Ranking the Most Dominant College Basketball Programs Since 2000
Before we venture into the third decade of the 21st century, we wanted to take some time to rank the most dominant men's college basketball programs since 2000.
Based on a combination of wins, Top 10 finishes on KenPom.com, seasons with a Top Five ranking in the Associated Press poll and NCAA tournament appearances, Final Fours and national championships, we've put together a comprehensive list of which teams have been most consistently great.
For sake of argument, "since 2000" included the 1999-2000 season. (You're welcome, Michigan State fans.) We also did not include anything that has transpired in the 2020-21 season. (You're welcome, Kentucky fans.)
It's worth pointing out that—though we mentioned it at times—recruiting pull and NBA draft picks were not included in the ranking process. The goal was to determine which programs have been the best—not necessarily which have been the best at pitching their programs to high school kids, nor the best at getting players ready and advertised for the NBA draft.
Duke and Kentucky didn't need that boost to land comfortably in the top five, and we didn't want to give too much credit to programs such as Texas, UCLA and Washington that recruit well and produce a lot of draft picks despite frequently underperforming.
It pains me to put a team with three national championships in the past 20 years in the honorable mentions, but Connecticut is the Whac-A-Mole of men's college basketball. The Huskies miss the tournament almost as often as they make it, and they have only finished four seasons in the KenPom Top 10. And for an exercise like this, we've got to give the edge to teams such as Gonzaga and Wisconsin that are always a threat to reach the Elite Eight as opposed to a team that occasionally catches fire as a No. 3 or No. 7 seed.
Arizona is one of just seven programs to have spent one week in the AP Top Five in at least 10 of the past 21 seasons. The Wildcats are also on a relatively short list of teams to have played in at least 17 NCAA tournaments during that time. But they never finish strong, and that hurt their case. Just one Final Four appearance, and even that came all the way back in 2001. They have also finished just two of the past 17 seasons in the KenPom Top 10. It's like looking at a report card full of B-plusses: impressive but could be better.
The Orange have averaged nearly 25 wins per season since the turn of the millennium. Before the scandal that set them back, they were a near-constant threat to at least reach the Sweet 16. But they earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament only twice in the past two decades. Their three Final Four runs came as a No. 3, No. 4 and No. 10 seed. Syracuse is like a Connecticut-Arizona hybrid in that regard. This team is (or at least was) almost always semirelevant, but even its most memorable postseason runs were underdog stories.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State started the 2000s in good shape under Jim O'Brien and then really got hot from 2006-07 to 2012-13 under Thad Matta. But the Buckeyes did have a few majorly disappointing years and didn't win any national championships. It was a close call, but this was the only team to miss the cut despite ending at least six of the past 20 seasons in the KenPom Top 10.
Rick Barnes had an awful lot of disappointments in the NCAA tournament. The plus side is that means he at least led Texas through a bunch of solid regular seasons. The Longhorns were a No. 8 seed or better in 14 of the last 20 NCAA tournaments, but they've been looking up at Kansas in the Big 12 and merely made one Final Four (in 2003) during that time.
UCLA made three straight Final Fours in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and has produced more NBA draft picks (29) in the past 21 years than all programs aside from Duke (40) and Kentucky (46). But its recent history has been mostly forgettable.
Virginia would be a lock for the top three if we were ranking the most dominant programs since the start of the 2013-14 season. However, those seven years make up only 33.3 percent of the data set, and the Cavaliers made the NCAA tournament just three times from 1999-2000 to 2012-13.
10. Wisconsin Badgers
NCAA tournament: 19 appearances, three Final Fours
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 8
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 3
While I didn't include KenPom rankings just to help Wisconsin's case, I certainly knew it wasn't going to hurt the Badgers to factor in that tempo-free, efficiency-based hierarchy of teams.
KenPom always loves the Badgers. From 2010-12, they were a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament all three years—i.e., not regarded as one of the 12 best teams by the selection committee—didn't advance beyond the Sweet 16 in any of those tournaments and still finished in the KenPom Top 10 each season. But the best was 2004, when Wisconsin earned a No. 6 seed, lost in the second round and ended up at No. 6 in the final metrics.
