Ranking college basketball’s best current programs: 11-15
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. On Tuesday, it was the programs ranked 16 through 20. Now today, it’s Nos. 11 through 15:
No. 15 Memphis
Pluses: Tremendous fanbase/passion for the product, big budget, upgrade to a better league, proximity to recruiting areas, staff’s ability to land quality talent, good program history
Minuses: Current coach hasn’t delivered fully on promise, adjustment to more competitive conference?
Memphis is a very good job, even with its fan base’s “mini-Kentucky” reputation for intensity and very high expectations. They can offer a pro arena, the school is close to (or in) several major recruiting markets and talent clearly wants to play for the Tigers. Josh Pastner has done a pretty solid job trying to fill the ample shoes of John Calipari, but he now needs to start winning more games he’s not expected to win. They should have another very strong team this season, especially in the backcourt, which should make the introduction to the American Athletic Conference a good one. Running over CUSA annually didn’t help this program get better. Now they’ll be forced to if they want to improve on their current level.
No. 14 Wisconsin
Pluses: Outstanding support, incredible consistency of performance, great conference, outstanding coach with long-term stability
Minuses: Not a player nationally in recruiting, has hit a bit of a glass ceiling in terms of upside?
Wisconsin’s unerring consistency in the Big Ten is one of the more underappreciated things in a college basketball world consumed with big names, flashy play and Final Four runs. Bo Ryan has never — NEVER — finished outside the top four. Not when the league was very down in the mid-2000s and not when the league was great, like last year. Ryan gets a good deal of grief for his inability to beat a better seed in the NCAA tournament, and maybe that’s a limitation of running a system program without 5-star individual players. He still gets good talent — or at least molds his players into good talent — and then wins and wins and wins. For a program that had very little history prior to Dick Bennett, what Ryan’s been able to do there for well over a decade has been sensational.
No. 13 Connecticut
Pluses: Ownership of geographic region, great program history, seems to have transitioned well from a legendary coach, should be the best program in its new conference over the long term, facility upgrades are on the way
Minuses: Downgrade from the old Big East, Kevin Ollie is still somewhat unproven despite good early indications
This could be a touch too high at the moment, but what Jim Calhoun built in a small northeast Connecticut town looks like it’s in position to continue to be one of the better programs in America. Until you get to Syracuse in central New York, there’s no program in the region that even comes close to UConn’s gravitas and level of support. Losing the conference realignment musical chairs game isn’t ideal, but UConn could end up as a “CUSA Memphis” or super-Gonzaga in the sense that they should be the best program in their league and can play a national schedule in nonconference to balance out some relative weakness versus past Big East schedules. You never know how transitions from long-time coaches will go, but Calhoun got the man he wanted in charge, and so far, it looks like a prudent choice. The program got through the one-year APR ban in good shape, and a much-needed new practice facility is coming to help close the facilities gap with other major programs. Great history, great basketball brand and a dedication to the sport (both men’s and women’s).
No. 12 UCLA
Pluses: One of the true blueblood brands in college basketball with a tremendous history, the kingpin school in a major recruiting area, local bridges may get repaired with Steve Alford now at the helm
Minuses: Alford is untested under this kind of spotlight, other programs have gotten their hooks into the Southern California market as the prep scene has improved, facilities aren’t at the level of other top programs despite renovations
UCLA had a terrific run under Ben Howland, but despite last season’s Pac-12 title, the relationship had run its course. Now the Bruins and Steve Alford have a very long-term commitment to each other through an unusual dual buyout provision in his contract, and he can go about re-establishing the Bruins as a national power. You can’t get better than UCLA’s history and tradition, location and access to both local and national recruiting bases. Alford is going to have to prove he can handle the pressure of a major-market job, and get UCLA back into the good graces of the local powerbrokers alienated by Howland. They’re definitely not the only show in town anymore, and even crosstown rival USC is going to be a handful with Andy Enfield.
No. 11 Florida
Pluses: Terrific head coach, stability, great recent track record, established national presence in recruiting
Minuses: Basketball culture is not elite, operating in same league as Calipari/Kentucky
I waffled on this vs. the eventual No. 10 team for a long while. Still not sure the ordering is correct. The Gators have two recent national titles and are working on three straight Elite Eights. Billy Donovan is one of the game’s finest coaches and has a runway as long as he’d like in Gainesville, with NBA flight risk less after the Orlando fiasco a number of years back. They should be very strong again this season and are well ahead of every other program in the SEC besides Kentucky. At the end of the day, the less entrenched basketball culture at the school is a demerit, and if you take “A+ Florida” over the long run, with everything involved, I think it would end up being a smidge below the possible apexes of the top 10. Outstanding program with a great coach, though.