Commentary

Identifying the over/underachievers

Originally Published: May 27, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

With Murray State just hiring a new coach and Penn State just losing one, this is an opportune time to review which schools get the most out of their basketball programs.

And which get the least.

Which are the pound-for-pound best programs? Which are the worst? Who is overachieving? Who is underachieving?

How about a list of each dating back to the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 64 teams in 1985?

The overachievers

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBrad Stevens has guided Butler to back-to-back national title game appearances.

1. Butler: You cannot get from the Horizon League to the Final Four -- unless you are the Bulldogs, who have done it two years in a row, advancing to the title game both times. It's one of the great feats in college hoops history.

But it's hardly the only reason Butler tops this list. It has had a winning record 18 of the past 19 years, played in 10 of the past 15 NCAA tournaments -- and most importantly, won games in those tournaments. As ESPN Insider John Gasaway pointed out Wednesday, Butler's 16 NCAA tourney victories since 2000 are more than Pittsburgh, Louisville, Villanova, Georgetown and Ohio State have compiled.

Butler has gotten all this done with four different head coaches, promoting from within and getting spectacular results. This isn't John Kresse at College of Charleston or Bob McKillop at Davidson, a situation where an excellent coach hunkered down and declined opportunities to leave for bigger jobs.

2. Duke: Yeah, we've become accustomed to considering the Blue Devils the sport's ultimate overdog. But that's only because of the relentless winning during the past 26 seasons. When put into context with similar schools, Duke is a massive overachiever.

Duke is the most academically prestigious school to win a national title in the modern era -- and it has won four of them. Its big-conference brethren, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Northwestern, have combined for ... let's see now ... zero national titles. Only one of them (Stanford) has even made a Final Four. The Blue Devils have made 11 in the modern era and 15 overall.

Duke also is the smallest school, in terms of enrollment, to win a national title since Villanova in 1985.

3. Gonzaga: You cannot hold an NCAA tournament without the Zags anymore. They've played in 13 straight and won at least one game in 10 of those appearances.

And nobody has dominated its league like Gonzaga, winning or sharing the West Coast Conference regular-season title 11 straight seasons and playing in the tournament final 14 straight years.

Although Spokane, Wash., is not a small town, it's remote enough that it theoretically should make recruiting tricky. But coach Mark Few has established himself as one of the premier recruiters in the nation.

4. Murray State: The Racers have a current streak of 24 winning seasons. Duke can't say that. North Carolina can't say that. Kentucky can't say that.

Like Butler and Xavier, Murray has done it with a rotating cast of coaches -- six of them during this 24-year streak. Unlike Butler and Xavier, Murray doesn't have an urban recruiting base like Indianapolis or Cincinnati to help it. Yet the Racers consistently find players even in the middle of nowhere. (Murray, Ky., is 120 miles from Nashville, 168 from Memphis and 228 from Louisville.)

Membership in a low-major conference hasn't been an impediment to success, either. In 2010-11, the Ohio Valley Conference was ranked 27th out of 33 leagues by statistician Jeff Sagarin.

And Murray hasn't just gotten to the NCAA tournament, it has had success there -- a serious rarity for OVC schools. The Racers won a game in the 1988 NCAA tourney as a No. 14 seed (against North Carolina State) and in 2010 as a No. 13 (against Vanderbilt).

5. Xavier: X marks a prominent spot on the overachiever map: six straight NCAA tournament appearances, and 10 in the past 11 years; five straight Atlantic 10 titles; three Sweet 16s in the past four years; 14 straight winning seasons -- 13 of them with 20 or more victories.

Like Gonzaga, the Musketeers have done everything but make a Final Four. They've reached the Elite Eight twice under two different coaches (2004 under Thad Matta, 2008 under Sean Miller).

The next five ...

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Bob Donnan/US PresswireUConn's Jim Calhoun has won three national titles.

6. Connecticut: The Huskies are powered by membership in the Big East and proximity to New York, but before Jim Calhoun was hired, they had no tradition worth mentioning. And recruiting to the bleak gulag of Storrs presents challenges. Somehow, though, they've won three NCAA titles.

7. Arizona: Another place that had no significant basketball heritage until Lute Olson created it. Then the Wildcats went to 25 straight NCAA tourneys, winning it all in 1997 and making three other Final Fours.

8. Temple: The Owls went to 17 NCAA tourneys in 18 years from 1984 to 2001. There was some scuffling after in the latter years under John Chaney, but the A-10 power has returned to strength in recent years under Fran Dunphy.

9. Kent State: In a league full of boom-and-bust cycles, the Golden Flashes are remarkably consistent, riding a streak of 13 winning seasons. They've won at least 20 games in 12 of those seasons, one of just 10 programs that can make that claim during that stretch. The highlight came in 2002, when they advanced to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.

