CBB: The Top 31 College Basketball Programs of the Last 31 Years (Part I)

Note: This post was originally published at College Basketball at Sports-Reference, S-R’s new College Hoops site, so when you’re done reading, go over and check it out!

With the addition of 2010 stats to the site about a month ago, CBB at SR now has game-by-game results for each of the past 31 seasons (1980-2010). This means that we can calculate our signature team power-ranking statistic — the Simple Rating System (SRS) — for every team in that span, estimating a team’s “true” strength by adjusting point differential for strength of schedule. Armed with those ratings, I went back and found the average SRS for each program over the past 31 seasons; this post is the first in a ranking of the top 31 programs by that average. The only rule for qualification: teams who didn’t play all 31 seasons in D-IA were not eligible (sorry, Miami, Missouri St., & Tulane). Other than that, it’s all about having the highest average SRS since 1980. To the rankings…

31. Alabama Crimson Tide (+11.71 SRS)

Record: 626-359 (.636)
Prominent Coaches: Wimp Sanderson, Mark Gottfried
Best NCAA Finish: Lost Regional Final (2004)

Alabama has quietly produced a solid (if not always great) program over the past 3 decades. Mostly, it’s been about avoiding the bad — they’ve had just three losing seasons in that time period, and they’ve never had an SRS less than +3.98 in a season — but there have also been some good moments where the Tide rolled with the country’s best schools. Under Sanderson, ‘Bama enjoyed one of their best sustained runs of success (1981-87), culminating in a 1987 squad that won 26 games, captured the SEC regular-season & tournament crowns, and advanced to the Regional Semis before losing to Rick Pitino’s Final Four-bound Providence team. After Sanderson left, the team slipped a notch under David Hobbs, but Gottfried led them back to national respectability starting in 2001. The best teams of Gottfried’s tenure were the 2002 edition (led by Rod Grizzard and a freshman named Mo Williams) and the 2004 team, which advanced to within a game of the Final Four.

30. Cincinnati Bearcats (+11.79)

Record: 606-365 (.624)
Prominent Coaches: Bob Huggins
Best NCAA Finish: Lost National Semifinal (1992)

Before Bob Huggins arrived in the Queen City, Cincy basketball was far from a national powerhouse; under Ed Badger and Tony Yates in the 80s, the team struggled to maintain a .500 record, much less make the NCAA Tourney. All of that changed, though, when Huggins was hired in 1989. The Bearcats promptly went 20-14 in Huggins’ first year (their 1st 20-win season since 1977), and by 1992/93 they had improved to become a top-5 team with a Final Four appearance under their belt. From 1992-2004, Cincinnati would be a fixture in the Top 10, starting 1997 as preseason favorites to win it all, and claiming the #1 spot in the AP poll for most of 2000 before a Kenyon Martin injury short-circuited their chances. However, despite the gaudy win totals, Cincinnati could never find postseason success to match Huggins’ first few years at the school; from 1997-2005, Cincy made the tournament every year, but flamed out in the 1st or 2nd round 8 times in 9 tries. At least they were making the tournament, though — since Huggins resigned in 2005, the Bearcats have fallen back on mediocre times, with 0 NCAA berths and a cumulative 82-81 record.

29. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (+11.83)

Record: 543-422 (.563)
Prominent Coaches: Bobby Cremins, Paul Hewitt
Best NCAA Finish: Lost National Final (2004)

If Alabama’s path to the top 31 was consistency, Georgia Tech’s has been volatility… When they’ve been good, Tech has produced seasons that wouldn’t be out of place in the resume of a 5-star program (2 Final Fours, 3 ACC tournament titles), but when they’ve been bad, they’ve been extremely mediocre. Things could have been much worse, though, had they not hired Bobby Cremins in 1981. Following the team’s implosion under Dwayne Morrison, Cremins took over a 4-23 team and had them in the Elite 8 with 27 wins just four years later. The 1986 team, led by Mark Price & John Salley, were Cremins’ best by SRS and preseason favorites to win the NCAA title, but they fell to LSU in the regional semis. 4 seasons later, Tech finally broke into the Final Four with “Lethal Weapon 3” (Dennis Scott, Brian Oliver, Kenny Anderson), a lineup that proved to be the most successful team of Cremins’ career. But unable to recapture his early-decade successes after Stephon Marbury left for the NBA in 1996, Cremins handed the torch in 2000 to Siena’s Paul Hewitt, who has maintained the roller-coaster quality the program saw under his predecessor. Under Hewitt, the team has finished in the top 17 in SRS 3 times, including a magical National Title Game run in ’04, but they’ve also ranked 50th or worse by SRS 5 times, and have had limited postseason success in recent seasons despite impressive recruiting hauls.

28. Villanova Wildcats (+12.03)

Record: 641-370 (.634)
Prominent Coaches: Rollie Massimino, Steve Lappas, Jay Wright
Best NCAA Finish: Won National Championship (1985)

Seated 11 miles from the hoops Mecca of Philadelphia, Villanova has always been at the periphery of greatness (they rank just outside the top 25 programs in all-time wins), and that trend looked to continue under Rollie Massimino in the 80s, as they were good but always just shy of Big East powerhouses like Georgetown. However, in 1985, the Wildcats’ SRS belied an unbelievable Cinderella story that ended with ‘Nova knocking off the heavily favored Hoyas for the National Championship. After ’85, Villanova largely reverted to form until Steve Lappas put together good back-to-back seasons in 1996 & 97 with Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, & frosh phenom Tim Thomas. But even that success was short-lived, and it wouldn’t be until Jay Wright took over in 2001 that the ‘Cats became a consistent threat year-in and year-out. Under Wright’s guidance, Villanova has made 6 straight NCAA tournaments (1 short of Massamino’s longest streak), and have had an SRS under +16 just once in that span. The best team of the Wright era? By SRS it was the ’06 team that came within a game of the Final Four, but it’s tough to look past the Dante Cunningham/Scottie Reynolds-led 2009 version, which went all the way to the National Semis before losing to eventual champ UNC.

