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

See also: 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!

25. Ohio State Buckeyes (+12.29 SRS)

Record: 522-337
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.

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 5, 2010, in Analysis, History, NCAA, SRS. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Duff Soviet Union

    If you can calculate SRS, how about a top 25 single season teams of all time list?

  2. Duff Soviet Union

    It’s kind of funny that pretty much every program you’ve covered so far has been busted for recruiting violations. It really makes you roll your eyes when the likes of Vitale were trying to enforce an age limit (which totally wasn’t self serving at all. It was all in the best interests of the kids of course. Yep.) by talking about “the amateur ideal” and how college was so much morally superior to those pros who (gasp) make money playing basketball.

  3. Sure, here are the best SRS seasons since 1980 (the first year we have game-by-game scores):

    Year
    School
    Conf
    SRS
    W
    L
    WPct

    1999
    DUKE
    ACC
    34.80
    37
    2
    0.949

    2001
    DUKE
    ACC
    32.20
    35
    4
    0.897

    1996
    KEN
    SEC
    32.14
    34
    2
    0.944

    1991
    UNLV
    BIGW
    31.11
    34
    1
    0.971

    1992
    IND
    BG10
    30.06
    27
    7
    0.794

    1998
    DUKE
    ACC
    29.56
    32
    4
    0.889

    1988
    OKLA
    BIG8
    29.48
    35
    4
    0.897

    1997
    KEN
    SEC
    29.23
    35
    5
    0.875

    1993
    UNC
    ACC
    29.04
    34
    4
    0.895

    1988
    ARIZ
    PC10
    28.95
    35
    3
    0.921

    2002
    DUKE
    ACC
    28.93
    31
    4
    0.886

    2005
    UNC
    ACC
    28.43
    33
    4
    0.892

    1995
    KEN
    SEC
    28.28
    28
    5
    0.848

    1989
    ARIZ
    PC10
    27.93
    29
    4
    0.879

    1989
    MICH
    BG10
    27.64
    30
    7
    0.811

    1991
    ARKA
    SWC
    27.27
    34
    4
    0.895

    1991
    UNC
    ACC
    26.91
    29
    6
    0.829

    1993
    KEN
    SEC
    26.91
    30
    4
    0.882

    2008
    KAN
    BG12
    26.89
    37
    3
    0.925

    2001
    ARIZ
    PC10
    26.83
    28
    8
    0.778

    1998
    UNC
    ACC
    26.67
    34
    4
    0.895

    1997
    KAN
    BG12
    26.60
    34
    2
    0.944

    2007
    UNC
    ACC
    26.39
    31
    7
    0.816

    1990
    OKLA
    BIG8
    26.20
    27
    5
    0.844

    1999
    MARY
    ACC
    26.19
    28
    6
    0.824

    1986
    UNC
    ACC
    26.12
    28
    6
    0.824

    1996
    CONN
    BIGE
    26.05
    30
    2
    0.938

    1993
    DUKE
    ACC
    25.98
    24
    8
    0.750

    1993
    IND
    BG10
    25.84
    31
    4
    0.886

    2001
    STAN
    PC10
    25.77
    31
    3
    0.912

    Also, re: recruiting scandals, yes, it’s unfortunate that so many of these teams have had wins vacated due to improprieties. I decided to count the results even if the NCAA doesn’t, though, because what happened happened. Even if teams broke NCAA rules, you can’t just pretend those results never took place.

  4. wow, the battier-williams duke teams really dominated everyone

  5. That’s a dumb list u got. There’s no way that u can leave
    a program like UNLV off there n consider this blog relevant.

  6. Would it make you feel better to know that UNLV was #32?

  7. U left the 4th most winningest team off ur list.
    How can u explain that? We were ranked as 8th
    most prestigious b ball program by espn and we don’t make
    ur top 30? U obviously kno nothing about college athletics.

  8. Strength of schedule, my friend. UNLV had the 75th-best SOS of any team since 1980, which cost them significant points compared to schools from bigger conferences.

  9. Ok but look at UNLV’s record vs the bigger conferences.
    Also they r 33-16 in the big dance which is the ultimate test vs
    the best teams of that year. U have teams on ur list that hasn’t
    even won a national championship. Idk of u really think they ain’t
    deserving of it then there’s no point in arguing bout it.

  10. Remember, this rating takes into account average point differential in all games, and adjusts for SOS. So if you’re playing an average opponent 4 PPG worse than Duke’s avg. opponent, you have to beat those teams by 4 additional PPG just to keep up, and UNLV simply didn’t do that across all 3 decades.

    I personally have nothing against UNLV, and they actually had some years where they were truly amazing (the 1991 team had the 4th-best single season of any team since 1980). But unfortunately the numbers just weren’t there for them over all 31 years.

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