But if KenPom says the Badgers' turnover-free, three-point-launching, minimal-second-chance-allowing style is one of the most efficient and dominant methods for winning college basketball games, who am I to argue?
Plus, it's not like KenPom is artificially propping up a mediocre team. Wisconsin has finished in the top four in the Big Ten standings in 20 of the last 21 seasons, earning a single-digit seed in 18 of the past 20 NCAA tournaments. It's merely a situation wherein KenPom values Wisconsin's style more than the average fan or AP voter.
Though this wasn't a factor in the rankings, it's pretty amazing what the Badgers have been able to accomplish while producing just five NBA draft picks since 1998. Other programs have had more success, but not one has done more with less talent than Wisconsin.
9. Louisville Cardinals
NCAA tournament: 15 appearances, three Final Fours, one national championship
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 9
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 11
As far as the record books are concerned, Louisville doesn't belong anywhere near this list. All 123 wins from 2011-12 through 2014-15—including a national championship and another Final Four appearance—were vacated.
But the Cardinals were dominant, even if the records don't reflect that.
Only five teams—Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina—finished more seasons in the KenPom Top 10 than Louisville. Those same five teams are the only ones with more seasons in the AP Top Five than Louisville.
From 2003 to 2017, the Cardinals earned a No. 4 seed or better 10 times, and it likely would have been 11 times if they hadn't self-imposed a postseason ban in 2016. They also finished 13 of the last 18 seasons ranked 17th or better in the AP poll.
And they did it all while bouncing between conferences. Louisville was in Conference USA for the first six seasons of this data set, followed by eight years in the Big East, one season in the AAC and the ACC since 2014. They've yet to win the ACC, but they had a regular season and conference tournament sweep in each of C-USA, the Big East and the AAC.
It's practically ancient history, but Louisville might have checked in a couple of spots higher if it hadn't put together a 50-44 record during the three seasons to start this century.
8. Villanova Wildcats
NCAA tournament: 14 appearances, three Final Fours, two national championships
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 6
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 7
Villanova missed the first five NCAA tournaments of the 2000s, and it had a few duds in the 2010-13 range. In those eight seasons, the Wildcats had a record of 144-117 and did not win a single NCAA tournament game.
But they had some quality years in the back half of the 2000s and have been arguably the best program in the country since the start of the 2013-14 campaign, winning two national championships while earning a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in five consecutive tournaments.
That was enough to earn a spot in our top 10.
While schools like Duke and Kentucky went all in on the one-and-done, uber-talented kids approach, Jay Wright found a different entrance ramp to the highway of success, homing in on talented perimeter shooters likely to stick around for three or four years.
Basically, he has turned Villanova into what Duke used to be.
While this isn't quite the most three-point-dependent team in the country, all six of the primary Wildcats averaged at least two three-point attempts per game last season. That was also true when they won the 2018 title. Throw in Villanova's propensity for head fakes and jump stops and its point guards' willingness to run offense from the paint, and this has become one of the toughest offenses to defend year in and year out.
7. Florida Gators
NCAA tournament: 16 appearances, four Final Fours, two national championships
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 9
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 9
It's been a minute since Florida was one of the upper-echelon teams in men's college hoops. The Gators have averaged 13.7 losses over the past six seasons and haven't ranked higher than 20th in the final AP poll since 2014.
But this team was pretty darn good under Billy Donovan, winning back-to-back national championships at its peak in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Not only did Florida spend at least one week in the AP Top Five nine times in the past 21 years, but it also ascended to No. 1 or No. 2 seven times in the 13-year span from 2001-02 to 2013-14.
Granted, the Gators only finished two of those seasons in the Top Five—when they won it all for the second time in 2007 and when they were the No. 1 overall seed for the 2014 NCAA tournament. But more often than not for more than a decade, there was at least some point during the season when they were one of the top threats to win it all.
Even at their worst, the Gators haven't been bad. They finished all 21 seasons in the KenPom Top 50, including the season (2014-15) when they went 16-17 with all sorts of hard-luck losses.
6. Gonzaga Bulldogs
NCAA tournament: 20 appearances, one Final Four
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 8
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 8
Gonzaga is in a tier of its own outside the top five.
