Ranking the Top Programs of the 21st Century #50 – #26
With the season drawing closer so does are rankings of the top programs of the 21st century. College basketball has been an enjoyment for for so many people over the years. As that time has filled our hearts so have the schools that have made a name for themselves in March. Many look forward to seeing in these teams in the Big Dance and hope that they can accomplish big things. This next 25 reminds us of the importance of consistency as the small programs bring out their dominance within their conferences.
# 50 Nevada Wolfpack
The Wolfpack have strived to be better throughout the 21st century. As the program was searching for improvements the Wolfpack jumped to the test twice as they went from the Big West to the WAC in 2000 and then to the Mountain West in 2012. In each case Nevada hoped that the conference would bring better quality opponents in hope to make runs in the NCAA tournament. The program had its chances as they took home seven regular season championships but what the school couldn’t do was hold onto its coaches. Trent Johnson left for Stanford in 2004 after leading his #10 seeded Wolfpack team to the Sweet 16. Before leaving for Georgia in 2009, Mark fox helped the team reach three NCAA tournaments and reach #10 in the AP poll. After that the program was dead in the water until Eric Musselman took over in 2015. He increased the teams win total from nine to 24 in his first season and has won more games in every season while also taking his team to two NCAA tournaments and a trip to the Sweet 16. Keeping Musselman around is only one step for Nevada but it will make a huge difference in the years to come.
Rating Score: 39.38
# 49 Montana Grizzlies
Hailing from the Big Sky the Montana Grizzlies have been an extremely consistent program with not much success to show for it. Six regular season championships, seven Big Sky tournament Championships, Seven trips to the NCAA tournament, and eight 20 plus win seasons all in the last 19 years. While the Grizzlies may not be a team we think of come March the Big Sky is well aware of there success. If the Grizzlies can replicate their win over Nevada in the 2006 tournament the program will continue to rise.
Rating Score: 39.65
# 48 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Another team that has fallen to the Kansas curse. The Cowboys have had plenty of success over the years, but one thing they lack are championships. Three total Big 12 championships is all that Oklahoma State can boast so where does there success come from one might ask, their postseason success under Eddie Sutton. Sutton led his team to six straight NCAA tournament appearances in his last seven years. Three times making it past the first weekend and ending the season further than anyone would have thought the Cowboys would make it. A Final Four trip in 2004 as well as a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances highlight the Cowboys 21st century success. With five more trips to the big dance, Oklahoma State sits at 11 trips in the last 19 years. As a member of the Big 12 things always look on the up as the conference has plenty of chances for improvement but the one gaping flaw is with the stubborn Jayhawks.
Rating Score: 39.66
# 47 West Virginia Mountaineers
If we mentioned that Bob Huggins and John Beilein together coached the Mountaineers the last 16 years many would problaby believe that West Virginia is easily a top 25 team. Unfortunately with the great coaches that the program has had hasn’t brought much luck in the rankings. Beilein coach from 2002-2007 and took the Big East squad to two NCAA tournaments where they lost to Louisville in the Elite Eight and Texas in the Sweet 16. Beilein then bolted for Michigan and in comes Bob Huggins. What luck it was for the Mountaineers to bring Huggins back home to his alma mater and the program has ben great ever since. In Huggins 11 seasons with West Virginia the team has been to nine NCAA tournament and advanced past the first round in seven of those seasons. The team and Huggins have lost in the Sweet 16 four times and have a trip to the Final Four before losing to eventual Champion Duke in 2010. With all these accolades, how is West Virginia only the 47th best program? Well in the last 19 years as a member of the Big East and Big 12 the Mountaineers have only come up with one championship when they won the Big East tournament in 2010.
Rating Score: 39.86
# 46 Marquette Golden Eagles
Tom Crean, Buzz Williams, and Steve Wojciechowski make up the solid coaching class that the Golden Eagles have seen within the century. With these three there really isn’t much to be mad about but also no a whole lot to be overly estate about. The move from Conference USA to the Big East in 2005 couldn’t have gone better for Marquette who rattled off eight straight 20 win seasons, eight straight trips to the NCAA tournament including two trips to the Sweet 16 and once to the Elite Eight. Previously the Golden Eagles reached two tournament which included a loss to Kansas in the Final Four. Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles had a rough 2013-2014 season that ended in Williams deciding to leave the program and take a job with Virginia Tech. Wojciechowski stepped in and immediately starting building his program. Marquette hasn’t seen much success since the Elite Eight run in 2013 but with glimmers of hope and another trip to the NCAA tournament making 11 in the last 19 years Wojciechowski and Marquette seem to be on the right path back.
