Ranking the Top Programs of the 21st Century #25 – #11
Less than 50 days remain before the first game of the 2018-2019 basketball season tips off. Teams are working hard to be the best on the court and preseason rankings and conference predictions are all over. No one really knows what will happen this season. No one knows who will be dancing in March or who will be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. Each team has an opportunity to make themselves known and also each team has a chance to build upon their program’s resume so that 20 years from now we will always remember them for what they did. The time starts now.
# 25 Virginia Commonwealth Rams
The true cinderella of 2011, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams are a team that everyone knows about as well as another program that struggles to keep their head coaches after years of success. The Rams are on their sixth coach over the last 19 seasons. Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant, Shaka Smart, and Will Wade all moved on from the Rams to bigger programs with big aspirations on their mind. While coaching for the Rams in the Colonial they helped bringing four CAA regular season titles and five trips to the Big Dance. The 2011 squad put VCU on the map for good as the team went from the First Four to the Final Four as an 11 seed under Smart. The Rams took down five power conference programs before falling to another little guy out of the Horizon the Butler Bulldogs. Smart and the Rams then transitioned to the A-10 where they have picked up one more regular season title and five more trips to the NCAA tournament. With VCU now being coached by Mike Rhoades the team still has it in them to make a run through the A-10 as well as deep into March.
Rating Score: 55.61
# 24 Texas Longhorns
Rick Barnes started with the Longhorns in 1998. Taking over a program that had recently built success and and got the program on the move to the Big 12. Barnes stayed with Texas for 17 years and made 16 NCAA tournaments. He helped the Longhorns to two Sweet 16 appearances, two Elite Eight Appearances, and one trip to the Final Four. He helped them achieve the heights of a number one ranking in the AP poll as well as a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Barnes success was so great with the Longhorns that making the tournament in seven of his last eight seasons and losing n the first or second round wasn’t enough. Barnes was fired in 2015 to be replaced by Shaka Smart. Smart hasn’t found his VCU magic yet with the Longhorns but with stellar recruiting and hard work the Longhorns are becoming the team that the administration wants. Overall the Longhorns have two regular season titles and 17 trips to the Big Dance within the century.
Rating Score: 56.72
# 23 Oklahoma Sooners
Another Big 12 school who just can’t seem to get over the Kansas speed bump. The Sooners haven’t been as consistent as the Longhorns but their success in March is undoubtedly better. Oklahoma has only been able to pull out a share of the Big 12 regular season title once but for them they have built on their success with three Big 12 tournament championships. With Kelvin Sampson the Sooners were great making the tournament six times within the century including an Elite Eight, a Final Four and seven consecutive 20-win seasons. When he left for Indiana while under NCAA investigation, Jeff Capel stupid in to fill the void. Capel was able to bring in Blake Griffin who helped the Sooners to two NCAA tournaments including an Elite Eight appearance in 2009. Griffin jumped ship to the NBA and Capel’s success was never sustained. In his five years with the program he went 96-69 with two losing records. Capel was fired in 2011 and replaced by current coach Lon Kruger. Kruger has brought the Sooners back to the forefront and guided the team to five more NCAA tournaments. With an Elite Eight and Final Four already under Kruger’s belt there certainly isn’t any denying that he can do it again.
Rating Score: 59.56
# 22 Illinois Fighting Illini
The Fighting Illini may not be a name that comes to mind anymore when thinking of great college basketball teams, but there was a time when the Illini sat on top the Big Ten as well as the country and have earned the 22nd spot in these rankings. Starting with Lon Kruger in 1999-2000 the Fighting Illini went to eight straight NCAA tournaments with eight consecutive 20-win seasons. In Bill Self’s three years with the Illini he never missed an NCAA tournament game and never lost in the first round taking the Illini to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Bruce Weber then made the tournament in six of his nine seasons with a Sweet 16 appearance and a 37-2 record and a trip to the National Championship game in 2005. As Self found his success harder to come by the program couldn’t wait around much longer and relieved him of his post in 2012. The Illini have never been the same and have missed out on the NCAA tournament the last five seasons. With Brad Underwood leading the charge there may be room for a turnaround but that is still yet to be seen.
