Commentary

Dissecting Sagarin's all-time rankings

Originally Published: October 5, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

I have absolutely no doubt that the first 1,195 pages of the brand-new "ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia" will thrill readers like a Phi Slama Jama alley-oop.

A book that weighs as much as Muggsy Bogues will settle a thousand bar bets. It will tickle your inner Vitale. It will educate the generations that never saw a Pete Maravich pass, a Lew Alcindor hook shot or a Bill Russell blocked shot.

[+] EnlargeCBE Cover
ESPNThe book is chock-full of brackets, polls, essays and team histories. Oh, and those all-time rankings are sure to catch your eye as well.

It will do all those things and more in the first 1,195 pages.

But just wait until you reach page 1,196.

That's when the arguing will start.

On that page, computer master Jeff Sagarin has applied his giant math brain to the history of college basketball and put it in an all-time pecking order. The Division I teams are ranked 1-330. Subsequent charts rank the schools by decade.

And the rankings are flat crazy.

Hey, I like the Sagarin Ratings as much as anyone. Look at them regularly during college football and basketball. And I respect a man who will even save some mainframe space for Indiana high school rankings, as well.

But, Jeff, we've got to talk about your all-time hierarchy. There appears to be way too much respect given to accomplishments during the segregated, set-shot, eight-team-NCAA-tournament era and not nearly enough to programs that have thrived since the sport exploded behind Bird-Magic in 1979.

Among the Sagarin outrages that prove Mark Twain's pejorative take on statistics:

Northwestern is ranked No. 77 all-time. Providence is No. 78.

Northwestern has never played in the NCAA tournament. Forget winning a game in the Big Dance, the Wildcats have never even been invited. Providence, meanwhile, has been to two Final Fours (1973 and '87).

Illinois is No. 6 all-time. Duke is No. 7.

Call me crazy, but I'd take the Blue Devils' three national championships and 14 Final Four appearances over the Illini's zero national titles and four Final Fours. In my rankings, Illinois would be closer to 26th than sixth.

Seven Big Ten programs rank ahead of Michigan State, which checks in at No. 15.

This may be time for the first-ever accusation of ESPN Midwestern bias. Clearly, the Big Ten is massively over-represented at the high end of the rankings.

Illinois, Iowa (No. 10, somehow) and Minnesota (No. 14, mystifyingly) have combined to win no NCAA titles. Iowa hasn't been to a Final Four since 1980 (one of three all-time) and hasn't played in a regional final since 1987. Minnesota (one Final Four) didn't attend its first Dance until 1972, an appearance that was later vacated by the NCAA. Top 50 for the Hawkeyes and Gophers, not top 15.

(While we're dealing with Big Ten-related mysteries, what could possibly explain No. 28 Wisconsin -- with its zero tournament appearances during 1948-1993 -- being ranked ahead of No. 32 Arkansas and its six Final Fours and 29 trips to the tourney?)

Meanwhile, put Michigan State in the top 10. There is only one Big Ten team that deserves to be ranked ahead of the Spartans (two national titles, seven Final Fours). That's Indiana, which is No. 5. You can argue the merits of Ohio State (one title, 10 Final Fours -- four of them from 1939-46) if you wish. I'd still take Michigan State over the Buckeyes.

Georgetown at No. 42.

The Hoyas (one national title, five Final Fours) have produced several seasons far better than anything that's been accomplished at USC (No. 25), Missouri (No. 29), Tennessee (No. 33) or BYU (No. 41).

Connecticut at No. 54.

Yeah, I know the Huskies were a virtual non-entity for decades. I also know that just about every program in America would trade résumés with what they've done since 1999: two national titles, three Final Fours, five Elite Eights, nine NCAA appearances. They've done more in 11 years than No. 51 Colorado, No. 52 Iowa State and No. 53 Saint Louis have done in seven decades. Combined.

[+] EnlargeAdolph Rupp
AP Photo Legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp won four national titles between 1948 and '58.

And then there is No. 1.

