On January 6, I posted my rankings of the top 20 active tourney coaches. I figured it was time to do the same thing for the top tourney teams. As with the coaches, I’m basing my analysis on five factors:
- How many times the team has gone to the dance.
- What they’ve accomplished in their appearances.
- What their win/loss record has been.
- The degree to which they’ve overachieved.
- What they’ve accomplished recently
Here’s my logic for choosing these factors. First of all, as Woody Allen puts it, 80 percent of success is being there. The fact that Duke has gone to 27 out of 28 64-team tourneys is, in itself, an accomplishment. Secondly, when it comes to the dance, success is the bottom line: how many championships have you won, Final Fours have you reached, and Elite Eights have you made. Third, apart from accomplishments, a team’s win/loss record is a key gauge to tourney success. Fourth, win/loss records need to be evaluated in the context of whether they constitute over- or underachievement. And, finally, recent history does matter: if all your success happened 15 years ago (I’m talking to you, Arkansas), that says something about your staying power. (The way I calculated recent performance was by taking the last ten years and ranking the teams on the four preceding factors.)
I restricted my evaluation to the 25 teams with at least 10 tourney trips and two Final Four appearances. I ranked each of these teams on the five factors, added the rankings together and came up with the following order of the best teams since the field expanded to the 64 contestants in 1985:
In the all-time coach ratings, Mike Krzyzewski tied with Roy Williams for the top spot. That’s because Coach K’s record of overachievement isn’t all that great—and his last decade has been decidedly rough. But Williams couldn’t overtake his arch-rival because his PASE is even lower than Krzyzewski’s, even though he rates out as the best coach of the last decade.
Much of Williams’ underachieving runs came when he was at Kansas—and Dean Smith was pacing the sidelines for the Tar Heels. That’s a big reason why North Carolina was able to overtake Duke in the team rankings. Just look at the numbers. Sure, Duke has more trips, more hardware and a better record (many will argue that’s enough), but the Tar Heels play better against their expectations…and have been dominant in the last decade.
In fact, the race for first place isn’t nearly as close as the battle for second. Kentucky is just one ranking position below Duke. The Wildcats’ strength is consistency across all the five factors. They weren’t the best in any category, but they ranked between third and sixth in all of them.
UConn isn’t far behind Kentucky in the race for third place. But the Huskies overall numbers took a big hit in the “appearances” category. They missed out on the first five dances of the modern era while Calhoun was coaching at Northeastern. Kansas and Florida, fifth and sixth respectively on this list, also suffered from one glaring chink in their armor. For the Jayhawks, it’s a surprisingly weak PASE value. For the Gators, it’s a dearth of appearances. Michigan State is right there with Florida—and has built its ranking on a more consistent performance across the five categories.
After these top seven teams, there’s a marked drop-off to the next tier of tourney teams. UCLA, Louisville and Syracuse round out the top 10, but they would need an amazing tourney run, perhaps a championship, to rise any higher on the list.
The teams ranked 11-25 are an interesting mixture of tourney fossils, one-hit wonders (well…technically two hits) and one surprise up-and-comer. Villanova, Arkansas, Michigan and UNLV all experienced their glory years nearly 20 dances ago. The same could be said for Arizona, Maryland and Indiana—though they’ve tasted more recent success. Then there’s a host of teams that have gotten close to greatness…but failed to reach it. I’d put Ohio State, Illinois. Georgetown and Oklahoma in that group. Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and LSU strike me as the flashes in the pan on this list.
Can you spot the one team we haven’t mentioned? That would be Butler. The Bulldogs are really the only program on this list whose success has come in the last few tournaments. Butler has a lot of catching up to do in tourney appearances, hardware and overall record. But they are the top overachieving squad…and among the best teams of the last decade.