Rating Score: 63.15
# 21 Davidson Wildcats
Few programs in the country can claim to be as consistent as the Davidson Wildcats. Unfortunately for the Wildcats they sit about 130 miles from both Duke and North Carolina and have to live in that shadow. First, let’s look at coaching. Bob McKillop has been the coach of Davidson since the start of the 1989-1990 season and has compiled a 554-337 record with the Wildcats. In the 21st century McKillop has helped the Wildcats to win 11 regular season championships in both the Southern and A-10. They have won the respective conference tournaments seven times and made the Big Dance on eight occasions. Davidson was at the height of the program when Steph Curry played for the Wildcats from 2006-2009 going 85-20 and making it to two NCAA tournaments. In the 2007-2008 season they went a perfect 20-0 in the Southern conference and made the Elite Eight as a 10 seed. Davidson’s move to the A-10 was a seamless transition as they still continue to battle day in and day out for McKillop and look for that next historic moment long Davidson basketball history.
Rating Score: 63.35
# 20 Michigan Wolverines
John Beilein has brought Michigan back to where it once stood in the 80’s and 90’s. The Wolverines are again a contender in the Big Ten and it doesn’t look like they are going away anytime soon. Brian Ellerbe took the program over in 1997 after the firing of Steve Fisher and the beginning of the dark days for the Wolverines. With the scandal of Booster Ed Martin. Ellerbe was basically out the door quickly as he had very little success as Michigan’s head coach. The Wolverines had enough and fired Ellerbe and moved onto hire Tommy Amaker from Seton Hall. Amaker had turned a struggling Seton Hall program around and the Michigan hopefuls thought that he could do the same for the Wolverines. Overall Amaker had plenty of success as the head coach of Michigan but with the pressure of continuing a rich history and with the unfortunate investigation and postseason bans his success wasn’t good enough for the program. Michigan chose to let Amaker go in 2007 and in came the savior of blue and gold basketball, John Beilein. Within his second year Beilein brought Michigan back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years. Overall, the Wolverines have now been to eight NCAA tournaments within the century, as well as reaching two NCAA National Championship games. Beilein has brought them back to relevance and the hopes of big blue nation is that they stay there for some time.
Rating Score: 66.38
# 19 Maryland Terrapins
When you think about Maryland basketball and the tradition that the program has built over the years a few names come to mind, and Gary Williams has to be one of them. Williams brought the Terrapins into the 21st century and the program was at the top. As a member of the ACC the Terrapins made eight NCAA tournaments under Williams. Two ACC regular season titles, one trip to the Final Four and an amazing NCAA Championship in 2002 when they went 32-4 and took down the Indiana Hoosiers 64-52. Unfortunately for Maryland, Williams had had enough and retired from coaching basketball in 2011. Maryland turned to Mark Turgeon in hopes that he would bring Maryland as much success as Williams. In seven years with Maryland Turgeon has been to three NCAA tournaments including a Sweet 16 in 2016. While NCAA tournaments have not been overly successful for the Terrapins under Turgeon he has brought the program a completely smooth transition into the Big Ten. Maryland is at the point where the program could go either way continuing success will see a great rise however a few more years with no NCAA tournaments for the Terps may see Turgeon looking elsewhere.
Rating Score: 83.41
# 18 Xavier Musketeers
Xavier is another example of a small guy playing big and eventually joining in the major conferences. Xavier has had some amazing coaches over the years as well and while they seem to still find another program that may seem better the Musketeers are able to hold onto them for a little longer to keep the program moving in the right direction. In the last 19 seasons the Musketeers have been to 16 NCAA tournaments, 17 times have joined the 20-win club and once reached the achievement of a 30-win season. Of their 16 NCAA tournaments the Musketeers have only lost in the round of 64 four times and have moved onto the Sweet 16 in four other seasons while also adding three Elite Eight appearances. In the A-10 the Musketeers won seven regular season championships and even dethroned Villanova to take home the outright Big East championship for 2017-2018. Xavier has a brand and they have made a name for themselves to continue this for a long time. Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller, and Chris Mack all helped build the program to where it is today and without them no one knows what could have been. Today the Musketeers hope that first time head coach, Travis Steele, will carry on the long standing tradition of Xavier basketball.