27. Memphis Tigers (+12.08)

Record: 652-305 (.681)
Prominent Coaches: Dana Kirk, Larry Finch, John Calipari
Best NCAA Finish: Lost National Final (2008)

Formerly known as Memphis State, the Tigers were a fixture in the SRS top 20 during the 1980s under Dana Kirk, including an outstanding run from 1982-86 (123-25 record) that saw them make the Final Four in ’85. Kirk’s success came with a price, however, as recruiting violations led to NCAA sanctions that eventually stripped the team of accolades and cost him his job. Former Tiger player Larry Finch took the reins in 1987 and ran a clean program, albeit a less-dominant one than he had inherited. The crowning achievement of Finch’s run came in 1992, when local product Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway led Memphis St. to within a game of the Final Four (they lost to Huggins & Cincinnati). After Finch stepped aside, 3 undistinguished seasons by Tic Price and Johnny Jones paved the way for former UMass coach John Calipari to assume coaching duties. Calipari’s tenure saw Memphis elevated to national powerhouse status; from 2006-09 they dominated Conference USA and finished in the AP top 5 each season, culminating in a stunning 2008 campaign that was blemished by just 1 loss until the Tigers blew a 9-point lead against Kansas with 2:12 to play in the National Championship Game. But like the Kirk era, Calipari’s reign was tainted by NCAA penalties that forced them to vacate all of their ’08 wins, after it was found that superstar PG Derrick Rose had been ineligible because of a fraudulent SAT score.

26. North Carolina State Wolfpack (+12.23)

Record: 569-410 (.581)
Prominent Coaches: Jim Valvano, Herb Sendek
Best NCAA Finish: Won National Championship (1983)

No one could blame you for wondering how NC State ranks so high, especially given their irrelevance in recent seasons. I mean, Sidney Lowe‘s teams have won 20 games twice but have yet to make an NCAA field, and Herb Sendek assembled a series of good but hardly great Wolfpack squads. However, NC State doesn’t really make this list on the strength of anything that’s happened in the past 20 years… To see why State ranks so high, you just have to go back to one man: Jim Valvano. Jimmy V. took control of a program that had been good (occasionally brilliant, see 1974) but inconsistent under Norm Sloan, and turned it into a perennial contender. From 1981-90, Valvano’s Wolfpack finished outside the top 20 in SRS just 3 times, with his magnum opus coming in 1983 (NCSU won the National Title on a last-second Dereck Whittenburg alley-oop to Lorenzo Charles). The ‘Pack then followed that up with Regional Finals appearances in ’85 & ’86, and a trio of +17 SRS teams in ’88, ’89, and ’90, giving Valvano one of the best 9-year runs of any coach since 1980. It’s certainly true that the end of his career was marred by scandal, and that NC State has not been able to recapture those glory days since (Sendek did an admirable job — his 2004 team was as good as any of Valvano’s — but he never got over the hump in the NCAA Tourney). Still, on average, Wolfpack fans have enjoyed some of the best basketball of any school since 1980.

Stay tuned for #21-25, coming Thursday…

About Neil Paine

I work for Sports-Reference.com. I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on August 3, 2010, in Analysis, History, NCAA, SRS. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. There’s a COLLEGE basketball now?

  2. Ha, yeah, all of a sudden. Kinda snuck up on everybody.

  3. This article is an absurd cock-tease. Holy crap do I want to see the whole list right now. Like, right now.

  4. Dear Mr. & Mrs. Rose,

    Your son is so good at playing basketball that the Memphis Tigers would like to offer him a full scholarship to attend our school and play for our Division 1 basketball program. We will pay for his tuition, his lodgings, his food, his books, his travel, provide free tutors, a weekly stipend, and all the Tigers sneakers and clothing he could want. We are willing to do all of this because we believe that his talent on the basketball court will help us to bring in significant revenue. We are not doing any of that because we believe in his ability or motivation as a student nor do we want him to reflect on our college as an educational institution in any way.

    However, it turns out that young Derrick earned a poor score on a standardized test meant to measure the basic scholastic aptitude of potential college students. The score was so poor that he does not qualify for our school or our athletic scholarship. We’d rather maintain the integrity of a system that expects star basketball players to attend minimum classes for 1 and a 1/2 semesters and lose out on all above-mentioned revenue (or “scratch” as the kids call it). Please do not call the number on the enclosed piece of paper. Please do not ask the person who answers to take the test in your son’s name.

    Thank you for your time and for helping Derrick apply to our school.

    Go Tigers!

    PS – We’ll send a car to bring your son’s things to campus in August.

  5. Kirk’s success came with a price, however, as recruiting violations led to NCAA sanctions that eventually stripped the team of accolades and cost him his job.

    But like the Kirk era, Calipari’s reign was tainted by NCAA penalties that forced them to vacate all of their ’08 wins

    It’s certainly true that the end of his career was marred by scandal

    Were stats from these years included in the overall results?

  6. Regardless of where the list goes, let’s all keep in mind that Duke sucks.

  7. duke, maryland, unc, arizona, kentucky, kansas, ucla,mich st.,uconn,utah

    as I try to predict the top ten

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