Best college basketball programs of all time — ranked

michigan college basketball
AP Photo/Tony Ding

College basketball has been around since the 1890s, and in the roughly 130 years it has been played, some programs have singled themselves out. There are currently more than 350 schools across America that play Division I men’s basketball in the NCAA, which is nearly three times the number that play college football at the top level, meaning the competition to rule the sport is extremely fierce.

MORE: Watch NCAA star Caitlin Clark break the women’s basketball scoring record

We’ve gone back through the long history of college hoops and picked out the best college basketball programs that have proven to be best in the sport over the long haul. A combination of legendary coaches, players, academic excellence, culture and consistent winning make these programs the greatest in history.

30. San Francisco Dons

It’s been a couple decades since the San Francisco Dons made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but there was a time when they were as dominant as any program in history. From 1955-1979, USF made the Sweet 16 on 12 different occasions and won the national championship back to back in 1955 and 1956, making them one of only seven programs to ever win consecutive titles. The school’s 1955-56 team was the first to ever go undefeated through the regular season and tournament, and the program eventually won 60 consecutive games, including that run. Hall of Famers Bill Russell and K.C. Jones helped make that powerful period a reality.

AP Photo/Peter Morrison

29. Temple Owls

Temple has been playing college basketball since 1895, making it one of the oldest programs in the sport. In all that time, the Owls have racked up more than 1,900 wins and had the fifth-most victories in NCAA history coming into the 2020-21 season. Despite having never won a championship in the NCAA Tournament era, which started in 1939, the Philadelphia-based program has produced three Hall of Famers, including legendary coaches John Chaney and Harry Litwack. Unlike some older programs that have slipped out of relevance, Temple has made appearances in the NCAA Tournament in every decade since the 1940s.

AP Photo/Skip Peterson

28. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Before Oklahoma State pulled it off in 1944 and 1945, no program in college basketball had won back-to-back national championships. The program was known as the Oklahoma A&M Aggies at that point, and they were ahead of their time due to the recruitment of Hall of Famer Bob Kurland, who is regarded as the first dominant big man to play the sport. In total, the Cowboys have reached the Final Four six times across four different decades.

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

27. Utah Utes

It might surprise you to know that Utah ranks behind only UCLA and Arizona in terms of NCAA Tournament berths for programs in the Western U.S. The Utes have been to the Big Dance 27 times since 1944, when they won their only national title so far, including at least one trip every decade since then. The program has been to the Final Four four times, including twice in the 1960s under Hall-of-Fame coach Jack Gardner. The program ranks in the NCAA’s top 15 for total wins and overall win percentage.

AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens

26. Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Pacific Northwest isn’t widely regarded as a hotbed for college hoops dominance, but this team, based in Spokane, Washington, has been working hard to change that. Gonzaga has made 22 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1995, including a berth in every one since 1999. The Bulldogs were the third-winningest program in the nation during the decade from 2000-2009 and the second-winningest program during the decade from 2010-2019, according to the NCAA. The team also has a record of scholastic excellence that puts many bigger ones to shame, producing eight Academic All-Americans, which is the sixth most in history.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

25. LSU Tigers

The LSU Tigers are another one of those college basketball programs that have earned a spot among the all-time greats despite never winning a championship. The team has reached four Final Fours since 1953 and were constantly making deep runs from the late 1970s through the 1980s. Their 12 SEC regular season championships are tied at second in conference history, and their four Hall of Famers are a testament to the tradition of the program. Three of those are players which rank among the absolute best to ever pick up a basketball: Pete Maravich, Bob Pettit and Shaquille O’Neal.

AP Photo/Vasha Hunt

24. Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin hasn’t won the NCAA Tournament since 1941, but it’s not because the program hasn’t been in competition for the crown. The Badgers have made the Final Four three times since 2000 and have missed the tournament only once since 1999. They constantly seem to be in the running to win the Big Ten conference, which is one of the most competitive leagues in the sport every season, and have won the regular season title five times since 2002. Wisconsin is tied with UCLA for consensus All-American selections, having had 21 of them over the years.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

23. Purdue Boilermakers

The state of Indiana is steeped in college basketball tradition, and Purdue has done its part to add to that lore. The Boilermakers have been playing hoops since 1896 and have amassed more than 1,800 wins as a program and 24 Big Ten regular season championships, which are the most in the history of that great conference. Purdue’s 26 consensus All-Americans are tied with blue-blood powerhouses Duke and Kentucky for the third most in NCAA history. The team has been a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament in the past four decades, making 29 bids since 1980.

