1957-63 Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Oscar Robertson
    Oscar RobertsonAnonymous/Associated Press

    Overall Record: 161-16 (91.0 winning percentage); two national championships; five consecutive Final Fours

    Unless you've been watching college basketball for at least six decades, there's a good chance Cincinnati doesn't immediately spring to mind as one of the obvious candidates for this list. The Bearcats usually make it to the NCAA tournament, but they haven't been to the Final Four since 1992 and have neither played for a national championship nor finished a season the AP Top Four since 1963.

    For six sensational seasons, though, Cincinnati was sitting on top of the college basketball world.

    That string of dominance started with Oscar Robertson. The Big O averaged 33.8 points, 15.2 rebounds and (unofficially) 7.1 assists per game in his three seasons with the Bearcats, leading them to a 79-9 record and three consecutive years in the Top Five of the final AP poll. They reached the Final Four in both 1959 and 1960, but they lost to California in each of those national semifinals.

    In Robertson's senior year, Cincinnati went 28-2 with an average margin of victory of 22.0 points. It was one of the most dominant seasons in men's college basketball history—up until the aforementioned loss in the Final Four, at any rate.

    After Robertson graduated, the Bearcats somehow became even more unbeatable. They won it all in both 1961 and 1962 and darn near pulled off a three-peat. They had a 15-point lead in the second half of the 1963 national championship against Loyola (Illinois), but they gave it all away and lost by a deuce in overtime. They were either No. 1 or No. 2 in the final AP poll in each of those three years.

    All told, that's five straight trips to the Final Four. The only other programs to reel off at least four in a row were UCLA (1967-76) and Duke (1988-92).

5. 2001-18 Kansas Jayhawks

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Overall Record: 510-108 (82.5 winning percentage); one national championship; five Final Fours; 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles

    Time to venture into the "dynasties."

    We put that term in quotes because the only true college basketball dynasty was Wooden's UCLA Bruins. Ten national championships in 12 years is untouchable. No other program can boast that many titles in 80 years of NCAA tournament history, let alone in the span of a dozen years.

    However, these next four teams were relevant in every (or almost every) year for well over a decade, so they fall somewhere between the Wooden-led juggernaut and the previous five teams that had a nice multiyear spurt.

    The post-Y2K Jayhawks turned the Big 12 into their personal playground. During this 17-season stretch, they earned at least a share of the regular-season conference crown 16 times—and still won a dozen league games in the one exception to that rule. In all 17 years, they finished in the Top 17 of the AP poll and earned a No. 4 seed or better in the NCAA tournament, including nine No. 1 seeds.

    When Roy Williams left for the North Carolina job in 2003, the Jayhawks barely missed a step in their transition to life under Bill Self. And by his fourth year at the helm, they were a force of nature once again.

    During those 17 years, 13 Kansas players were named a consensus first-team or second-team All-American: Drew Gooden, Nick Collison, Wayne Simien, Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey, Andrew Wiggins, Perry Ellis, Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham.

    It's hard to believe there's only one national championship to show for it, though, and they needed the Mario Chalmers miracle three to force overtime in that 2008 title game against Memphis.

    Not to diminish that championship or the other four trips to the Final Four. The NCAA tournament is a fickle, random entity, after all. But Kansas has sent 36 players to the NBA since 2002. You'd think with all that talent and all those high seeds, the Jayhawks could've at least won it all a couple of times. That not-so-minor detail kept them out of our top four.

4. 1980-98 North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Dean Smith and Michael Jordan
    Dean Smith and Michael JordanPool/Associated Press

    Overall Record: 506-123 (80.4 winning percentage); two national championships; seven Final Fours

    North Carolina wasn't as consistently dominant in the 1980s and 1990s as Kansas was for the following two decades.

    The Tar Heels weren't ranked at the end of the 1989-90 season, earning a No. 8 seed, and they were barely ranked (No. 25) while getting a No. 6 seed in 1996. Their winning percentage (80.4) is more than two points lower than Kansas' (82.5). And they "only" won half as many ACC regular-season titles (eight) as Kansas won in the larger Big 12.

    But they did finish in the Top Eight of the AP poll 15 times in an 18-year span, earning either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in 14 of those NCAA tournaments.

    Most important in the comparison between the two blue bloods is the success UNC had in the Big Dance. While the Jayhawks suffered a pair of first-round exits and were bounced before the Sweet 16 five times, the Tar Heels made 13 consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 from 1981 to 1993 with two national championships (1982; 1993) along the wayand then made it to three more Final Fours in 1995, 1997 and 1998.

    James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a freshman by the name of Michael Jordan led the Heels to that 1982 title. The latter run was fueled by big men Eric Montross and George Lynchand, of course, Chris Webber's illegal timeout. Peppered between those championships were the likes of Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, Jeff Lebo, J.R. Reid, Rick Fox and Hubert Davis.

    The Dean Smith talent factory wasn't quite as ridiculous as Duke and Kentucky's during the one-and-done era, but it was simply a given for many years that he had at least four future NBA players on his roster in any season. There weren't any exceptionally dominant campaigns, but North Carolina was damn good for a long time.

