CBB: The Top 31 College Basketball Programs of the Last 31 Years (Part II)
See also: Part I
25. Ohio State Buckeyes (+12.29 SRS)
Prominent Coaches: Eldon Miller, Jim O’Brien, Thad Matta
Best NCAA Finish: Lost National Final (2007)
Columbus, OH will always be a football town first and foremost, but the Bucks’ basketball team has also been deceptively competitive over the past 31 years. Under Eldon Miller & future Maryland coach Gary Williams in the 1980s, Ohio St. was frequently among the top 30 teams in the country, though they could never quite recapture the form of their 1980 team (Herb Williams, Kelvin Ransey, & Clark Kellogg led OSU to the Regional Semis & the 4th-best SRS in the country). That changed during the early years of Randy Ayers‘ tenure, when they went 53-10 in ’91 + ’92 en route to 2 Big Ten crowns and a Final Four near-miss in 1992. But after 1992 UPI POY Jim Jackson left school, OSU slipped badly, bottoming out at 6-22 in 1995. Ayers was then replaced by Jim O’Brien, who resuscitated the program and took them to a Final Four in just his 2nd year at the helm. From ’99-02, O’Brien’s Buckeyes had their most successful 4-year run since the early 1960s, although revelations about recruiting misdeeds cost him his job and forced the Buckeyes to vacate more than 3 years worth of results. Luckily, though, former Xavier coach Thad Matta was hired to pick up the pieces and he has simply led OSU to the best 6-year run in their history, solidifying their place on this list with 4 NCAA berths in the last 5 years (including a Championship Game appearance in ’07).
24. Oklahoma State Cowboys (+12.30 SRS)
Record: 615-355 (.634)
Prominent Coaches: Eddie Sutton
Best NCAA Finish: Lost National Semifinal (1995, 2004)
Doug Drinen‘s favorite team probably would not have made the Top 31 at all if it weren’t for long-defunct cargo airline Emery Worldwide. You see, in 1988, Emery employees found $1,000 in a package addressed to the father of L.A. basketball phenom Chris Mills. As it turned out, Kentucky assistant Dwane Casey had sent the package, ostensibly as part of a pay-for-play conspiracy to bring prospects to the Wildcats. Needless to say, the NCAA’s reaction was swift and severe. When the dust settled at UK, head coach Eddie Sutton was out of a job, but Oklahoma State — whose program had an average SRS rank of 77th nationally during the 80s — was more than happy to give him another chance. He rewarded them instantly with a 24-8 record — the first of 13 20-win seasons (including 6 top-10 SRS campaigns) during his 16 years in Stillwater. The only thing missing from Sutton’s resume at OSU was a national championship; twice he guided the Cowboys to the Final Four, only to be denied by eventual champ UCLA in ’95 and a heartbreaking Will Bynum layup in ’04. After Sutton resigned for personal reasons in 2006, his son Sean and current coach Travis Ford have kept the program from slipping too far, maintaining Oklahoma St. as a top-50 outfit.
23. Michigan Wolverines (+12.40 SRS)
Record: 494-377 (.567)
Prominent Coaches: Bill Frieder, Steve Fisher
Best NCAA Finish: Won National Championship (1989)
Many of the schools on this list are in the midst of their best days as we speak. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Wolverines aren’t one of those teams. U-M did virtually all of their damage under two coaches — Bill Frieder & Steve Fisher — and over an 11-year span (1984-94). Frieder had built Michigan into a top-15 squad within 4 years of his hiring, and the team finished in the SRS top ten 4 times in 5 years from 1985-89. But Frieder made a fatal mistake in ’89, announcing his intention to leave Michigan after the season for Arizona State on the eve of the NCAA Tournament. This didn’t sit well with AD Bo Schembechler, who ousted Frieder early and retained his assistant, Fisher, as the interim head coach. What followed was one of the most remarkable runs in tourney history, as Michigan rattled off 6 straight wins under their new coach and won the championship by 1 point in OT over Seton Hall. Obviously the “interim” part was dropped from Fisher’s title afterwards, and in 1991 he brought in perhaps the most heralded freshman class in history, the “Fab Five”: Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, & Ray Jackson. The Five took Michigan to back-to-back NCAA title game appearances, but they were unable to win a championship before leaving school. After they left, Fisher maintained a top-20 program through the mid-90s, but in 1997 he was dismissed because of a recruiting scandal that ultimately erased the Fab Five’s accomplishments from official NCAA records. Ever since, Michigan has been the 70th-best team in the country, and they’ve struggled to escape the bottom half of the Big Ten standings.
22. Virginia Cavaliers (+12.51 SRS)
Record: 587-386 (.603)
Prominent Coaches: Terry Holland, Jeff Jones
Best NCAA Finish: Lost National Semifinal (1981, 1984)
UVA doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for the top 25, but few teams did more damage during the 1980s + early ’90s. Under coach Terry Holland, the Ralph Sampson-fueled Cavs kicked off the eighties with 2 Final Four berths (and another near-miss) in 4 seasons from 1981-84. Then, after a year’s hiatus from the NCAA tourney, they went on to 4 more NCAA appearances in Holland’s final 5 years in Charlottesville, finishing the ’80s as one of the top 20 programs of the decade. Holland’s replacement was his former point guard Jeff Jones, who largely picked up where his mentor had left off — the Cavaliers were a top-25 SRS team in each of Jones’ first 3 seasons at the helm, and in 1995 they had the 8th-best rating in the country, beating favored UNC during the regular season and toppling Kansas in the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual runner-up Arkansas in the regional finals. But after a rough 19-loss ’98 campaign, Jones was fired, and his successor Pete Gillen struggled to keep the program in the nation’s top 50. Gillen himself was canned in 2005, and the Cavs have continued their downward slide under Dave Leitao & Tony Bennett. For the ‘Hoos, the first half of our 31-year spotlight was stellar, but the second half has been mostly uninspiring.
21. Missouri Tigers (+12.77 SRS)
Record: 645-348 (.650)
Prominent Coaches: Norm Stewart, Quin Snyder
Best NCAA Finish: Lost Regional Final (1994, 2002, 2009)
Mizzou are nothing if not the masters of cranking out solid seasons. Under Norm Stewart from 1980-99, their average national rank in SRS was 34.1, they only finished outside the top 40 six times, they were in their conference’s top 3 in SRS 10 times, they won 20+ games 13 times, and they went to 14 NCAA tournaments. Then-wunderkind coach Quin Snyder initially provided more of the same after taking over for Stewart in ’99-00, guiding the Tigers to 4 NCAA berths during his first 4 seasons in Columbia, peaking with 24 wins and a regional final loss in 2002. And even though Snyder’s magic wore off as his career progressed, his successor Mike Anderson has delivered his own set of solid results in recent years, going 54-18 over the past 2 seasons. Missouri has never been to a Final Four despite knocking on the door multiple times, but they have a strong history of putting themselves in a position to get there. If the Tigers’ next 31 years are anything like the last 31, they will eventually have their breakthrough.