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

22. Houston Cougars

In the early 1980s, Houston’s Hall-of-Fame coach Guy Lewis led the program to pioneer a thrilling new style of high-flying basketball that would become the envy of the entire sport. The Cougars reached the Final Four in three consecutive seasons from 1982-1984, which makes them one of only seven programs to reach that plateau at least that many times in a row. Those teams, known by the immortal nickname of “Phi Slamma Jamma,” included two all-time greats in Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Unfortunately, they’ve never won a championship, despite also reaching the Final Four in 1967 and 1968, the latter coming after an undefeated regular season.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

21. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

It’s now been 30 years since UNLV reached the Elite Eight at the NCAA Tournament, which marked the end of one of the most dominant stretches for any program in history. From 1987-1991, the Runnin’ Rebels reached that plateau four times, reached the Final Four three times and won a national championship. Few programs in the nation have had an entire season where they were ranked atop the AP Poll from start to finish, but UNLV did just that in 1991, when they completed one of the few undefeated regular seasons in modern hoops history.

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

20. North Carolina State Wolfpack

The 1983 NC State team that stunned the sports world by winning the national championship under beloved head coach Jim Valvano ranks among the most iconic squads in the history of college hoops. That Cinderella team, which included no Hall of Famers, marked the second title team for the program, which won its first in 1974. That first championship team was truly dominant, finishing the year 30-1 on the play of the great David Thompson and bringing an end to UCLA’s run of seven consecutive titles. The Wolfpack ranks in the top 25 for all-time wins as a program, having earned more than 1,750 of them so far.

AP Photo/Al Behrman

19. St. John’s Red Storm

While St. John’s has yet to win the NCAA Tournament, they’ve won more National Invitation Tournament titles than any other program, dating back to when that was considered the more prestigious event of the two. Along with five NIT championships — not including one that was later vacated — the Red Storm has played in two Final Fours and reached the NCAA Tournament 30 times since 1951. They rank in the all-time top 10 for wins, as a program as well as in the top 20 for both overall win percentage and total first-round NBA Draft picks.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

18. Michigan Wolverines

If it wasn’t for the NCAA violations that Michigan’s basketball program committed in the 1990s, they would likely be a lot higher on this list. Even with the 1992 and 1993 runs to the Final Four — among other accomplishments from that decade — officially erased from the record books due to self-imposed sanctions, the Wolverines have still left quite a mark on the sport. Michigan’s only national title came in 1989, but they’ve made six trips to the Final Four that haven’t been purged.

Michigan has come back strong in recent years, making the NCAA Tournament in all but one season from 2011-2019 and reaching the Sweet 16 five times in that span.

AP Photo/Tony Ding

17. Arkansas Razorbacks

Ask any Arkansas basketball fan about “40 minutes of Hell” and, chances are, a huge smile will cross their face as they revisit the 1990s. Led by Hall-of-Fame coach Nolan Richardson, the Razorbacks were as good during that decade as any program in the nation and were arguably more exciting to watch than any of them. Players like Todd Day and Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson exemplified the team’s run-and-gun style, which left opponents doubled over and struggling for breath. Arkansas has made six Final Four appearances, including three in the 1990s that culminated with the championship in 1994 and a trip to the title game in 1995.

They also rank in the NCAA’s top 30 for both total wins and overall win percentage.

AP Photo/Bob Jordan

16. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

It’s somewhat incredible that Notre Dame has never cut down the nets after the NCAA Tournament despite the number of great teams they’ve put together over the years. The Irish have been a mainstay of the Big Dance since the 1950s and have made the Elite Eight seven times, including most recently in 2015 and 2016. The 1978 edition was the only time the historic program has reached the Final Four, but it has racked up nearly 2,000 wins total since 1896, ranking eighth in the NCAA’s all-time ledger.

