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Top 10 College Basketball Programs of all time: Who is Number One?

Publish Date: 04/02/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Choosing the greatest college basketball program is not easy. Overall, these rankings look at which programs were consistently the best. If this list were made in 2000, a program like Indiana would be in the top three, but the last twenty years hurt its ranking. UCLA has won the most titles, but most were won decades ago, and the program has been spotty ever since. With a program like Kentucky or UCLA, cheating has to weigh in at least slightly. To me, the top seven was easy to do, and only where they ranked in the top seven was in question.

Video: Cincinnati wins 1962 NCAA basketball title

Cincinnati wins 1962 NCAA basketball title

10) Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans rank sixth all-time in NCAA Tournament victories (69), and their 52-21 record has become synonymous with March success thanks to Izzo’s 52-21 NCAA Tournament record. When Benjamin F. Van Alstyne coached this team from 1926-1949, Michigan State won 231 games and earned its place among Big Ten powers.

In 1957 and ’59, Forddy Anderson led Michigan State into the NCAAs; however, things truly took off when Heathcote took over in ’76. Since 1988, Michigan State has not missed out on the Big Dance once.

Magic Johnson and Greg Kesler won the title with Michigan State in 1979 in what would go down as one of college basketball’s all-time great games – also renowned as being watched by 35.1 million viewers. To this day, Michigan State boasts 214 wins over ranked opponents – the seventh-most all-time. MSU boasts an impressive list of greats that rival any other program: Johnson, Kesler, Scott Skiles, Steve Smith, Shawn Respert, Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Jason Richardson, Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green, Denzel Valentine, Cassius Winston and many others.

Video: 1979 MSU Basketball National Championship Celebration

1979 MSU Basketball National Championship Celebration

9) Villanova Wildcats

No team on this list has done more for its standings in the past decade than Villanova University, known as a modern blue blood. With three national championships (1985, 2016, 2018), and an annual preseason top 10 teams under Jay Wright’s guidance, Villanova has built a Big East dynasty that, since Wright has left has had some issues. Villanova’s proud history begins with their 1939 tournament appearance (in which they made it to the Final Four), followed by Alexander Severance’s reign (1936-60); then Jack Kraft took them even further in making NCAAs or NITs every year except one – including making the NCAA title game in 1971).

At first, Rollie Massimino faced some difficult seasons in the early ’70s; by 1980, Villanova had become a respected regular, culminating with an iconic victory in the 1985 championship game over rival Georgetown. Massimino would win 355 games for Nova before being replaced by Steve Lappas (174-101), which many considered a setback. But today, Wright finished his Nova career with an incredible 471-182 record, including two national titles and three Final Four appearances.

Video: 1985 Villanova Wildcats: The Story of the Underdogs

1985 Villanova Wildcats: The Story of the Underdogs

8) Louisville Cardinals

From 1944-67, this program has never had a bad coach(Until Chris Mack) – John Dromo went 443-183 from 1944-67 but still won 75% of his games (68-23).

Denny Crum departed his post as assistant coach at UCLA in 1971 to lead the Cardinals and elevate U of L into college basketball’s upper echelons. Over three decades (675-295), Crum won two national titles and had Louisville as competitive as any program of its era. He was succeeded by Pitino, who spent time with the Celtics but ultimately returned to college basketball and showed no lapse in ability. Charlie Tyra, Wes Unseld, Darrell Griffith, Pervis Ellison, Clifford Rozier and Russ Smith were unanimous All-Americans.

The best team in school history is, without doubt, that 1980 title-winning squad led by Griffith. Did you know: local legend has it that Cardinal hoops popularized the “high five” trend back then – spreading throughout all levels of basketball from Missouri Valley to Metro to Conference USA to Big East to American and now the ACC.

Video: History of Louisville Basketball 1990

History of Louisville Basketball 1990

7) Indiana Hoosiers

Bob Knight created an iconic institution in Bloomington, Indiana, by winning 659 games against 242 losses and remaining the last undefeated team since 1976. His most remarkable feat? Guiding an undefeated team one season after their 31-1 squad that lost in the Elite Eight. Knight and Indiana also won the title in 1981 and ’87, cementing themselves as one of college basketball’s premier programs from 1973 until the mid-’90s. Though his fiery temper and stubborn determination cost him his job eventually, he remains beloved by many in Indiana. His impact on basketball is undeniable with his groundbreaking motion offense. A quote that should stand the test of time when discussing basketball: “Basketball may have been invented in Massachusetts, but it was made for Indiana.”