Sagarin says the all-time kingpin of college basketball is Kentucky, and he says it's not close. By his rating formula, the Wildcats are farther ahead of No. 2 UCLA than the Bruins are ahead of No. 7 Duke. The 2.24-point gap is the largest between any two teams in the entire 330-team ranking.

It's worth noting that Sagarin's formula counts NCAA tournament wins as double, but does not give any additional bonus for national titles, thus negating UCLA's advantage in that category. (The Bruins have four more national titles than the Wildcats, but trail 100-99 in overall tournament wins.)

And there's no question UK has a lot to brag about: the most wins in NCAA history; seven national championships; 13 Final Four appearances; a record 50 NCAA tournament bids; a record 43 Southeastern Conference championships; national titles won under four difference coaches; and the most ardent fan base in America.

But Kentucky should not be No. 1. No computer takes into account a program's NCAA rap sheet, and the Wildcats have a long history of problems. They were given the de facto first death penalty, forbidden from intercollegiate play for the 1953-54 season. There was a point-shaving scandal. There have been multiple NCAA probations.

Kentucky also thrived for decades in an all-white league while African-Americans were taking over the game elsewhere. It's probably not coincidence that Adolph Rupp's long era of domination started waning as black players began to make their impact on the sport in the late 1950s and 1960s. Rupp's last national title came in 1958, and his last Final Four ended in defeat in the famous game against all-black Texas Western in 1966.

This would be my all-time Top 10:

1. UCLA: Most NCAA titles by far (11), and nobody will ever again approach the run John Wooden had. The Bruins also won a title in the 1990s and have been to multiple Final Fours this decade under Ben Howland. They have developed staying power.

The drawback is the anecdotal evidence that Sam Gilbert indulged in booster overachievement, providing illegal benefits to many UCLA players during the Wooden era. But there were no probations and no vacating of any hardware from that time.

2. North Carolina: The Tar Heels are Kentucky without the scandals. They have achieved decades of excellence under a variety of coaches, having won titles under Frank McGuire, Dean Smith and Roy Williams. And they're breathing down the Wildcats' furry neck on the all-time victory list (1,988 for UK, 1,984 for UNC) despite playing in a historically tougher conference.

You could argue that the Heels should have won more titles than they have, given the all-time talent, but Williams seems intent on making up for Smith's lost hardware.

3: Kentucky: Then there's a bit of a drop-off.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers have won five titles between two coaches -- three under Bob Knight, two under Branch McCracken. And until Kelvin Sampson came along, this was the cleanest of programs. But they could lose this position by next season to …

[+] EnlargeJames Naismith
AP PhotoHow deep is the Kansas tradition? The school's first coach was none other than James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.

5. Kansas: The Jayhawks' 2008 national title under Bill Self, to go along with titles won by Phog Allen and Larry Brown, strengthens and revises their résumé. (Probation that included a 1989 postseason ban in the wake of Brown's tenure diminishes it.) If the brawlin' Jayhawks quit fightin' and start ballin' as expected, they might win another title in 2010 and vault into the top four.

6. Duke: But not just because of the Krzyzewski era. The Blue Devils are the fourth-winningest program of all-time and have made Final Four appearances in each of the past five decades.

7. Louisville: Two NCAA titles, eight Final Fours under three difference coaches. The Cardinals have been a nationally prominent program in each of the past six decades.

8. Michigan State: Won a title under Jud Heathcote. Won a title under Tom Izzo. Seven Final Fours. Current run under Izzo is little short of amazing.

9. Oklahoma State: Hank Iba was an early power in the game, leading the Cowboys to two national titles in the 1940s. Then Eddie Sutton restored the program's prominence, albeit not quite its dominance, in the 1990s and the first part of this decade by taking Oklahoma State to two Final Fours.

10. Ohio State: Close call here. What sets the Buckeyes apart is that they've had less dependence on a single coach than some other programs (UConn, Arizona, Syracuse) or on a single superstar (San Francisco's two titles with Bill Russell). The Buckeyes have gone to Final Fours under four different coaches.

That's the way I see it. Feel free to disagree with me as much as I disagreed with page No. 1,196 of the "ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia."

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