Notre Dame’s 23 consensus All-Americans and 13 Academic All-Americans rank them in the top five for both of those prestigious categories.

AP Photo/David Richard

15. Arizona Wildcats

In the decades since UCLA’s ruthless run of dominance that ended in the 1970s, Arizona has taken the mantle as arguably the best college hoops program in the West. From 1985-2009, the Wildcats didn’t miss the NCAA Tournament once and have only missed it twice since then. NCAA sanctions stemming from rules violations that happened under Hall-of-Fame coach Lute Olson have erased some of the team’s accomplishments but left its 1997 championship and four trips to the Final Four untouched.

Arizona’s all-time win percentage of .657 is the ninth best in NCAA history, and they also rank in the top 10 for total weeks atop the AP Poll and first-round NBA Draft picks.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

14. Georgetown Hoyas

When Georgetown basketball comes up, most people immediately picture the tough-as-nails teams of the 1980s and coach John Thompson barking in front of the bench with a white towel draped over his shoulder. While that era produced the program’s only national title, in 1984, and three of its five Final Four runs, the Hoyas have a wealth of hoops history. With four former men’s basketball players in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Georgetown is tied at second all-time in that elite category. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament 30 times since 1943, including every edition from 1979-1992 and nine times since 2001.

AP Photo

13. Louisville Cardinals

Another team that would be higher ranked if not for shocking rules violations, Louisville holds the distinction of being the only men’s basketball program in Division I that has had a national championship taken away by the NCAA. Looking beyond that unfortunate period in the early 2010s, however, Louisville has been one of the most consistent programs in the sport for decades. They won two national championships in the 1980s under Hall of Famer Denny Crum and have been to the Final Four eight times — not counting two trips that were vacated due to the aforementioned scandal.

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

12. Syracuse Orange

Now in his 45th season coaching the Syracuse Orange, Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim is the longest-tenured coach in the sport by a decent margin, and his name is synonymous with the program he’s built. The team has made six Final Fours, five of which came under Boeheim’s direction, including one in every decade since the 1970s. He’s had them in the title game three times, winning it all in 2003, and the Orange have missed the tournament just nine times since he took over in 1976. All the winning that has gone with those great seasons has given the program the seventh-best winning percentage in NCAA history at .676 as of 2021.

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

11. Michigan State Spartans

Speaking of programs that are synonymous with a single coach, Tom Izzo has been leading Michigan State’s team since 1995 and has made them a national powerhouse. The Spartans had won a national championship in 1979, with the legendary Magic Johnson as their star attraction, but the team only made sporadic appearances in the NCAA Tournament from then until Izzo’s tenure began. Since 1998, Michigan State hasn’t missed the Big Dance, making 28 consecutive bids, eight runs to the Final Four and another championship in 2000.

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

10. Cincinnati Bearcats

The proud history of the Cincinnati Bearcats has included several periods of utter dominance that make them one of the greatest programs ever. UC has reached the Final Four six times, a remarkable five of which came consecutively from 1959-1963, when the program was arguably the best in the nation. They won back-to-back national championships in 1961 and 1962 and lost in the title game in 1963 while going for the ultra-rare three-peat. They got back to greatness in the 1990s and have made 23 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1992.

AP Photo/Troy Glasgow

9. Ohio State Buckeyes

From 1960-1962, Ohio State spent 27 consecutive weeks atop the AP men’s basketball rankings, which is the second-longest such streak in history. They won the national championship in 1960, the only one so far for the historic program, and were runners up in 1961 and 1962. Following a period in the late 1990s/early 2000s that saw four NCAA Tournament appearances vacated due to rules violations, the program has become a consistent power again, missing the tourney just three times since 2006. OSU is also one of the elite programs that has reached at least 10 Final Fours and has sent four players to the Hall of Fame.

