Ranking college basketball’s best current programs: 16-20
College basketball loves its history, but there are a lot of different things that go into making a modern-day program into one of the nation’s best. How you choose to prioritize those things will lead to significant debate over the overall ranking of programs as they sit today. On Monday, we listed the programs that just missed the cut. Today, we present the programs ranked 16 through 20.
No. 20 Gonzaga
Pluses: Established, 15-year run of success, excellent coach/continuity, growing potential to attract national-level talent, only show in town, great brand
Minuses: Still dealing with a mid-major league even with a high-major budget, lack of relative postseason success to validate overall performance
Criticism of the Zags in this spot are that the program basically has peaked. Reaching No. 1 in the nation last season, the perception of the program will only change if they make a Final Four, and that’s more or less a crapshoot most seasons. They have an excellent coach who seems happy to stay there for the duration, they dominate a decent league to gain annual access to the NCAAs, and regularly test themselves against excellent out-of-conference competition. Bottom line: The Zags have a great basketball brand and almost every program in the nation would take their last decade and a half and the future that appears bright in front of them. If they ever get co-opted by a bigger conference …
No. 19 Illinois
Pluses: Only major program in the state (sorry, Northwestern, at least until the Collins Era really gets going), access to Chicago’s recruiting area, good staff in place, good commitment to hoops, strong history
Minuses: Chicago can be a tricky recruiting ground and Champaign isn’t that close to it, Big Ten is brutal, not as much recent success as the program should have had (toward the end of the Bruce Weber era)
Why’d Illinois finish ahead of Maryland (No. 20.5 on this list)? In thinking about the two schools once they’re both in the Big Ten, Illinois feels like the slightly better choice to maintain upper-division success in a monster league. John Groce and Co. are making recruiting inroads and bringing in more talent, and nine-figure renovations to Assembly Hall (rechristening it as State Farm Center in the process) are coming. Maybe the images of the Flyin’ Illini from the late ’80s and the Deron Williams/Dee Brown 2005 team trump Maryland’s best in my mind, but I’m still not sure I have the right order between these two and Gonzaga.
No. 18 Michigan
Pluses: Strong sports school with upside for men’s hoops, excellent coach, improving recruiting pull
Minuses: Haven’t cared as much about hoops as they should, extended dry period before Beilein, really tough league with an in-state rival with an elite program
If things continue the way they have been moving under John Beilein, this ranking will look low next fall. Coming off a national title game appearance, the Wolverines should be very strong again this season, and Beilein is proving he can bring national talent to Ann Arbor. The Fab Five may have run into NCAA issues, but those teams remain some of the most iconic in the game’s past 25 years. With monster programs Michigan State, Ohio State and (potentially) Indiana in the conference, as well as annual contender Wisconsin, this isn’t an easy place to stay among the elite. That said, Michigan’s been about potential for years, and finally is tapping into it.
No. 17 Georgetown
Pluses: Great basketball brand and history, strong budget, location/recruiting area, status as potential best program in the new Big East
Minuses: Recent postseason flops, move away from ESPN to lesser-watched Fox Sports 1 with new Big East TV deal
The Hoyas have become an easy punching bag for five straight NCAA tournament losses to double-digit seeds, including this past season as a 2-seed to Florida Gulf Coast. The postseason disasters have obscured a really, really strong run for the Hoyas, who have garnered five top-three seeds in the last seven seasons and made the Final Four in 2007. Now, they move with the other Catholic schools to the new Big East and look to be an agenda-setting heavyweight in that conference. The league should remain pretty good, with historic bottomfeeders having a chance to improve in a less daunting league and new imports like Xavier, Creighton and Butler adding solid depth with upside quality. The Hoyas, who spent over $10 million on hoops in 2011-12, may be more positioned to weather a TV exposure downturn with the move to Fox given their national brand, legacy of success and some quality nonleague games.
No. 16 Texas
Pluses: Huge athletic budget, relative lack of pressure to succeed, tremendous location/recruiting area, solid history
Minuses: Relatively weak fan interest, current coach losing the recruiting touch in-state, current performance is waning badly
There’s no reason for Texas to be this low. After an extended run of success, Rick Barnes has won just two NCAA tournament games in the last six seasons and is staring another non-NCAA season squarely in the face with a very mediocre roster. Barnes hasn’t been able to keep up with the Texas recruiting scene, and has started consistently losing in-state talent to other programs, some not nearly Texas’ equal. The good news is that Texas’ issues are eminently fixable. Either Barnes recharges his approach, starts getting (and keeping) better players, and starts winning on a level consummate with the platform, or the school can make a coaching change and have a ton of very qualified options from which to choose. This could be the college hoops job opening of 2014 if things go as expected this season and the school decides to make a change.