Before Knight arrived, the Hoosiers had already achieved greatness – winning 399 games from 1938-65 under Branch McCracken and Harry Good. Their first national title came in 1940, followed by their second in 1953. Hoosier history is filled with legendary players, but none quite measure up to these consensus All-Americans: Ralph Hamilton, Don Schlundt, Scott May, Kent Benson, Isiah Thomas, Steve Alford, Calbert Cheaney, A.J. Guyton and Victor Oladipo are just a few.

Over the last two decades, Indiana University’s athletic program has taken a step backwards. Mike Davis led them to the title game in 2002, and Tom Crean helped salvage what momentum there was after NCAA sanctions under Kelvin Sampson had halted progress. Archie Miller was hired in 2017, and since then, his teams failed. Mike Woodson has taken over and the Hoosiers seem to be headed back in the right direction.

Video: 1981 Indiana national championship team reflects 35 years later

1981 Indiana national championship team reflects 35 years later

6) Kansas Jayhawks

Although Kansas University only won four national titles (1952, 1988, 2008 and 2022), their Final Four runs were numerous (12), and their 107 NCAA Tournament wins are the fourth most of all time. Kansas has made 30 straight NCAA Tournament appearances – an NCAA record – along with 240 wins over ranked opponents. On the consensus All-American list are Howard Engleman, Charlie Black, Clyde Lovellete, Chamberlain, Danny Manning, Raef LaFrentz Paul Pierce, Drew Gooden, Nick Collison, Wayne Simien, Thomas Robinson Frank Mason and Devonte Graham; their list of outstanding Jayhawks requires multiple pages!

The Kansas Jayhawks have participated in some of the best Final Fours of all time.

Video: Danny Manning's dominant 1988 NCAA title game

Danny Manning’s dominant 1988 NCAA title game

5) UCLA Bruins

John Wooden built an unbreakable barrier of success and created a dynasty never to be replicated again in men’s Division I basketball. The Bruins kept winning, becoming one of the sports’ biggest stories from the mid-60s until 1975, when Wooden unexpectedly retired after winning his 10th and final championship. At present, UCLA holds a coaching record that appears near-impossible to break. With 17 wins over No. 1-ranked teams in its history and Wooden’s legacy not accounting for everything, UCLA remains at No. 4 all-time in college basketball history. In 1995, Jim Harrick led UCLA to victory with a championship title; three consecutive Final Four appearances followed in 2006-08 under Ben Howland for another rare post-Wooden era feat.

Video: UCLA Bruins - 1969

UCLA Bruins – 1969

4) UCONN Huskies

When looking back to the 1990s, several programs stand out for how they achieved new heights in sports. UConn is a prime example – Jim Calhoun redefined what was possible at this northeast outpost when he arrived from Northeastern in 1986 and transformed them into national powers within just over a decade.

UConn wasn’t just successful with Calhoun. It also made the NCAAs in 1951, 1954, ’56-60, ’63-65′, and 1967’76’79. So there must have been something there! Calhoun unlocked a huge opportunity, drawing some top talent from across America to a small farm town nestled deep within Connecticut’s core.

UConn’s 1999 championship win against Duke marked a turning point in college athletics. Led by Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin, Kevin Freeman and Ricky Moore, Duke had been widely predicted to win with one of its greatest rosters ever — but UConn proved them wrong with three more championships (2004, 2011 and 2014) featuring six consensus All-Americans including Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier – forever altering the landscape forever.



3) Duke Blue Devils

Before Krzyzewski, Duke had its fair share of success. From 1940-1979 it made eight NCAA Tournaments and four Final Fours under Coach Vic Bubas (213-67), who led from 1959-69. Duke was an excellent ACC program before Coach K took charge; under him, it has become a platinum college basketball power with 29 wins over No. 1-ranked teams – the most in college basketball – as well as 114 NCAA Tournament, wins to date (ranked third all time).