The Bulldogs are one of just three teams with more than 570 wins in the past 21 seasons, and they aren't far behind Duke (615) and Kansas (614). Add Michigan State to the group, and those are the only four programs with an active streak of at least 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances—and all four have gone to at least 20 in a row.
The Zags are the only team in our top nine that hasn't won a national championship—and also the only one that has played in fewer than three Final Fours since 2000. In fact, Gonzaga has only made it as far as the Elite Eight three times since its initial Cinderella run in 1999.
While Mark Few has proved time and again in recent years that his players can hang with anyone the major conferences have to offer, we can't ignore the fact that Gonzaga has a 336-36 record (including conference tournaments) against a West Coast Conference that is drastically inferior to those every other program on this list has to face.
Even if we assumed Gonzaga would win 75 percent of its games in the Pac-12—which is probably generous, considering Arizona has a 69.6 winning percentage in regular-season conference games since 2000—that would bring its win total closer to 530.
Then again, maybe a better league would better prepare Gonzaga for the rigors of the NCAA tournament, and it's not fair to disregard the Zags for dominating the hand they've been dealt.
Few built a juggernaut out of nothing. Gonzaga has finished 11 of the last 20 seasons (and six of the past eight) in the AP Top 10 after not finishing any of the previous 50 as a ranked team. If the Zags had won that national championship game against North Carolina, they would have a strong case for a spot in our top three.
5. Michigan State Spartans
NCAA tournament: 20 appearances, seven Final Fours, one national championship
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 11
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 14
Comparing a college basketball program to a tennis player is a rather niche move, but Michigan State from 2000 to 2020 is basically Andy Murray from 2008 to 17: often ranked in the Top 10, frequently reaches the Final Four, rarely wins it all.
The Spartans have made it to the Final Four seven times in the past 20 NCAA tournaments; 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2019. That's more than any other program. They made it into the dance as a No. 10 seed or better in all 20 of those years and finished every season ranked in the KenPom Top 45.
But despite those seven trips to the semifinals, they haven't won a national championship since 2000. That kept the Spartans from earning a spot on the Mount Rushmore of men's college basketball programs of this century.
It's certainly a close call, though. Since 2000, Michigan State is sixth in wins, fifth in KenPom Top 10 finishes, tied for third in seasons with a ranking in the AP Top 5 and tied for first in NCAA tournament appearances.
The Spartans have been very good for decades. But a little like Murray looking up at Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, they don't quite hold a candle to Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
NCAA tournament: 18 appearances, four Final Fours, one national championship
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 12
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 14
The understandable yet arbitrary "since 2000" cutoff hurt Kentucky perhaps more than any other program. From 1991-99, the Wildcats won at least 28 games each season, including two national championships, and reached four Final Fours and seven Elite Eights in eight years.
Compared to that, the results from their final 10 pre-Calipari years—24 wins per season, zero Final Fours—left much to be desired.
Though they were not that dominant over the course of that decade, the Wildcats still have impressive overall numbers because they got back on the right track in a big way in the first six years after they hired John Calipari away from Memphis.
Those six years include the infamous 2012-13 season that ended with a loss to Robert Morris in the NIT. More importantly, they include the 2011-12 and 2014-15 editions, recently championed by The Athletic as the two best teams of the past 25 years. That six-year stretch also included all four of Kentucky's Final Fours since 2000.
Even when the Cats haven't reached the Final Four, though, they've often been expected to do so. Kentucky earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in nine of the last 20 NCAA tournaments and won the SEC regular-season or conference tournament title in two-thirds of the past 21 seasons.
As previously mentioned, Kentucky also leads the way in getting players to the NBA. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with its recruiting wheelhouse of "Players who are only going to college for one season because it beats playing overseas," but 46 draft picks since 2000 still reigns supreme.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels
NCAA tournament: 17 appearances, six Final Fours, three national championships
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 12
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 14
North Carolina has had a few awful seasons since 2000. Last year's 14-19 disaster is the freshest example, but it also missed the NCAA tournament with a 20-17 record in 2010, a 19-16 record in 2003 and the worst-in-program-history 8-20 nightmare in 2001-02.
