Posted September 27, 2013

Ranking college basketball’s best current programs: The top five

Best Programs, Duke Blue Devils, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State Spartans, North Carolina
Tom Izzo has led the Spartans to six Final Fours over the last 12 years, but hasn't been past the Sweet 16 since 2010. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Tom Izzo has led the Spartans to six Final Fours over the last 12 years, but hasn’t been past the Sweet 16 since 2010. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Ranking the top 20 current college basketball programs isn’t easy. Ordering the top five may be even tougher. When you’re parsing through the bluest of blueblood programs, the differences become miniscule. They all have great coaches, great fanbases, great facilities, great tradition and access to the best national talent.

Still, differences are there, and they’re what separate the great from the best (and the best from the rest).

Here are the previous ranking results:
-The honorable mentions
-Nos. 16 through 20
-Nos. 11 through 15
-Nos. 6 through 10

Now, here are the top five current programs in college hoops, and why they ended up in the order they did:

No. 5 Michigan State and No. 4 North Carolina

These two programs have been remarkably good for an extended period of time under their current elite coaches, but there are a couple of relative weak points that separate them from the top three in that sense.

1) Overall consistency of performance
The Spartans had a 19-win season as recently 2011, and have a reputation as a better postseason team than regular-season team. Also, while Tom Izzo made six Final Fours over a 12-year span, the Spartans haven’t been past the Sweet 16 since 2010.

North Carolina has made six Elite Eights in the last nine seasons, but also has had a couple of dips when they had to reboot after national title runs. The first time worked out pretty well, with Tyler Hansbrough arriving and, after a second-round loss to the miracle George Mason team in 2006, starting an immediate next run to an eventual title. The second time, not quite as much. In 2010, the Tar Heels ended up in the NIT before they bounced back the next two seasons to make regional finals.

When you’re at this level, though, any dropoff is key. Two of the three programs ahead of them don’t dip like that, and the third — Kentucky — has had one bad season under John Calipari, with Nerlens Noel’s knee injury likely costing them at least an NCAA berth.

2) Recent recruiting level
While both Michigan State and North Carolina certainly are in the mix for elite national recruits, they seem to have fallen a bit behind the three programs ahead of them.

Michigan State has only landed two truly top-level recruits in the last three classes — Branden Dawson and Gary Harris (although the three others in Harris’ class all were in the tail end of the top 100). The Spartans just nailed down Lourawls Nairn, ranked No. 72, for the Class of 2014, but a megarecruit isn’t in the pipeline yet.

The Tar Heels have a loaded class on tap in 2014, but they haven’t really made a splash since 2011, when they landed James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, both decent players, but neither of whom has become a star.

So, we’re down to three, and this really could go in any direction. Let’s break it down across a bunch of different categories:

Coaching security
All three have extremely good coaches, although if you asked most people, the batting order would go Krzyzewski, Self, Calipari. Duke’s advantage in actual coaching may be offset by Krzyzewski getting closer to the end of his career, and the risk that Duke won’t be able to replace him at close to the same level of success.

That doesn’t mean that Self and Calipari are locks to remain where they are, or even outlast Krzyzewski. Self continues to have NBA rumblings around him, and if the San Antonio or (maybe) Oklahoma City jobs open up, a mega-offer could be very tempting. Calipari has already done the NBA thing, but not well. Would someone take another run and be able to pry him away from Lexington? Would he ever get tired of having to rebuild every year with freshmen or simply burn out under the microscope of Big Blue Nation?

It feels like all three men will be at their current helms for the next several seasons, at least, but while Self and Calipari would leave because of an opportunity elsewhere, Krzyzewski’s pending retirement likely presents the largest coach risk of the three.

Recruiting power
Calipari is the runaway king of college recruiting at this point, with Kentucky’s 2013 class considered by many to be the best recruiting class ever. But it’s the one who got away from this class that has resonated, with uberprospect Andrew Wiggins landing in Lawrence to spearhead what should be an extremely good Kansas team by the end of the season. Duke’s recruiting had lagged a touch, but K showed his chops in luring Jabari Parker to Durham.

The combination of Calipari + Kentucky is too much for anyone to regularly trump for the best of the best talent, but Self and Krzyzewski have gotten some very crucial wins lately.