The Blue Devils have been in multiple buzzer-beating March Madness shots, and they were more often than not on the winning side of the shot.

Video: Duke is King: CBS Sports Official 1991 NCAA Campionship Video

Duke is King: CBS Sports Official 1991 NCAA Campionship Video

2) North Carolina Tar Heels

College basketball royalty at its finest. UNC’s Dean Smith and Roy Williams — combined for six tournament titles and 1,764 career wins — are unbeatable as coaches. The Tar Heels won their first title in 1957 by going 32-0 under Frank McGuire, with Lennie Rosenbluth and Pete Brennan leading the charge. It wasn’t until 1982 that Michael Jordan hit a shot with 17 seconds remaining against Georgetown that UNC would secure another championship; even then MJ wasn’t even UNC’s best player; he was an understudy to James Worthy and Sam Perkins.

Some of the best college basketball players of all time were North Carolina Tar Heels!

Video: Michael Jordan's game-winner vs. Georgetown (1982) | FINAL MINUTE

Michael Jordan’s game-winner vs. Georgetown (1982) | FINAL MINUTE

1) Kentucky Wildcats

UK has won 131 NCAA Tournament games – more than any other team ever. They also have the most wins in history. UK also boast 21 Elite Eight appearances (excluding years where it went to the Final Four) which is by far the highest total ever. Kentucky also ranks No. 1 for college basketball rankings with 919 weeks, surpassing No. 2 North Carolina by nine. Kentucky’s dominance over SEC play has been astounding; 47 regular-season titles plus 17 Final Four appearances have allowed it to move past competition by far.

The biggest issue is how the Wildcats got to number one, as they have also been the most corrupt program in history, and they are head and shoulders above everyone else in that area also.

Video: 1978 NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four Highlights

1978 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four Highlights “Kentucky Countdown””

Honorable Mentions

Syracuse Orangemen

There has been controversy, highs and lows throughout Orange hoops history. Jim Boeheim won 1,069 games in 44 seasons (though more than 100 have been taken off the books).

Syracuse’s home venue, the Carrier Dome, is part of college hoops’ iconic viewing tapestry as it has been their go-to stadium for nearly three decades and remains unique to this sport. Basketball teams tend to use this venue instead of the more traditional stadium, as football was never popular enough for it to remain a football-only venue for decades. Since 1939, these have been the consensus All-Americans: Dave Bing (1966), Derrick Coleman(1991), Billy Owens(1991), Hakim Warrick(2005) and Wes Johnson(2010). No, Carmelo Anthony wasn’t a unanimous pick in 2002-03 when he, Gerry McNamara, Warrick and Kuyth Duany led Cuse University to its only national championship. Pearl Washington did not make the list, but he, Anthony, Leo Rautins, Danny Schayes, John Wallace, Etan Thomas, Jonny Flynn, Dion Waiters and Tyler Ennis all made top-20 picks out of college.

Video: Syracuse vs Kansas| 2003 NCAAM Basketball Championship Highlights

Syracuse vs Kansas| 2003 NCAAM Basketball Championship Highlights

Cincinnati Bearcats

Cincinnati may not be a top 25 team entering this season, but since 1940 they have consistently produced Final Four-worthy teams, produced pros, been an anchor in the AP Top 25, and often found themselves at or near the top of their conference. In eight seasons, Cincinnati has made 23 out of 31 Big Dances while playing conference hopscotch – from Missouri Valley to independence to Metro to Big Midwest to Conference USA to Big East to American.

No team in this ranking top 25 has moved around more than Cincinnati, yet they didn’t get overwhelmed by it. That is truly remarkable – UC won the 1961 and ’62 national championships, plus made the Final Four four other times: 1959, ’60 and ’63. Through the first 15 years of the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati was consistently one of the top programs in college basketball. Oscar Robertson – NPOY in 1959 and 1960 – remains legendary among Bearcats fans. Other greats of Bearcat basketball include Ron Bonham, Tom Thacker, Danny Fortson, Kenyon Martin and Steve Logan – all consensus All-Americans. Gary Clark and Jarron Cumberland have also been stellar performers recently.

Video: Cincinnati wins 1962 NCAA basketball title

Cincinnati wins 1962 NCAA basketball title

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