clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ranking the Best NCAA Basketball Programs, 2016 Edition

New, 52 comments

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Another NCAA Tournament has ended; the confetti has fallen in Houston, Villanova has prevailed, and Twitter is overflowing with pictures of arguably the greatest basketball player of all time openly weeping. In other words, it's your average Internet Tuesday. With the NCAA basketball season all wrapped up, it's time for me to update my incredibly flawed look at the best basketball programs in D1. I was too lazy forgot to update the rankings last year so there was a bit more data entry than normal, but I went the extra mile because that's how much I care about being thorough. Or I have too much spare time; it's definitely one or the other. OK, it's definitely the other.

A reminder on the rules of this system that I totally didn't plagiarize from Bob Sturm:

  1. The NIT is great for bad programs that are looking for signs of progress or good programs that need a consolation prize for a disappointing season, but let's be honest: nobody at a school the level of the top 25 in this list cares about anything other than NCAA appearances, so I'm not giving points for NIT/CBI/etc. appearances.
  2. NCAA coaches & programs at the upper tiers are generally judged(fairly or not) on how many Final Fours & National Championships they achieve. Hell, even in 'Survivor' they make a big deal about making it to the Final Four. Reaching either/both of those markers got a bonus.
  3. The data goes from 1985 - 2016, the time in which the tournament has been a 64/68-team bracket.
  4. I am only looking at programs that have made it to at least one Final Four in that time frame, with two exceptions(Gonzaga Bulldogs & Xavier Musketeers). I could have delved deeper, but when you see the list you'll notice that there's little chance a team could crack this group without making a run to the final weekend at least once. There are currently 47 teams in my rankings, but if you can come up with a team I missed, by all means post it in the comments & I'll check the numbers.
  5. The point system:
    1 point for making the field of 68
    3 points for making the field of 64
    4 points for making the field of 32
    7 points for making the Sweet Sixteen
    11 points for making the Elite Eight
    18 points for making the Final Four
    29 points for making the National Championship
    47 points for winning the National Championship
  6. To be clear, the points are not cumulative in a given year. In other words, you don't get 14 points(3+4+7) for making the Sweet Sixteen, you get 7 points total. The maximum points a program can get in a given year is 47 points, and only if they win the title game.
  7. The percentages listed in 'Final Fours' & 'Sweet 16s' are percentages made when the team makes the NCAA Tournament. In other words, if a team made the tournament 20 times and made the Final Four 10 times, it will show 10/20 = 50%. This way it's more accurately reflecting success within the tournament by not counting the years they missed the tournament against them. Their success in making the tournament is shown in the "Make Tourney %" column.
  8. Rather than doing a standard top 25, I'm dividing into 4 categories: Blue Bloods, Elites, Challengers, and Honorable Mentions. There are noticeable strata within this list, and I feel like it should be highlighted as the differences illuminate why some programs have their reputations as the best of the best. In other words, why everybody loves to hate Duke.

Now that I've sufficiently muddied the waters, let's get to it.

Blue Bloods

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney %
Duke Blue Devils 518 16.1875 5 12(38.71%) 23(74.19%) 96.88%
North Carolina Tar Heels 410 12.8125 3 10(34.48%) 21(72.41%) 90.63%
Kentucky Wildcats 388 12.125 3 8(29.63%) 19(70.37%) 84.38%
Kansas Jayhawks 381 11.9063 2 8(25.81%) 20(64.52%) 96.88%

When people talk about the blue bloods, it begins and ends with these 4 schools. They have as many national championships as the next 8 schools combined, and they account for just over 40% of the NCs in the last 32 years. Even still, you could legitimately separate this again into "Duke" and "Everybody Else"; Coach K has Duke performing at a level nobody else can match. Consider that there's a nearly 4 in 10 shot that the Blue Devils make the Final Four each year they're in the tournament over a span of 3+ decades, and they've missed the tournament exactly once in the last 32 years. The point differential between Duke and 2nd place UNC is the largest point differential in this list and it includes UNC's 2nd place finish against Villanova last night (i.e. the difference was even bigger 24 hours ago). So yea, this is why everybody hates Duke. That, and their never-ending string of white guys with supremely punchable faces & potential ties to alleged serial killers.


Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney %
Connecticut Huskies 311 9.7188 4 5(25%) 14(70%) 62.5%
Michigan State Spartans 267 8.3438 1 7(26.92%) 15(57.69%) 81.25%
Arizona Wildcats 265 8.2813 1 4(13.33%) 16(53.33%) 93.75%
Syracuse Orange 256 8.00 1 5(19.23%) 14(53.85%) 81.25%
Louisville Cardinals 250 7.8125 2 4(16.67%) 14(58.33%) 75%
Florida Gators 237 7.4063 2 5(26.32%) 10(52.63%) 59.38%
UCLA Bruins 221 6.9063 1 4(16.67%) 13(54.17%) 75%

A lot of people are probably keen on placing UConn into the Blue Bloods category, and I can understand the argument. Right now, the Huskies are in no man's land, separating themselves from the Elites but not making up enough ground to quite bridge the gap. It really boils down to how often they miss the tournament altogether; they boom & bust more than anybody else in the Blue Blood discussion. From 2010-2015, they won 2 NCs and missed the tourney 3 times, that's about the highest delta in the field. Michigan State has a well-deserved reputation in March, but their ranking lags due to their performance (or lack thereof) prior to Tom Izzo running the program. If you started counting in 1995, Michigan State is sitting right next to Kansas in total points. Every team in this group has some sort of minor ding against it that keeps it from making the leap to the highest tier, but they're still near the top of the D1 pyramid.


Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney %
Michigan Wolverines 203 6.3438 1 4(22.22%) 7(38.89%) 56.25%
Indiana Hoosiers 197 6.1563 1 3(12%) 10(40%) 78.13%
Villanova Wildcats 194 6.0625 2 3(15%) 7(35%) 62.5%
Oklahoma Sooners 173 5.4063 0 3(12.5%) 10(41.67%) 75%
Arkansas Razorbacks 162 5.0625 1 3(16.67%) 6(33.33%) 56.25%
Georgetown Hoyas 153 4.7813 0 2(9.52%) 9(42.86%) 65.63%
Maryland Terrapins 152 4.75 1 2(10.53%) 9(47.37%) 59.38%
Wisconsin Badgers 150 4.6875 0 3(15%) 9(45%) 62.5%
Ohio State Buckeyes 145 4.5313 0 3(16.67%) 8(44.44%) 56.25%
UNLV Runnin' Rebels 143 4.4688 1 3(23.08%) 6(46.15%) 40.63%
Illinois Fighting Illini 137 4.2813 0 2(9.09%) 6(27.27%) 68.75%
Texas Longhorns 136 4.25 0 1(4%) 7(28%) 78.13%
Memphis Tigers 129 4.0313 0 2(11.76%) 7(41.18%) 53.13%

Now we're getting to the strobelite honeys. Whether it's having a history of unexpectedly early exits(Texas, Villanova), living on old glory days (UNLV, Arkansas), dealing with an extended absence (Michigan, Arkansas), or not practicing proper dental hygiene (Oklahoma, Arkansas), everyone in this list has a relatively major flaw in their resume that they need to overcome before they start migrating to the next level. Many of these names will likely be a tier higher or lower 5 years from now, given their current trajectories. Breaking news: standings change over time. This is the sort of in-depth analysis you get when you read my articles. The cut-off point between the Elites and Challengers is admittedly subjective, and I imagine there are Michigan/Indiana fans who want to argue they should be a tier above. They likely have a point, but I left them here because their average points/tourney were enough lower than UCLA it merited a distinction. The good news is if they make a couple more deep runs in the next 3-4 years, they stand a good chance of moving up.

Honorable Mention

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney %
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 110 3.4375 0 2(13.33%) 6(40%) 46.88%
Oklahoma State Cowboys 110 3.4375 0 2(11.11%) 6(33.33%) 56.25%
Cincinnati Bearcats 109 3.4063 0 1(5%) 5(25%) 62.5%
Xavier Musketeers 106 3.3125 0 0(0%) 6(25%) 75%
Utah Utes 105 3.2813 0 1(6.25%) 6(37.5%) 50%
Butler Bulldogs 104 3.25 0 2(15.38%) 4(30.77%) 40.63%
Gonzaga Bulldogs 101 3.1563 0 0(0%) 7(36.84%) 59.38%

This group is where the data starts getting really...interesting, I guess? The points are scarce enough here that things start to lose their cohesion. You have teams like Xavier & Gonzaga who rolled up points by marking themselves 'present' on the roll and heading home (the Zags have bounced in the 1st weekend a Lute Olson-esque 11 times since 2002, Xavier 11 times since 1997) or by making 1-2 deep runs (Butler scored 58% of their points in 2 years). Otherwise, there's not a lot to write home about here; these teams could conceivably make a charge up the standings with the right coach staying in place for an extended period of time(I'm looking at you, Brad Underwood) or by taking the next step and getting to the 2nd weekend of the tourney on a regular basis(I'm looking at you, Larry Chr-Kri-Krv...the Utah Coach).

In Case You're Curious

The next 5 out: Missouri Tigers, LSU Tigers, Stanford Cardinal, West Virginia Mountaineers, St. John's Red Storm. A Final Four in the next 2-3 years would likely launch most of them into the Honorable Mention category, but they're all averaging less than 3 points/year as it stands right now.

One point worth noting: including the 'next 5 out' group, I've listed a total of 37 teams. There are currently 351 D1 basketball programs, and a shade over 10% of them are responsible for nearly all of the points accrued in this system. We like to talk about increasing parity and how the tournament is more wide open than ever - and to a small extent, it is - but that's only a relative statement. Florida is sitting at 10th place in this list; but to overtake Duke, they'd have to win the next 6 national championships and hope Duke missed the tournament for 6 years in a row. As much as we like to champion the rise of mid-major schools like VCU, the power is still largely concentrated at the top.

BWG's writing tunes provided by Steel Grooves (SFW-ish) & Reid Speed (SFW).