Rating Score: 40.14
# 45 Tennessee Volunteers
For a major program out of the SEC the Volunteers have certainly seen their fare share of turnover as the program is on its sixth coach in the last 19 years. Starting with Jerry Green taking over the program 1n 1997 and helping them to four straight 20 win seasons and four trips to the NCAA tournament including their first trip to the Sweet 16 in school history. However, Green and the Tennessee faithful were not on the same page and he resigned in 2001 after a bitter end to the season. Buzz Paterson came in and for four years did absolutely nothing before being canned with a 61-59 record as the Volunteers head coach. Then the program got the biggest boost it will ever receive when Bruce Pearl was hired in 2005. In his first year he brought the program back to the NCAA tournament aa a two seed before rattling off six straight trips with the club including two Sweet 16 trips and the best ever finish in school history with a loss to Michigan State in 2010. With NCAA sanctions looming over Pearl the school fired him in 2011. Cunzo Martin also had a quick stint with the Vols before including a trip to the Sweet 16 but could never gain the fans before leaving for California. Coming back from Bruce Pearl may be similar as to the Red Sox selling away Babe Ruth but if anyone can do it, it’s current head coach Rick Barnes who has already increased the teams win total by 11 games within his first three seasons and brought the team back to national relevance by receiving a #3 seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
TennRating Score: 41.23
# 44 New Mexico State Aggies
The New Mexico State Aggies started the century in the Big West before making a quick change to the Sun Belt. Over these years the team struggled to make the NCAA tournament and went only 4-24 in 2004-2005, their last season in the Sun Belt. Change was needed, so the Aggies made the jump to the WAC as well as hired Reggie Theus. In two seasons with the Aggies. Theus went 41-23 and took the program to their first NCAA tournament in eight years. Theus left left for the Sacramento Kings but the program has stayed on top. Since Theus took over in 2005 the team has made the NCAA tournament eight times. Unfortunately for the Aggies they have yet to make it out of the opening round. With five regular season titles and eight conference tournament championships the Aggies are just looking for the next step to break out and become a Cinderella.
Rating Score: 41.27
# 43 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
As a member of the Southland coference, when looking at SFA it really doesn’t look like they have done much. That’s because SFA has been that very steady and quiet program until recently. The program has quietly rattled off 15 winning seasons helping themselves to a 387-198 (.662) record. Of those 15 seasons they can also lay a claim to one 32 win season and ten more seasons with at least 20 wins. While doing this they took the Southland regular season championship seven times and were able to turn that into into five Southland tournament championships and five trips to the NCAA tournament. They didn’t have a single championship until the 2007-2008 season and since then have taken control of the Southland conference. During this time the program saw it’s first ever trip to the NCAA tournament and twice pulled off the upset and nearly advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2016.
Rating Score: 41.35
# 42 Temple Owls
John Chaney had the Owls at an all time high and even reached the Elite Eight as an 11 seed in 2001. This was Chaney’s 17th trip to the NCAA and fourth trip to the final four with Temple but it would also be his last as the team struggled to remain over .500 and he retired in 2006. Crosstown rival Fran Dunphy left Penn to replace him and to this date still his holding down the reins. Temple hasn’t seen as much success as it did in the 80’s and 90’s but that isn’t saying the success has not been evident. The Owls continue to push forward and as a member of the A-10 and now American conferences they have always been a scary team to face. Chaney and the Owls made a name for the school and that still stands today. Overall the Owls have found themselves in the NCAA tournament nine times since the start of the 21st century. They have a total of 10 conference championships and a wonderful trip to the Elite Eight.
Rating Score: 41.78
# 41 Valparaiso Crusaders
The Drew family held down the fort at Valparaiso for 28 of the last 30 years and in that time the family has put together some very memorable seasons, the most iconic coming with Bryce Drew’s shot in 1998 helping his team advance to the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, the Crusaders have never been able to reach the height it had achieved that year and that still stands as the furthest the program has ever reached. Five trips to the NCAA tournament, all coming from winning their conference tournament, nine regular season championships out of the Mid-Continent and Horizon League. The possibilities could be endless but as the team has struggled in conferences being a mid-major they were unable to receive an at-large birth to the NCAA tournament. No one knows what could have happened in the 2015-2016 season when the Crusaders went 30-7 yet still didn’t make the NCAA.
