The best basketball schools weren’t made overnight. They don’t make Cinderella runs through the NCAA tournament only to go back into obscurity. No, the best basketball programs in the country are teams that have a history built on excellence and a future similarly bright. Whether it’s a future Hall of Fame coach or a string of impressive recruiting classes, these schools are built to succeed in the long run — not one miracle run. And they do. While there are some good teams that just missed this list (not a result of bias), here are the NCAA’s 10 best basketball programs.
It’s difficult to think of UCLA basketball without associating it with Hall of Fame coach John Wooden. Wooden turned the Bruins into a college basketball dynasty second to none, winning 10 national championships in a 12-year stretch between 1963 and 1975. Four times he recorded undefeated seasons — this has also never been matched. But after he retired in 1975, UCLA didn’t win another title until 1995 under then-coach Jim Harrick. That would be the last championship banner for the storied Bruins.
In the mid-2000s, UCLA had a few very good teams that failed to bring home the goods. In 2007, for example, the Bruins’ roster featured future NBA All-Stars Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Darren Collison, yet they still managed to come up short (falling to Memphis in the Final Four).
It’s the many disappointments over the past decade that have hindered the status of the program. While UCLA is certainly an elite program in a favorable location, the team needs more consistency in its players and coaches to join the ranks of the Kentuckys and Dukes of the NCAA.
Indiana epitomizes what it means to have a crazed, loyal fan base. Hoosier basketball is the end-all, be-all of the state of Indiana, and it has been for a long time. Before Tom Crean took over in 2008 and brought the Hoosiers back to relevancy in the Big Ten, they had been a faltering ship in a turbulent sea. Indiana took a nose dive following the 2000 season, when legendary coach Bobby Knight, whose anger and antics got the better of his coaching ability, left under turmoil.
In his 30 years at the helm, Knight led the Hoosiers to an impressive three national championships for a total of five in their long history. Indiana would be higher on this list if it wasn’t for the 2000s, but regardless of past struggles, they’re currently one of the best teams in the Big Ten every year (excluding a partial down year in 2015).
It’s easy to forget in the wake of the self-imposed postseason ban, but The Orange were riding a very impressive 25-game winning streak back in 2015. In their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, they defeated everything the conference had to offer … that is, until bottom-dwelling Boston College ended their streak. Led by head coach Jim Boeheim, who’s been there for 36 seasons, Syracuse is one of the early favorites to win the national title this season. But while some of the other teams on this list have multiple championships and storied histories, the Orange have just one lone title (2003).
That doesn’t take anything away from what Boeheim has accomplished, though. According to Sports Reference, Boeheim and Syracuse have reached the 20-win mark 34 times during his 36 seasons. The Orange have an impressive .750 wining percentage under their esteemed coach, and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon, even with Syracuse playing in the ACC now.
7. Michigan State
Despite all the talk that the Michigan Wolverines are the new basketball power in the Great Lake State after they completed a season sweep of the Spartans and have won six of the last eight games, Michigan State’s still the more dominant program. Coach Tom Izzo, one of the Big Ten’s best, has built a winning program since arriving in East Lansing in 1995. The Spartans have a 16-year NCAA tournament streak and won a championship (their second) in 2000. Every year it seems like Michigan State climbs the NCAA’s ranks as the season progresses, and that’s the result of Izzo’s coaching ability and players wanting to play for him. It doesn’t hurt that the Breslin Center is one of college basketball’s loudest venues, either.
In terms of recency, the Huskies are about as relevant as it gets: The program has four national championships, all of which came in the past 16 years (1999, 2004, 2011, and 2014). Former head coach Jim Calhoun was hired in 1986 and became a fixture in the Big East all the way up until realignment in 2013 (UConn is currently coached by former NBA player Kevin Ollie, who can count Kevin Durant among his fans). Whether it was coaching the likes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, or Kemba Walker, Calhoun used recruiting and good coaching to bolster the UConn program. And, oh yeah, the fans are also a little intense concerning their team — just look at their celebration following the 2011 national championship game. Despite maybe being a little out of control, there’s a strong, one-of-a-kind fan base at the university.
The Cardinals won a national championship in 2013, a feat that’s been a long time coming. They’ve been near the top of the national standings for too many years to count but couldn’t get over their 26-year championship drought (1986 being the Cardinals’ last title before 2013). Current coach Rick Pitino took over in 2001 after a short NBA coaching stint, causing quite a stir in a predominantly basketball state, since Pitino had previously coached at Kentucky.
Though Pitino and Louisville have only one championship and three Final Four appearances — again, nothing to scoff at — they were always at the head of the powerful Big East and look to be contenders in the newly formed American Athletic Conference.
4. North Carolina
All you need to do is take a drive down Tobacco Road and you’ll be within arm’s reach of two of the best basketball schools in the country with Duke and North Carolina. Sure, the Tar Heels come in behind the Blue Devils on this list, but both schools have storied histories. North Carolina has five championships, the most recent coming in 2009, under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams. And Chapel Hill, the university’s home, has seen the likes of legendary coach Dean Smith and Mr. Basketball himself, Michael Jordan. The Tar Heels’ fan base is second to none, and as long as Williams keeps a solid track record for churning out winning teams, nothing will change anytime soon for the boys in Carolina blue.
Kansas has dominated the Big 12 for too many years to count, and the Jayhawks just clinched their 10th straight regular season conference championship. Head coach Bill Self is in his 12th season in Lawrence and has not once failed to take his team to the tournament, while also winning a championship in 2008.
But the Jayhawks’ history goes a little deeper than the past few decades. Kansas’s first coach, in 1898, just happened to be the founding father of the game of basketball: Dr. James Naismith. While Naismith wasn’t very successful as a coach, he kickstarted the sport that we know and love today.
The Wildcats have one of the most storied programs in the history of the NCAA. They’ve won eight titles, have appeared in the NCAA tournament all but twice since 1992, and have the biggest college basketball venue – Rupp Arena — of its kind. Kentucky has recently become a symbol of the one-and-done era, and through that, coach John Calipari has rebuilt a powerhouse, albeit missing the tournament in 2013. The Wildcats have a roster of freshmen stars to complement a few veteran players this year, and it’s been that kind of firepower going back to the 2012 championship that has Kentucky contending for a title every season.
To start, Mike Krzyzewski is the reason Duke is always near the top of the crop. Coach K took over the Blue Devils in 1980 and hasn’t looked back since. He became the winningest coach in the history of men’s NCAA basketball in 2011 and has single-handedly made Duke one of the best teams every year. Whether it’s the five championships he has coached the Blue Devils to (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 and 2015) or Coach K’s ridiculous 12 Final Four appearances, he has become to college basketball what Bear Bryant was to college football.
Sure, Duke wasn’t a powerhouse before Krzyzewski arrived in Durham, but it has been ever since. More than a few former and current National Basketball Association players have played for Coach K — Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, and Shane Battier, to name a few — and prospered under his tutelage. This is a trend that will continue as long as Krzyzewski keeps doing what he’s doing: win. The Blue Devils last missed the NCAA tournament in 1995, which says enough about their dominance these past few decades.
And, in 2015, Duke won again. Other programs may have more titles, but Coach K’s monolithic presence is unrivaled in the NCAA and for that, we have to give his school top honors.