Those occasional letdowns kept the Tar Heels from seriously vying for a spot in our top two, because Duke and Kansas have been much more consistent.
But UNC has been like Bizarro Connecticut. Whereas the Huskies have had four great seasons in an otherwise forgettable two decades, the Tar Heels had four forgettable seasons in an otherwise great two decades.
Take out those four seasons, and North Carolina has averaged 28.3 wins per year, including seven years with at least 31 victories. In each of those seven years and four others, the Tar Heels earned a No. 1 seed or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
When the core of their team has gotten older together, the Tar Heels have been scary good.
When they won it all in 2005, Marvin Williams was the only freshman or sophomore who played meaningful minutes. Similar story in 2009, when seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green paired with juniors Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Deon Thompson for six straight tournament victories by double digits. And the team that won it all in 2017? Three juniors and two seniors in the starting lineup. Those 2009 and 2017 teams made the Final Four the prior year, too.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
NCAA tournament: 20 appearances, five Final Fours, one national championship
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 15
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 19
Not only did Kansas earn at least a share of 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles from 2004-05 to 2017-18, but it also won 17 of the last 19, simply owning a great conference year after year after year.
Since opening this century as a No. 8 seed in the 2000 NCAA tournament, the Jayhawks have earned a No. 4 seed or better 19 consecutive times, including 13 times as a No. 1 (nine times) or No. 2 seed. (For what it's worth, Kansas definitely would have been a No. 1 seed last year, too, had there been a tournament.)
Two years ago, it was ranked 17th in the final AP poll, and that was the worst year-end ranking since it was unranked in 2000.
In other words, the Jayhawks have been pretty successful.
It's hard to believe they have "only" been able to convert all that regular season greatness into 50 NCAA tournament victories, five Final Fours and one national championship.
In theory, a No. 1 seed is expected to win at least four tournament games, a No. 2 seed should win three and No. 3 and No. 4 seeds ought to win two games—reaching the Sweet 16 before losing to the No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Apply that logic to Kansas' seed history, and it should have at least 61 tournament victories. However, the Jayhawks were beaten by a lower-seeded team in 11 of the last 15 NCAA tournaments.
Obviously, it didn't cost them much in this ranking. They've still won an absurd number of games—29.2 per season, despite those frequent early exits from the Big Dance—and they're still second-best in Top 10 finishes on KenPom and years spent in the AP Top Five. However, they're second-best to Duke in all three of those categories, and trailing the Blue Devils 3-1 in the national championship department made it an even easier call to separate the top two programs.
1. Duke Blue Devils
NCAA tournament: 20 appearances, four Final Fours, three national championships
Seasons finished in KenPom Top 10: 18
Seasons with a ranking in AP Top 5: 21
Duke is No. 1 in wins, No. 1 in seasons finished in the KenPom Top 10, the only team to have spent at least one week in the AP Top Five in each of the last 21 seasons and tied for the most NCAA tournament appearances and national championships.
Hate the Blue Devils all you want, but this wasn't a tough decision.
For what it's worth, Duke has actually been even more disappointing following all its regular-season success than Kansas. Using the same math we used with the Jayhawks, the Blue Devils should have at least 65 wins from their 10 No. 1 seeds, six No. 2 seeds, two No. 3 seeds, one No. 4 seed and one No. 6 seed. Instead, they have only 49 tournament victories since 2000, knocked out by a lower-seeded team 13 times—most notably the infamous first-round losses to Mercer and Lehigh.
But by winning national championships in 2001, 2010 and 2015, Duke kind of gets a mulligan for all those years it failed to live up to the expectations from its seed line.
Also, even if there have been some letdowns, 10 No. 1 seeds in 20 years is ridiculous—and it's actually 12 in 22 years if you look back a bit further. Duke has also spent at least one week at No. 1 in the AP poll in 13 of the last 21 years and finished 18 of those 21 years ranked No. 9 or better.
It's not just the human element of the AP poll, either. In KenPom history, dating back to the 1996-97 season, Duke has never finished lower than 19th and has ended more seasons since 2000 at No. 1 (four) than it has outside the top 10 (three).
Not a bad few decades in Durham, North Carolina.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.