Recent track record
Self’s run at the top of the Big 12 has been remarkable, with at least a share of nine straight league championships. Self has also chalked up four Elite Eights, two title games and a national championship in the last seven seasons. Early-round losses to Bradley, Bucknell and Northern Iowa blight the tournament resume a bit, but they’ve probably been overstated at this point.

Krzyzewski’s regular-season consistency of excellence has been amazing. He’s mastered scheduling, parlaying a bunch of location-friendly neutral-site games into huge RPI points, and managed a 1- or 2-seed in six straight years and nine of the last 10. Based on Duke’s seeding, though, the Blue Devils have badly underachieved in the NCAAs in that decade. The 2010 national title helped erase some of the demerits, but last year’s regional final loss to eventual champ Louisville was the only other time Duke has made the Elite Eight in the last 10 years.

Calipari’s first three years in Lexington were top shelf. He went 102-14 with an Elite Eight, a Final Four and a national title. Last year’s descent into the NIT, with a first-round road loss at Robert Morris, looks to be a one-year blip, but it’s still on the resume. This year’s team likely will make people forget about last year.

Arenas
All three play in historically great venues. Even Cameron’s reduced size doesn’t diminish the atmosphere. Tons of history at all three, with extended history favoring Kansas and Kentucky. Forced to choose, I’d go Allen Fieldhouse, Cameron and then Rupp Arena, but you could argue this any way and have a compelling case.

Budgets
All three were in the top six of the 2012 rankings. Their coaches make a ton of money and they don’t skimp elsewhere, either.

History
Kentucky has the second-most national titles behind UCLA. Duke has been the best modern program of the last 25 years. Kansas has a great mix of both.

Hard to pick, right? Well, someone has to do it … here goes!

No. 3 Duke

By virtue of the disappointing NCAA tournament performance, the greatest potential coach risk, and not consistently recruiting at quite the level that Kentucky (especially) and Kansas (lately) have established themselves.

OK, now it gets really tough.

No. 2 Kentucky

Really for the reason that Calipari’s operation feels like more of a comet than a star. The Wildcats are burning bright and are annually the biggest story in the game, but last season put a small dent in the armor of Calipari’s annual build model, and more coaches now feel they can beat Calipari for strategic recruits.

The consistency and stability in Lawrence is just better. They have been masterful under Bill Self, and were outstanding under Roy Williams. The future is looking really good, too, if Self continues to recruit at his current level. There are a lot of rumblings he could strike big at the top of the Class of 2014, and the groundwork would be in place for another extended run of excellence.

As for Calipari, each program he has left has not been able to maintain his level of elite performance, and we have seen Kentucky fade a bit (over time under Tubby Smith) and then crater (under Billy Gillispie), and that doesn’t even include last year.

This choice will look pretty awesome if Kentucky rips Kansas for the national title in April, but for now, the Cats will have to settle for second.

No. 1 Kansas

Congratulations, Jayhawks. You’re the best program in America in my book. At least until next spring.

64 comments
MarkMichaels
MarkMichaels

UConn has won 3 of the last 14 national Championships. None of them was a repeat, they did it  with entirely new casts every time. That's a program.


And they are not in Glockner's (WTFIH?) top ten. It's the definition of insanity.

Tom Tucker
Tom Tucker

This list is complete and utter rag. This much is indisputable -- the two best current basketball programs in the country are (in no particular order) Kentucky and Louisville. Kentucky won it all in 2012, Louisville won it all in 2013 and made it to back-to-back Final Fours in 2013. They're going to be the two best teams in the land in 2013-14. Their fans can't be matched. Louisville generates more revenue from basketball than any other program, it's at the top of Forbe's list. They've both been overly consistent over the past 40 years. Kansas as No. 1?! Credit to Bill Self for winning a title in 2008, but his teams have otherwise underwhelmed in March Madness, given their seeding and talent. No way Kansas is the best current program. Look no further than the Commonwealth of Kentucky for your Top Two. Basketball is king in the Bluegrass. 

TroyBroady
TroyBroady

Did this guy smoke crack before he did this?!