Rating Score: 84.69
# 17 UCLA Bruins
For a program that has sat at the top for so many years the UCLA Bruins may be witnessing the worst the program has ever seen since the 1960’s. UCLA has seen plenty of success throughout the century which is still why they sit at #17 but from what true UCLA faithful are used to it is quite different. The Bruins have been to the NCAA tournament 14 times in the 21st century. Steve Lavin took the Bruins to three straight Sweet 16 appearances from 2000-2002 before going 10-19 in the 2003-2004 season and then was relieved of his duties because a losing season at UCLA is unacceptable. Ben Howland then took the Bruins to seven NCAA tournaments in 10 years including five straight from 2005-2009 that saw two three consecutive Final Four appearances and a trip to the NCAA Championship game where they lost to Florida in 2006. After five straight years of being unable to reach the Sweet 16 Howland was fired from UCLA. The search for Wooden success still continued and the Bruins turned to current head coach, Steve Alford. In five years with the Bruins, Alford has helped his team make four NCAA tournaments and reached the Sweet 16 three times. While getting back to the Sweet 16 is great for the Bruins they are still looking for more and hope that Alford can bring the Bruins back to where they once stood.
Rating Score: 91.83
# 16 Ohio State Buckeyes
The first thing that may come to many people’s mind when they hear The Ohio State Buckeyes is football. But, the Buckeyes have had much more success in Columbus then the fans are willing to give them credit for. Jim O’Brien exceeded expectations for the Buckeyes in the Big Ten at the start of the century and reached the NCAA tournament from 2000-2002. With a few unsuccessful years and some controversy over paying an athlete O’Brien was fired and the Buckeyes hired the best coach the school has ever seen, Thad Matta. Matta started in 2004 and coached the Buckeyes in 12 consecutive 20-win seasons, including three seasons reaching 30 plus wins. he reached the NCAA tournament in nine of his 13 seasons while also going to making it to the Sweet 16 a total of five times. Of those five trips he advanced as far as the National title game and played in the Final Four twice. With health issues looming over Matta him and the program mutually decided to part ways after the 2016-2017 season, the only season in which Matta failed to reach 20 wins in his entire career. Chris Holtman jumped at the chance to coach for the Buckeyes and surprised the entire country with his first season in Columbus. Far exceeding expectations set for the team and making it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes believe they have found something special with Holtman and hope that his success can bring even more success to Buckeye nation.
Rating Score: 97.46
# 15 Memphis Tigers
The Tigers have been through some changes in Memphis over the years and surmounted a fury within the century to bring them to #15 on the list. Johnny Jones did nothing to help the Tigers in the 1999-2000 season but that’s all they needed before John Calipari took over and brought Memphis to heights it had never seen before. Out of Conference USA the Tigers have won nine regular season conference championships seven of which came under John Calipari. Calipari spent nine years in Memphis and never posted a season with less than 21 wins, including four consecutive 30-win seasons. The Tigers went to six NCAA tournaments under Calipari including trips to the Elite Eight and a loss to Kansas in the 2008 NCAA Championship game ending their season at 38-2. With the success Calipari had the Tiger fans were sad to see him leave for Kentucky after the 2009 season and hoped that whoever replaced him would follow right in his footsteps. Memphis decided to hire Josh Pastner who took the Tigers to four NCAA tournaments in seven years and helped with a successful move to the AAC. Pastner was followed by Tubby Smith but neither could really bring the program back and even had a hard time keeping the Memphis fans engaged. Memphis has now turned to former Tiger Penny Hardaway in hopes that he will bring the magic back that the Tigers once had.
Rating Score: 99.05
# 14 Wisconsin Badgers
19 straight NCAA tournament appearances all coming in the last 20 years is what the Wisconsin Badgers have going for them as they continue to sit atop of these rankings. The Badgers have been as consistent as anyone throughout the century and even can say that they have won at least one NCAA tournament game in 15 of their 18 appearances within the century. On top of moving on to the round of 32 the Badgers have also been to the Sweet 16 in 10 of those trips, and to the Elite Eight four times. Of those four Elite Eight trips they have moved onto the Final Four three times and played for the National Championship game in 2015 where they lost to Duke. While Wisconsin has had all of this success in the NCAA tournament the Badgers certainly haven’t only succeeded there. Wisconsin is 220-106 in the Big Ten while claiming four regular season titles. Much of the reason for Wisconsin’s success can be given to Bo Ryan who with the Badgers won all four of their regular season championships as well as three Big Ten tournament championships while going 364-130 (.737) overall with the Badgers. With Ryan’s departure the program hasn’t quite been the same but Greg Gard is working hard to bring it back to where once was. Missing out on the tournament in 2018 was difficult for Wisconsin but they certainly are not going to let that stop them from doing more damage this year.