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

8. Villanova Wildcats

Villanova’s 1985 run to the national championship as a No. 8 seed is still the greatest Cinderella story in NCAA Tournament history and set off a few decades of consistent greatness from the program that continues now. The Wildcats have made the tourney at least once in every decade since the 1930s, including a bid in the charter 1939 event. Since that 1985 title, they’ve made the Sweet 16 on seven occasions and have won additional championships in 2016 and 2018, making Villanova one of only eight schools with at least three men’s basketball titles.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

7. UConn Huskies

While the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball program has justifiably eclipsed the men’s team in the national spotlight, those Huskies have still accomplished a great deal in their sport. UConn is one of only six men’s basketball programs in history to have won at least four national championships, with each of those coming for the Huskies since 1999. The team has been remarkably efficient in its pursuit of titles, failing to win it all in just one of its five Final Four appearances. If they are in the Big Dance, it’s very hard to bet against the Huskies.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

6. Indiana Hoosiers

The 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers are the last team in NCAA men’s basketball history that went undefeated through the regular season and NCAA Tournament, finishing at an immaculate 27-0. It was arguably the most memorable of the historic program’s five championship seasons, three of which came during their dominant period under controversial Hall of Famer Bob Knight in the 1970s and ’80s. The Hoosiers have produced six Hall of Famers, including four players, and 26 first-round NBA Draft picks, putting them in the rarest air.

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

5. Duke Blue Devils

Duke icon Mike Krzyzewski might be the single greatest head coach in men’s college basketball history, as he’s built the program into one of the most prestigious in the nation since taking over in 1980. The Blue Devils had played in the national championship game twice before his tenure began but has played in it nine times since he started, winning the title five times. The program has reached the Final Four 16 times — 12 of which have come under Coach K — and have missed the NCAA Tournament just once since 1984.

The fact that virtually all of Duke’s success has come under a single coach dings their overall legacy a bit, but you can’t argue with stats like 2,200 wins and a .711 win percentage, both of which are fourth in NCAA history.

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

4. UCLA Bruins

When you talk about teams that had an unprecedented run of dominance under a single head coach, UCLA has to immediately come to mind. From 1948-1975, Hall of Famer John Wooden led the Bruins to have the greatest dynasty that men’s basketball has ever seen, rattling off accomplishments that can hardly be believed. They won 10 national championships in his tenure, including seven consecutive titles from 1967-1973. Wooden’s Bruins were basically untouchable, winning an NCAA-record 88 consecutive games from 1971-1974 in a run that will likely never be matched. Following Wooden’s era, the Bruins came back to earth but won a record 11th championship in 1995.

AP Photo

3. Kansas Jayhawks

While the number of championships Kansas has won pales in comparison to those owned by UCLA, the Jayhawks have a richer history over an extended period of time. The program has sent a record-tying five players to the Hall of Fame and is the only one to have had at least 30 consensus All-Americans. Kansas is one of just eight schools to have won at least three national titles, and they’ve made the Final Four 15 times, including at least once in all but one decade since the 1940s. The Jayhawks virtually dominate the Big 12 year in and year out and have missed the NCAA Tournament just once since 1984.

Even more impressive is their list of more than 2,300 total wins as a program, which ranks second in NCAA history as of the 2020-21 season.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

2. Kentucky Wildcats

Perhaps the ultimate blue bloods in the world of college basketball, the Kentucky Wildcats have been dominating the sport going back to the 1940s. UK’s eight national titles are second only to UCLA but are perhaps more impressive because they came in five different decades and under five head coaches. No school has produced more first-round NBA Draft picks than Kentucky, but their recent legacy of one-and-done freshman stars has hurt the sport in the eyes of many and adds to a list of problematic practices carried out by the program that has a long list of winning head coaches with spotty personal legacies.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

1. North Carolina Tar Heels

James Worthy, Bob McAdoo and a guy named Michael Jordan are among the list of basketball legends that have played for the North Carolina Tar Heels. The program is tied with Kansas as the most prolific producer of Hall-of-Fame players, with five of them being enshrined after leaving Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have won the NCAA Tournament six times, with those victories coming in five different decades and under three different head coaches. That is evidence of a winning culture that transcends individuals and makes North Carolina one of the all-time great programs.

Their record 20 Final Four appearances and 14 wins over the No. 1-ranked team are just further indicators of UNC’s immense standing in the sport.

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

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About the Author
Clint Davis
Clint has watched way too many TV shows and movies and makes a great partner for trivia night. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, baby son and two massive dogs.

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