KCTarHeel
KCTarHeel

I'm a UNC graduate living in Kansas City.  Coach K had 4 championships and Roy Williams had 2.  KU as a program has 3 and one of those result in the programming going on probation the following year.  I'm not sure I understand the math when you rank a team who had 2 championship in the last 25 years.  When you have two programs that have 2 championships in less than 10 years and a third team from the same conference who has a championship and a 2nd final four appearance.  Dominating a one school conference means very little.  ACC is king!

urbane
urbane

It's very hard to overlook the historic record that The Kansas Basketball Program spawned both the North Carolina and Kentucky programs from the start of college basketball.  North Carolina and Kansas have always been close....Kentucky not so much.  Let's play b-ball!!!!!!!!!!

JalonsoC
JalonsoC

I agree with this ranking, Kentucky did not make the tournament last year and don't deserve to be at top. Kansas is #1!!!


CollinBraden
CollinBraden

If there is anyone who also argues about KU's coaching just look at Ben Mclemore, when he was recruited he was ranked as the 49th best player in his class by ESPN and he was a top 10 in the NBA draft, also look at Jeff Withey and pretty much any player that has come through Kansas, KU doesn't need a spectacular recruiting class they have Bill Self who can turn Jeff Withey into the Big 12 defensive player of the year.

JeromeGoscha
JeromeGoscha

To all the people who disagree with these rankings, yes there are always reasons why they shouldn't be, but here's why kansas is. 9 straight conference titles, who else got that? Say what you want about our conference, but seriously, 9. We have the best post season winning percentage in the last decade. That alone is staggering, but we still have a national title, and we went to the national title the year we were supposed to have a "down year". We have one of the, if not the, richest traditions in all of the country. It's not at all surprising to see Ku atop this list....P.S. WIGGINS!

linloudeghen
linloudeghen

HUM, don't happen to see MU on that list.  HUM!!!!!

linloudeghen
linloudeghen

Isn't it great season hasn't even started yet and we are once again on the top 5 basketball team.  Go Jayhawks. 

ConcernedFan
ConcernedFan

#1  UK

#2  Duke

#3  NC

#4  Kansas

#5  Louisville

#6  Florida

#7  Syracuse

#8  UConn

#9  Michigan State

#10  Ohio State

The last two teams are the best of the rest that haven't even won a championship in the last decade (the last two generations in Ohio State's case).  That has to be factored to be among the best "CURRENT" programs.  It's pathetic how apologetic Glockner had to be with his ultimate choices- no explanation for including Michigan State in the Top Five (totally unreasonable) and nothing more than "That's All Folks" to explain his lame pick for Kansas as #1.

DanielSWesley
DanielSWesley

Hoo boy, can't wait to hear all the entitled Kentucky fans crying that they're not #1!

plcc.witness
plcc.witness

#1 Kentucky

#2 Duke

#3 Louisville

#4 Kansas

#5 Syracuse

#6 N. Carolina

#7 Arizona

#8 Ohio State

#9 Michigan

#10 Indiana


RobOlds
RobOlds

Who was it that Kentucky beat for the NCAA championship in 2012?  Hmmm...seems to me that it was Kansas.  Kentucky's #1 in  my book!

dennisjhunter
dennisjhunter

And your book is a bag of horseshit. Another homer who wants to get a bunch of hits by pissing off Kentucky fans.  

If you get up at 5 o'clock to go to a UK game, it's to find a scalper who hasn't been sick the last few weeks. The game has been sold out all year....AT THE OPPONENT'S HOUSE.  

Who knew that paying Wiggins would get them so much press?

schmolik1
schmolik1

Conference breakdown for Top 20 (as of 2014-15)

Big Ten: Illinois (19), Michigan (18), Wisconsin (14) , Indiana (9), Ohio State (7), Michigan State (5)

ACC: Syracuse (8), Louisville (6), North Carolina (4), Duke (3)

SEC: Florida (11), Kentucky (4)

Pac 12: UCLA (12), Arizona (8)

AAC: Memphis (15), Connecticut (13)

Big 12: Texas (16), Kansas (1)

Big East: Georgetown (17)

WCC: Gonzaga (20)

The ACC and Big Ten are clearly the top conferences (ACC is more top heavy but the Big Ten has more "top" teams. The Big Ten suffers from no champion. They are clearly better than the SEC and Big 12 even though both conferences have won national titles more recently. After UK and UF in the SEC who's 3rd? And Texas is a sinking rock and they're 2nd in the Big 12.