Rating Score: 43.75
# 40 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Another mid-major program who has benefited from the smaller conference that they play in, but that doesn’t mean the program hasn’t been successful. The Hilltoppers have won at least 20 games in 13 of the last 18 seasons. They have been a member of both the Sun Belt and Conference USA where they have a combined total of 13 conference championships. They have reached the NCAA tournament seven times and reached the Sweet 16 in 2008. Western Kentucky is a program that has sustained success and looking to further that by moving further. The NET may be what the Hilltoppers need as they continue to push to be successful.
Rating Score: 44.18
# 39 San Diego State Aztecs
Steve Fisher took the program over for the 1999-2000 season and went 5-23. Within two years the program was back on it’s way to the NCAA tournament with a huge turnaround and a 21-12 record. While the Aztecs couldn’t entirely sustain this success it was clear that something special was happening. Since 2005 the Aztecs have added eight more trips to the NCAA tournament including six straight from 2010-2016 with two trips making it to the Sweet 16. They won 20 plus games in 11 straight seasons and reached the 30 plus benchmark twice in that span. In 2014, the Aztecs went into Allen Fieldhouse and ended a 68 game non-conference home winning streak of the Kansas Jayhawks winning 61-57. All of this took place while being a member of the Mountain West. While still a mid-major its right there with the big boys as it is considered one of the top mid-major conferences in the country. Add in the six regular season conference championships they have and the Aztecs keep rolling right along.
Rating Score: 45.15
# 38 Creighton Bluejays
No longer a mid-major program it wasn’t long ago where the Bluejays had to fight and survive building a tough non-conference schedule just in order to be considered for an at-large bid knowing their Missouri Valley conference often times wasn’t strong enough. Now as a member of the Big East, they still build a tough schedule but certainly don’t see anytime off when entering conference play. Dana Altman (now coach of Oregon) built Creighton into what it is today. When he got to the Creighton in 1994 the Bluejays were coming off of three straight seasons with less then ten wins. in 1999 Altman led the Bluejays to the NCAA tournament and even knocked off Louisville in the first round. At the turn of the century the program hasn’t looked stronger as they were able to maintain it’s success throughout MVC and Big East play. 17 20-win seasons, 11 trips to the NCAA tournament, seven conference tournament championships, and four regular season championships all coming even with Dana Altman’s move to Oregon and the takeover by Greg McDermott. The one thing Creighton lacks is success in the NCAA tournament as the program has yet to reach a Sweet 16 since the tournament expanded to 68 teams.
Rating Score: 46.20
# 37 Bucknell Bison
Bucknell is just a steady contender and competitor out of the Patriot League. The Bison’s claim to a high ranking comes from it’s nine Patriot League regular season championships, including four straight and seven in the last eight years. Bucknell has been able to win its tournament six times to advance to the NCAA tournament where the Bison are no easy out. Stunning Kansas and Arkansas in the first round in 2005 and 2006 and nearly getting two more upsets as West Virginia and Michigan State barely squeaked by the last two seasons. The Bisons success is only as great as it can be with them continuing to dominate the Patriot League but looking further into the future it looks to be the same formula with hopes of a run in the Big dance.
Rating Score: 46.24
# 36 Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers have been up and down since they fired Bob Knight in 2000. With years ending on a high and years ending in a ow the Hoosiers have struggled to maintain their success in the surging Big Ten. The Hoosiers have only been able to record three Bin Ten championships all coming from regular season play, which in an unbalanced schedule to many may no look like much. Indiana has however been fortunate enough to have opportunity after opportunity to knock off quality opponents to put themselves in the position to make the NCAA tournament. Overall, since the ’99-’00 season the Hoosiers have advanced to 11 NCAA tournaments in which they tend to find a way to do quite well making losing three times in the Sweet 16 and making it to the National Title game in 2002 before falling to Maryland. Since their run of 18 consecutive tournaments from 1986-2003 stringing together consecutive successful seasons has been a struggle, one in which new coach Archie Miller can do away with.