3. 1943-59 Kentucky Wildcats

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    Adolph Rupp
    Adolph RuppAssociated Press

    Overall Record: 395-49 (89.0 winning percentage); four national championships

    The AP poll did not exist until the 1948-49 season, and Sports Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS) only dates back to the 1949-50 season. As a result, even though the NCAA tournament goes back a decade further to 1939, there wasn't much consideration given to teams before 1950.

    Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats were a big exception to that rule.

    There was a point-shaving scandal in the middle of this otherwise unstoppable run, which forced Kentucky to cancel the entire 1952-53 season. It didn't do much to slow the Wildcats, though, as they came back and went a perfect 25-0 the following yearalbeit without playing in the NCAA tournament as a protest against a ruling late in the season that three players were ineligible.

    Those are some weird footnotes from a bygone era, but they weren't forced to vacate any wins or titles, so who cares?

    Three of those titles came in the span of four years in 1948, 1949 and 1951. The first championship team was led by the Fabulous Five: Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, Wallace Jones, Cliff Barker and Kenny Rollins. That quintet also anchored the 1948 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, and all but Rollins returned to Kentucky for the latter half of the back-to-back national championships.

    The Wildcats were particularly potent from 1945-46 through 1953-54, going 241-20 (92.3 winning percentage) with seven undefeated seasons in conference play. We're talking a combined record of 92-2 against SEC foes. And in both 1951-52 and 1953-54, Kentucky's average margin of victory was 27 points per game.

    Remember that 38-1 Kentucky team from 2014-15? Keep putting rosters like that together for almost an entire decade and that's roughly what was happening in Lexington 70 years ago.

2. 1985-Present Duke Blue Devils

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    Mike Krzyzewski
    Mike KrzyzewskiMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Overall Record: 1,001-243 (80.5 winning percentage); five national championships; 12 Final Fours

    Thirty-five years is, admittedly, a ridiculous length of time when discussing the best college basketball teams. But it's either this or Mike Krzyzewski shows up twice in the top 10 and maybe a few more times in the honorable mentions.

    The Blue Devils have been ranked No. 1 in the nation for at least one week in 20 of the last 35 years, including ending eight seasons at No. 1. They also earned 14 No. 1 seeds and were seeded No. 3 or better in 30 of the last 34 NCAA tournaments.

    Of particular note were the runs from 1985-86 through 1993-94, as well as the five-year stretch from 1997-98 to 2001-02.

    During that first span, Duke made it to the Final Four seven times in nine years, playing in five national championship games and winning two of them back-to-back in 1991 and 1992. The Blue Devils needed the Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner miracle to make it out of the 1992 Elite Eight, but that was one heck of a memorable way to advance to their fifth consecutive Final Four.

    The latter span was shorter but more dominant. Duke went 164-19 and finished four of those five seasons at No. 1 in the AP poll. In the other, the Blue Devils ended up at No. 3 and still earned a No. 1 seed. They won it all in 2001.

    1998-99 was the magnum opus, even though it ended with a loss to Connecticut in the title game. Led by Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Trajan Langdon, Duke went 37-2 with an average margin of victory of 24.6 points. As far as Sports Reference's Simple Rating System is concerned, it was the best single season in men's college basketball history, registering a score of 34.80. (The next-closest was UCLA's 33.79 mark in 1971-72.)

    And in the 18 years since that extra-impressive stretch, Krzyzewski has won two more national championships (2010 and 2015) and has spent at least one week ranked in the AP Top Five in each season. Not too shabby—and at least comparable to the aforementioned nearly two-decade runs for Kansas and North Carolina, if not clearly superior to them.

1. 1963-75 UCLA Bruins

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    Associated Press

    Overall Record: 335-22 (93.8 winning percentage); 10 national championships; four undefeated seasons

    Ten national championships in 12 years is preposterous enough to blow one's mind, but let's home in on the especially absurd seven-year stretch in the middle.

    Beginning with Lew Alcindor's sophomore year (freshmen weren't allowed to play) in 1966-67, UCLA went 30-0, 29-1, 29-1, 28-2, 29-1, 30-0 and 30-0, winning the national championship all seven years.

    Most basketball fans know Wooden won 10 titles and led UCLA on an 88-game winning streak, but were you aware the Bruins went 205-5 (97.6 percent) during that seven-year stretch? To help put that in context, since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 2 seeds are 132-8 (94.3 percent) in the opening round against No. 15 seeds.

    Broadening the scope a little to include the final two years of this 12-year reign of terror, UCLA was ranked in the Top Five of the AP poll in every week for nine consecutive seasons, and it finished 11 out of the 12 years at either No. 1 or No. 2 in the AP poll.

    Even if we cherry-pick Duke's 12 best seasons in four decades under Krzyzewski1985-86, 1991-92, 1997-2002, 2005-06, 2009-11, 2014-15 and 2018-19it's still "only" a 401-48 (89.3 percent) record, with eight years finished at No. 1 or No. 2 in the AP poll. As great as the other teams on this list were, there's no comparison to what UCLA accomplished under Wooden.