It's a shame that great schools like Connecticut, Kentucky, and Florida are shut out of the elite while dead weights like Nebraska,. Northwestern, Rutgers, and Clemson make the Big Ten and ACC look bad. It's good to see Louisville join the ACC but I wish UConn would get in as well (maybe Georgetown as a 16, why not a 2nd member for all sports but football?)

SamsonPatterson
SamsonPatterson

Crazy and see some of the best recruits in the nation have the Times of their lives

SamsonPatterson
SamsonPatterson

Kansas has been, and always will be the best team with the best venue in college basketball by far! If u think I'm wrong, join us for late-night at the Phog, and you'll never want to go to see another college basketball venue in your life! Good-luck though, I think last year was the biggest fan showing ever, and with wiggins and embiid on campus. .. people will be sitting outside with projection tvs to see it!it gets really crazy, all if u want to attend. ..u might book a flight early and get up at 5 a.m toattend I'm like until they open the doors, or else u won't be able to see the greatest coach in the nation act

cartmonkey
cartmonkey

Remember kids - there is more to a team than the ability to do well in the tourney. Everyone wants to win, but only will out of 300+ teams. Sustained success determines the best. Right now UK and KU are worlds away from everyone else.

BryanCustard
BryanCustard

Very intriguing list,, would have loved to have been a metaphorical "fly on the wall" in Glockner's brain when he was comparing these programs! I've been pondering the Kansas/Duke/Kentucky/MSU/UNC rankings for awhile now, and I'm stumped!

jimmyjon_55555
jimmyjon_55555

i still have no idea how MSU is picked over UConn/  Louisville / Syracuse ...  even kansas for that matter.  Uconn has had 3 titles since 99.  thats more than any other school during that time...  the article reads BEST PROGRAMS RIGHT NOW- and then as reasoning lists - recent track record (kentucky didnt even make the NCAA tourney last yea) - and overall consistency as 2 major determining factors.   if its right now youre looking at - then dont look at the past.  because if you are- and including recent past- then you have to include Uconn...  

JLJLJL
JLJLJL

gee beaver, i wonder where tom tucker lives ???  the name is tucker..not sucker boy....damn HOMER !!!!!!

T_guy35
T_guy35

@ConcernedFan UK didn't even make the tourney last year and are still number 2 and their fans think they are number 1. LOL whatever dude. 

BornJayhawk
BornJayhawk

@ConcernedFan

Lame pick? You should be "concerned" about your mental health. Have you seen the recruiting class this year for Kansas? Needless to say there is no reason to question the coaching, fan base, basketball culture, or all around well being of a program that made it to a national championship with even less talent last year. You don't have to justify being on top when you are on top. Ridiculous. 

ScottDeweerd
ScottDeweerd

@ConcernedFan What's "totally unreasonable" is repeatedly ignoring loads upon loads of evidence that shows how irrational your argument is -- and rather than considering an alternative argument, smashing your head into the wall screaming "doesn't matter, national championships!" Seriously. This list is ordered by "best current program," not by National Championships in the past decade. 

No explanation for including Michigan State in the Top Five...? There's no explanation for NOT including Michigan State in the Top Five. Because, remember, again, the topic of this list is "best current programs," not National Championships in the last decade. 

cliffharris47
cliffharris47

@plcc.witness are you high right now?  Kansas four?  Carolina SIXTH?!  and syracuse at 5 has me convinced youre tripping balls


obsidiankc
obsidiankc

Never mind that Calipari choked in 2008 to that title team...or the fact that Calipari is a dirty coach.

obsidiankc
obsidiankc

@RobOlds ,,,and what happened the year after that?  When's the last time KU hasn't made the tourney?


Exactly. KU had a title in 2008 and they lost their entire starting lineup and most of the scoring...they STILL won the Big 12 and they STILL made the Sweet 16.


THAT is why KU is better than UK.

dlepp311
dlepp311

@dennisjhunter this comment is hilarious coming from a ky fan with calipari as their coach. Thanks for making me laugh.