Rating Score: 47.13
# 35 Vermont Catamounts
The American East Vermont Catamounts? That’s right an under the radar program that has consistently brought success in ways of winning. Vermont has had their way with the American East Conference going 235-77 (.753) in conference the last 19 seasons including making it to the American East tournament championship game 11 times in the last 16 years and winning it six times. They have won the American East regular season eight times including going a perfect 16-0 in the 2016-2017 season. The Catamounts are not to be taken lightly and look for more success to come. Their lone success in the NCAA tournament comes with an upset win over Syracuse in 2005 before falling to Michigan State. Finding the right formula for success in the NCAA tournament is the next step and doesn’t seem too far off.
Rating Score: 47.24
# 34 Utah State Aggies
The Aggies started the century off hot with 14 straight 20-game winning seasons. Their play in the weaker Big West and WAC have a lot to do with the success but it is still nothing to turn down to. During that time the team advanced to eight NCAA tournaments and brought home seven regular season championships and six tournament championships. Their recent move to the Mountain West has brought with them better competition but unfortunately they have yet to find success as they have only finished once with a winning record in the MWC. Tournament success hasn’t been spectacular either as the Aggies have failed to reach the Sweet 16 in all eight of their appearances despite valiant efforts on many occasions.
Rating Score: 47.52
# 33 Kent State Golden Flashes
Five coaches have came and went through the MAC and the Kent State Golden Flashes since the 1999-2000 season. Gary Waters moved onto Rutgers after upsetting Indiana in the 2001 NCAA tournament. Stan Heath moved onto Arkansas after one season with the Golden Flashes that included a trip to the Elite Eight. Jim Christian tried his luck at TCU after six straight 20-win seasons and two trips to the Big Dance. Gene Ford moved over to Bradley after three seasons and that has left the Golden Flashes with current coach Rob Senderoff. Overall, with the MAC slit into divisions, Kent State has brought home a form of nine regular season championships and five tournament championships. Their big trip to the Elite Eight in 2002 as a 10 seed has really brought the Golden Flashes high on this list.
Rating Score: 51.72
# 32 Pittsburgh Panthers
In the entire history of the Pittsburgh Panthers basketball program has been to 26 NCAA basketball tournaments. Under Jamie Dixon and Ben Howland, Pitt went to 13 NCAA tournaments from 2001-2016. Rowland started it off by taking the team to back to back Sweet 16 appearances before leaving the Panthers for UCLA. Once Dixon took over the program saw the most success in program history. Under Dixon the Panthers went to 11 NCAA tournaments, two Sweet 16’s and one Elite Eight. They received multiple NCAA tournament #1 seeds and even reached as high as #1 in the AP poll. With four Big East Regular season championships and twice winning the Big East tournament the Panthers had become a contender. Pitt moved to the ACC in 2013 and already on a slight decline hurt in the move as they struggle to compete with the likes of Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia both on the court and in recruiting. With Kevin Stallings at the reins the Panthers look for things to turn around but the future doesn’t look too bright at the moment.
Rating Score: 52.30
# 31 Murray State Racers
The Ohio Valley Conference has always been a strong mid-major that produces a team that is not wanted to be seen in the opening round game of the NCAA tournament. The Racers sit very close to the top of the class of the OVC. Nine times Murray State has been able to claim the OVC regular season championship and six more times they claimed the OVC tournament title and moved onto the NCAA tournament. As another team that has suffered from coaching changes things could be quite different. After Mick Cronin went 69-24 (.742) with two trips to the NCAA tournament he left for Cincinnati. Billy Kennedy then stepped in and built the program even stronger winning 31 games in the 2009-2010 season taking the team to the second round and losing to eventual runner up Butler by two. Kennedy left for Texas A&M and Steve Prohm steps in. In four seasons with the Racers Prohm went 98-29 (.772), took the team to one NCAA tournament as a six seed and had the team ranked as high as nine in the AP poll. With all that success the inevitable was in sight and Prohm left for Iowa State. The Team now looks to Matt McMahon, who after a rough start had the Racers back on track as they were back in the NCAA tournament as a #12 seed and finished the 2018 season with 26 wins.
Rating Score: 53.25
# 30 Winthrop Eagles
When one thinks of the Big South, Winthrop has to be the team that comes to mind. In the last 19 seasons the Eagles have won a total of 17 Big South Championships. Eight times have they run their way through the regular season including a perfect conference record in 2006-2007. With Nine trips to the NCAA tournament the Program has been a mighty foe that is hard to beat in the Big South. Much if not all of this program’s success goes to Greg Marshall. In nine seasons with the Eagles, Marshall went 194-83 (.700), went to seven NCAA tournaments including an upset victory over Notre Dame in 2007, and had the Eagles ranked in the AP poll. Marshall took his success with him to Wichita State and the Eagles haven’t quite been the same. While they still sit atop the Big South others have caught up and Winthrop has struggled to pile up more success.