10. Belmont: This has been a rapid-rising program from its NAIA roots in the 1990s. Belmont has had winning seasons in eight of the past 10 years, including the past six. What the Bruins have yet to do is win an NCAA tourney game in four appearances.

The underachievers

[+] EnlargeMichael Thompson
Tommy Giglio/US PresswireNorthwestern has hide-your-face results when it comes to reaching the NCAA tournament.

1. Northwestern: Being an egghead school is a proven impediment to winning national titles for everyone but Duke -- but plenty of egghead schools have at least experienced some success. Stanford has gone to a Final Four and been a No. 1 seed several times, and Vanderbilt has become an annual contender in the Southeastern Conference.

Then there is Northwestern.

Despite proximity to a slew of talent, the Wildcats are famously still waiting for their first NCAA tournament invitation. Not first victory; first berth. That's pathetic.

2. USC: There is just a little evidence that a Pac-12 school from Los Angeles can win a national title. It's all hanging from the rafters in the Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus. But across town, the Trojans have resolutely avoided achieving anything resembling basketball greatness.

USC has won six NCAA tourney games since 1979, half of them in a 2001 run to the Elite Eight. In the Trojans' last Final Four appearance (1954), they had to win just two games to get there.

Even building a sparkling new arena a couple of years ago hasn't yet turned USC into a legit contender. And there has been plenty of opportunity for a program to assert itself in what has been a weak Pac-12 the past few years.

3. Penn State: When a Big Ten school loses its coach to a mid-pack program from the Patriot League, it qualifies as a repudiation of your basketball rep. The Nittany Lions are a low-attendance, low-salary, high-apathy embarrassment.

Ironically, if Penn State had cared at all about its basketball program, it would have fired Ed DeChellis two years before he got the chance to jilt the place for Navy. Instead the school got a lose-lose situation -- it took seven disappointing seasons to finally earn an NCAA berth under DeChellis, and now it must shop for a new coach in late May.

Which makes Dick Vitale's suggested candidate -- Bob Knight -- a perfect choice. Penn State will have cornered the market on grumpy, old icons.

4. Nebraska: No, the Cornhuskers do not sit on the most fertile recruiting soil. But that never stopped the football program from becoming a powerhouse, so why should it be an acceptable excuse for ongoing basketball ineptitude?

Nebraska has never won an NCAA tournament game and, in fact, has made only six NCAA appearances. The last of those was in 1998. The last time the Huskers won a regular-season league title was in 1950.

Now that they've relocated to the Big Ten, the chances of ending that 61-year drought are even slimmer.

5. Rutgers: A Big East member in the New York metro area has no good excuse for being as bad as the Scarlet Knights have been for the past two decades. They haven't been to the Big Dance since 1991, haven't had a winning record since 2006 and have never won more than nine Big East games in a season. Even the private schools in the area that don't have significant football revenue (Seton Hall, St. John's) have done better than that.

Mike Rice is the program's seventh coach since 1985, as the school continues to cycle through them looking for someone who can win enough games to at least get onto the NCAA tournament bubble. Earning a bid might be too much to ask.

The next five ...

6. Missouri: The Tigers are the most accomplished program to never, ever, ever reach a Final Four. Even with big-city recruiting hubs on either side of the state (Kansas City to the west, St. Louis to the east) and no significant in-state competition, Mizzou has failed to even once break through the regional final barrier. And hiring Frank Haith, a coach who was 26 games below .500 in ACC play, doesn't exactly feel like the move that will deliver a Final Four.

7. Virginia: In the early 1980s, the Cavaliers stood on even footing with the Tobacco Road blue bloods, making two Final Fours and winning at least a share of three ACC titles. Since 1985, it's been a mediocre operation. In the modern era, Virginia has missed the NCAAs more often (16 times) than it has made the field (11 times). It has been there only twice in the 2000s, the last time in 2007. Opening a big-dollar arena in 2006 hasn't changed anything.

8. Notre Dame: In a well-rounded athletic department, it is striking that the Fighting Irish have been to exactly one Final Four (1978). They haven't even been to the Elite Eight since '79 and have only advanced to the Sweet 16 once since '87. That's underachieving.

9. South Florida: This spot easily could have gone to DePaul, but at least the Blue Demons have been to the NCAA tourney in recent times (2004) and even won a game upon getting there. The Bulls, despite membership in two prestigious conferences (the Big East and before that Conference USA when it was legit), have not darkened the Dance since 1992. USF has just two all-time NCAA tournament appearances and has never won a game there.

10. One-third of the Southeastern Conference: Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and Ole Miss have combined to make zero Final Four appearances despite membership in a power league and access to plenty of in-state talent. (Vanderbilt hasn't made a Final Four, either, but it has an academic excuse.) No one in the non-fearsome foursome has played in any of the past five NCAA tournaments.

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