ScottDeweerd
ScottDeweerd

@jimmyjon_55555 Michigan State has the third best NCAAT winning percentage since Izzo took over in '96. Also, Michigan State is 5th in wins-per-season since '96 despite having the toughest average SOS since '96. Combine that with a National Championship, a National Champion-Runner Up, six Final Fours, seven Elite Eights, ten Sweet Sixteens, not missing the NCAAT even once, and seven Conference Championships since '96.   

You've been enlightened. 

BryanCustard
BryanCustard

@jimmyjon_55555 The coaching situation at UConn is the main issue. While Kevin Ollie has certainly looked the part, its hard to ignore the fact that he is a first time head coach replacing a legend. Ollie proves to be as capable as Calhoun, and UConn returns to top 5 consideration

BrianConrad
BrianConrad

@ConcernedFan  Big 12 is NOT C-USA  Oklahoma State and Kansas will both be Final Four caliber teams.  teams from Kansas have been in Final Four and Championship game last 2 years in a row.  KU has averaged over 31 wins for a Decade ! 

ConcernedFan
ConcernedFan

@ScottDeweerd @ConcernedFan You keep saying Michigan State is a "best current program" and to argue why they're NOT....yeah, sure, prove a negative.  Not a very persuasive argument for MSU.  They're the only team in the so-called "Top Five" to NOT WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP.  It sticks out like a sore thumb and you know it!!!

TheBigDeal
TheBigDeal

@obsidiankc Calipari is more perfect for the NBA.  He would do great there, I heard the Lakers job will open after this upcoming season.  Maybe he will "recruit" LeBron, Melo, D-Rose (hey, he was a Calipari recruit while at Memphis), etc. to join the Lakers with Kobe and Pau.  Maybe I will have a great reason to hate them again.  The last couple of years, I kinda felt "bad" for them. :)

downtownjohnbrown
downtownjohnbrown

@obsidiankc @RobOlds KU currently hold the longest active NCAA tournament appearance streak in mens division 1 basketball. What's UK's active streak... right they didn't make it last year. Not to mention, under Coach Self, in the last 6 years KU has the most wins of any program ever in the history of mens college basketball.

jimmyjon_55555
jimmyjon_55555

@BryanCustard @jimmyjon_55555 well- funny- i dont see that as a reasoning for criteria.  then how do you justify putting UCLA - yes UCLA- ranked HIGHER than UConn...  UCLAs last 5 finishes in the NCAA:  didnt get out of the second round.  this is a joke of a list and reeks of anti OLD BE.  

ScottDeweerd
ScottDeweerd

Your hatred for Sparty is overwhelming. You're willing to ignore loads upon loads upon loads of strong evidence supporting Michigan State's placement in the top-five for the simple reason that MSU finished second in '09 rather than first. Sounds pretty irrational to me. 

ConcernedFan
ConcernedFan

@ScottDeweerd  Not even an Elite Eight in the last three years?  C'mon, man, your love for Sparty is underwhelming.


ScottDeweerd
ScottDeweerd

"National Championship!" "National Championship!" "National Championship!" 

Keep banging your head against that wall. You've managed to convince yourself that Michigan State finishing second in 2009 rather than first proves that they're not one of the top-five current programs. Ignore NCAAT records. Ignore overall records. Ignore SOS. Ignore conference championships. Ignore Final Fours. Ignore Elite Eights. Ignore Sweet Sixteens. Ignore NCAAT appearances. None of that matters. MSU finished second rather than first in 2009; therefore, they're not one of the top-five current programs. That's truly a compelling argument you've got there. 

BryanCustard
BryanCustard

@jimmyjon_55555 @BryanCustard I disagreed with the UCLA ranking, felt they should have been in the late teens/early twenties considering the last four or five seasons, and the coaching change. Like I said, UCONN is only Kevin Ollie proving that he can recruit and coach consistently away from being in the back half of the top five argument, and early signs point to him being a successful replacement for Calhoun. The team played hard for nothing (not being eligible for postseason consideration), which is the ultimate sign that a team has respect for its coach. They not only played hard, but played well, and stole a few games they wouldn't have won on paper. The early returns point to him being a very good motivator and coach, and hopefully once he proves these trends are realities, UCONN will once again take its seat in the top 5