Rating Score: 53.58
# 29 Wichita State Shockers
The Wichita State Shockers sit about 160 miles from perennial powerhouse Kansas Jayhawks. Sitting in the Shadow of the Jayhawks the long time Missouri Valley team has made basketball a priority. In the early 2000’s Mark Turgeon built the program to be contenders in the MVC and earned an at-large bid in 2007 where they went onto the Elite Eight. Turgeon left and in stepped Gregg Marshall. It only took Marshall two years to build the program to be exactly where it is now and nobody wants to see the Shockers at any point during the season. The Shockers and Marshall have had nine straight 20-win seasons, they have been to seven straight NCAA tournaments, been ranked #2 in the country and even earned a #1 seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament. The Shockers went to the Final Four in 2013 and carried that success into the next season where they stared the season 35-0 before falling to eventual runner-up, Kentucky. Wichita State even had the pleasure to play spoiler of Kansas in the when they upset the Jayhawks in 2015. Marshall and the Shockers are nowhere close to stopping and that shadow casted by the Jayhawks grows smaller by the minute. Wichita State moved to the American Athletic Conference in 2017 and with the stronger conference and Marshall on the sidelines he Shockers aren’t going anywhere.
Rating Score: 53.67
# 28 Oregon Ducks
The Oregon Ducks have had plenty of ups and downs over the years. As a member of the Pac-12 (formerly Pac-10) championships have been hard to come by. The Ducks have only won three regular season championships but seem to find themselves dancing deep in March when they are able to find themselves in the Big Dance. Ernie Kent had plenty of success at Oregon making five NCAA tournaments and reaching the Elite Eight in 2002 and 2007. However, with with seven losing records in the Pac-12 it was too much of a risk to keep Kent around. Oregon fired Kent after the 2009-2010 season and turned to Dana Altman. After helping Creighton and becoming the third winningest coach in the long historic Missouri Valley Altman was ready to take on the challenge at Oregon. Altman immediately had the Ducks back on track winning 21 games in his first season and winning the CBI tournament. in his third year he took the program to it’s first NCAA tournament in five years and made the Sweet 16 as a 12 seed. Then four more straight years to the Big Dance including a loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight as a one seed in 2016 and a one point loss in the Final Four to the 2017 NCAA Champions, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Oregon and Altman have found something that works and the program only looks to be getting better.
Rating Score: 55.00
# 27 Belmont Bruins
Belmont became a major Division I program at the start of the century, and Rick Byrd and the Bruins have made the most of their time as a Division I school. The Bruins have only been in a conference for 17 seasons yet, have won the regular season 10 times. With seven tournament championships and seven trips to the NCAA tournament Belmont has become a staple. The Bruins haven’t had any success in the NCAA tournament but did push #2 Duke to the brink in 2008 losing 70-71. Belmont has spent time in the A-Sun and now live in the OVC yet the program hasn’t seen a difference as the transition went smoothly and the Bruins continue to make sure that they remain at the top.
Rating Score: 55.11
# 26 Cincinnati Bearcats
Bob Huggins, Andy Kennedy, and Mick Cronin three names that when on your side can only mean great things. At the start of the century Huggins took the Bearcats to six straight NCAA tournaments including a Sweet 16 trip in 2001. With Eight prior straight trips to the Big Dance under Huggins the Bearcats of the Conference USA were rolling. With unfortunate disagreements Huggings left and Andy Kennedy took over the reins for one season as the team transitioned into the Big East. Kennedy left quickly for Ole Miss and Cincinnati brought in Mick Cronin. Still transitioning to the Big East and the difference of play Cincinnati took a few years before the Bearcats began to bring back the success they had under Bob Huggins. Cronin has now led Cincinnati to eight straight NCAA tournaments and eight straight 20-win seasons. The Bearcats have now transitioned into the AAC, and unlike the move to the Big East in 2005, it was seamless as the Bearcats haven’t missed a beat. With regular season titles in Conference USA and the AAC Cincinnati has done quite well for themselves. With 14 NCAA trips in the century Cincinnati has only made it as far as the Sweet 16 twice. The Bearcats look to improve their tournament success in the future as they maintain to be a team worth knowing.
Rating Score: 55.56