Rating Score: 110.65
# 13 Butler Bulldogs
Seeing a former mid-major program ranked this high could be a little shocking; especially considering the Butler Bulldogs have had seven different coaches throughout the past 19 seasons. Usually, with a stat like that it comes with the assumption that the program is running through coaches until they find success. However, the Bulldogs are the exact opposite. They have had so much success that they lose coaches to bigger schools. First was Barry Collier, the now athletic director, who left for the University of Nebraska. Thad Matta then moved onto Xavier and eventually Ohio State. Todd Lickliter, left for the University of Iowa. Then Brad Stevens posted a .772 win percentage and took the program to back-to-back national title games. Stevens then took the call and is now the head coach of the Boston Celtics. Brandon Miller took over before leaving for medical reasons. Lastly, Chris Holtman’s success led him to Ohio State. Throughout this period the Bulldogs dominated the Horizon League, played a stellar season in the A-10, and have recovered from a bad start in the Big East to post 3 successful seasons. Overall, the Bulldogs have nine regular season championships, and five conference tournaments. They have been to the NCAA tournament 13 times and have only lost in the round of 64 twice. With five total Sweet 16 appearances and being a two time NCAA runner up the Bulldogs are no joke. LaVall Jordan exceeded expectations if his first year as head coach and with a name like Butler it will certainly be hard to tell him and the Bulldogs that they aren’t going to be seen in the NCAA tournament anytime soon.
Rating Score: 115.95
# 12 Arizona Wildcats
Lute Olson! That’s pretty much all you need to think of when you think of the Arizona Wildcat’s basketball program, that is until Sean Miller took over and has continued to dominate out west. The Wildcats have won eight regular season titles in a very tough Pac-10/12 conference throughout the past 19 seasons. Tournament success is where the Wildcats struggle to break into the top 10. Of their 16 trips to the NCAA tournament the Wildcats have moved onto the Sweet 16 ten times. Six times to the Elite Eight and only once advancing to the Final Four and eventually the NCAA championship game in 2001 where they lost to Duke. Jim Rosborough, Kevin O’Niell, and Russ Pennell also contributed as coaches to the overall success of the program, and the Wildcats have only had two losing seasons (one because of wins vacated by the NCAA) since Lute Olson took over in the ‘83-’84 season. The Wildcats have compiled a record of 484-173 (.737) overall and 245-97 (.716) in conference play. Arizona is currently the Pac-12 and with other teams challenging they never seem to give in and take a back seat very often. Sean Miller has found a place that he calls home and the Wildcats are going nowhere. With a few more wins here and there the Wildcats will be pounding on that door of the top 10 very soon.
Rating Score: 124.13
# 11 Syracuse Orange
Jim Boeheim started at Syracuse in 1976 and since that time the Orange have only missed nine NCAA tournaments. As a member of the Big East to Orange were no one to be taken easy. Four times the Orange claimed the Big East regular season and twice the Big East tournament championship. The Orange have always been a formidable opponent with their over the top 2-3 zone which stifles many teams and with that helps them move onto advance in the NCAA tournament.The ‘Cuse have been to 14 NCAA tournaments within the century and advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in nine of those appearances. With more times for teams to prepare for the Orange in the Sweet 16 the ‘Cuse have only made it past the Sweet 16 three times. They lost to Ohio State in the Elite Eight, as well as Michigan in the Final Four. But in 2003 Syracuse was the team cutting down the nets as they took home the National Championship with a 81-78 win over the Kansas Jayhawks. With the move to the ACC in 2013, Syracuse has struggled with only going 50-40 (.555) in ACC play. However, Jim Boeheim has taken this program to the next level and while they may be struggling in the ACC you can certainly count on the fact that no team and no coach take the Orange lightly.
Rating Score: 124.23