Gators head blue-chip programs positioned for success

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, Florida heads a list of blue-chip programs best positioned for continued success, writes Pat Forde.

Originally Published: May 11, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

After spending this week ranking the successes and failures of the past 10 years in college basketball, it's now time for the hard part: predicting the future.

Everyone is smart in hindsight. Not so many have the gift of foresight -- especially when the terrain shifts as rapidly as it does in college hoops.

The best players come and go faster than a Bob Huggins smile, and coaches shift allegiances almost as quickly, with program fortunes rising and sagging accordingly.

Consider: If this were 1997 and we were making a list of the 10 programs primed to dominate the next decade, Michigan State wouldn't have been on it. Neither would Florida, where the only thing that mattered was Steve Spurrier. Duke was feeling its way out of the Krzyzewski Dark Period. Connecticut was still searching for its first Final Four appearance.

Billy Donovan
Richard C. Lewis/WireImage.comWith Billy Donovan in charge, the Gators should remain a leading program.
Those four schools went on to win six of the next 10 national titles and make 12 Final Four appearances. So things can change.

The primary ingredients needed to win for the next decade are simple enough: a winner coach who wants to be there for the long haul; an established recruiting base, either locally or a "pipeline" to a talent hotbed; all the facilities necessary to attract players and appease coaches; a fan base that cares; and the chance to dominate a league and/or receive high NCAA Tournament seeds.

Mix it together and you have my choice for the program ideally positioned to rule college basketball well into the future: Florida.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Florida is best positioned to continue its previously established run as the program of the 21st century.

The Gators clearly are the "Now" program -- even if they take two steps backward in 2007-08 after losing the Back-To-Back Boys. Unless Billy Donovan goes pro, it's hard to see Florida backsliding dramatically.

The money and administrative backing will be there. The recruits will be there -- both in-state and everywhere else, since Florida has established itself as a national recruiting power. The facilities will be there (Florida built a sparkling practice facility before those became a must-have recruiting bauble). Just keep the coach and a quality staff there, and this should be self-sustaining.

Donovan will be 42 when the 2007-08 season starts. He could easily have another 20-25 years left in him, if he wants it. And he could conceivably have them all in Gainesville, becoming Krzyzewski South.

He's already got a head start on Coach K. Donovan has two national titles. Coach K was 44 when he won his first of three.

The Gators have been to nine straight NCAA Tournaments and won two straight championships. Expect more of both. We'll still be talking about them 10 years from now, provided Billy The Kid becomes Billy The Middle Aged in Gainesville.

After Florida, the smart choices to lead college basketball for the next decade are some of the usual suspects: North Carolina, UCLA and Kentucky.

They're blue-chip stocks, virtually recession-proof (give or take a Matt Doherty, or the final years of the Steve Lavin Era). The momentum of tradition, the unwavering administrative emphasis and omnipresent fan pressure to win big sustains their success.

And that success isn't automatically tied to whoever is sitting in the big chair. Four different coaches have won a national title at Kentucky, three at Carolina, and five different men have taken UCLA to the Final Four.

Roy Williams is rolling in Chapel Hill -- though, at age 56, he's much closer to the end than the beginning of his career. But even if he retires tomorrow, it's hard not to imagine North Carolina making a quality hire to replace him.

Ben Howland is recruiting formidably at UCLA, and California never runs out of prospects. He will be challenged, though, by rival USC, which has Tim Floyd and a new arena going for it. This rivalry could challenge North Carolina-Duke and Louisville-Kentucky as the nation's best in the coming years.

Billy Gillispie already is manically pulling strings to upgrade Kentucky's recruiting from the Tubby Smith Era, which means he should end the school's longest-ever Final Four drought (nine years and counting) before too long. And if he doesn't, they'll bring in someone who can.

Rick Pitino
Jim Rogash/WireImage.comDon't look now, but Rick Pitino's Cardinals are a national threat again.
Kansas, another old-money program, should be fine for the long haul. Bill Self is recruiting well enough to make a Final Four an eventuality -- but the longer he goes without getting there, the more the pressure grows. Ol' Roy never delivered a national title to Lawrence, but he got to the season's final weekend multiple times.

Texas mirrors Kansas in some ways. Rick Barnes will get players. The question is how far his coaching will take them -- and how long they will stay in school.

The places that could be in slippery territory are the aging one-man dynasties. That would be Duke, Connecticut and Arizona.

I believe the Blue Devils will remain powerful post-Krzyzewski, but with him at age 60, we're not too far from finding out. Compared to Duke, UConn and Arizona had less tradition before Jim Calhoun and Lute Olson, respectively. We'll see what happens after they're gone.

The most intriguing conference to watch could be the Big Ten. Tom Izzo is the straw boss, but he's shown mild signs of wanderlust. Even if he stays in East Lansing until retirement, has he ceded control of the conference to recruiting dynamo Thad Matta and Ohio State? What about Indiana, where Kelvin Sampson is stockpiling talent for a return to prominence? And can terminally underrated Wisconsin upgrade its athleticism for a run at the nation's elite?

Louisville is poised to take over the Big East. The Cardinals should start next season in the top 10, Rick Pitino has signed a contract extension through 2013, and they will move into a new downtown arena later this decade that should buttress recruiting. Pitino could have had multiple NCAA titles at Kentucky; he might yet become the first coach to win titles at two different schools before he retires.

The wild card on my list is Memphis. Predictions that being stuck with increasingly mediocre Conference USA would kill the Tigers have not panned out. They've won 30-plus games and reached the regional finals the past two years, and they're Andy Katz's pre-preseason No. 1 for 2007-08. If John Calipari keeps recruiting, continues his aggressive nonconference scheduling and stops gawking at other jobs, Memphis is here to stay.

Of course, this is all subject to change. By 2017 we might all be discussing 10 years of Northwestern dominance.

Or not.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.