Commentary

Reactions vary to all-time rankings

Coaches take different approaches as ESPN's hoops encyclopedia hits bookstores

Originally Published: October 5, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Kentucky coach John Calipari got word Sunday night that some folks were scalping tickets for the Big Blue Madness event on Oct. 16.

That's a practice, mind you.

So if you're looking for a program that should be rated No. 1 for its passionate fan base, Kentucky would likely garner enough of the popular vote.

[+] EnlargeKentucky Fans
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe always-passionate Big Blue Nation will be pleased with the ESPN/Sagarin all-time rankings.

But that's not what UK fans would like to boast about -- their own enthusiasm. Nope, Kentucky fans have loudly said for years that their beloved Wildcats are the top program in the country.

Well, now there is a computer ranking that agrees with the populous of the Commonwealth.

The editors of ESPN put together an exhaustive project, creating the "ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia," subtitled "The Complete History Of The Men's Game."

ESPN empowered noted computer guru Jeff Sagarin to pump figures into his hard drive, looking strictly at wins and losses, scoring margin and a rating that is the combination of the two. Sagarin looked back at the past 72 years of the sport to spit out Kentucky as No. 1, two percentage points ahead of UCLA. (For the complete rankings, click here)

"To be a part of this program, with this storied history, it humbles you," Calipari said of his new school's top ranking. "Once I traveled the state, I understood the importance to all of Kentucky."

Kentucky was No. 1 in the 1990s, when it won two national titles. It still ranked in the top 10 in the 2000s under Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie. Calipari's two previous programs -- Memphis and UMass -- ranked in the top 20 in the decades he coached those teams, with the Minutemen No. 18 in the 1990s (UMass wasn't in the top 40 in the 1980s or the 2000s) and the Tigers No. 15 in the 2000s (Memphis wasn't in the top 40 in the 1990s).

"Somebody told me that you're not going to be able to satisfy everyone," Calipari said. "It's not going to be easy."

Kentucky's selection over UCLA as the top-rated program of all time caught the Bruins a bit off-guard, considering UCLA has won 11 national titles compared to Kentucky's seven. But while NCAA tournament wins count double in Sagarin's formula, actual championships themselves offer no additional bonus. Once informed of that, there was more understanding of the ranking.

"Overall, over 72 years, having us No. 2, that's high up there on the list -- especially when you're not taking into account the national championships or times to the Final Four, which is more than anybody but Carolina," UCLA coach Ben Howland said of the two programs that have been to 18 Final Fours each. "We've won more national championships, and that's what all these teams are shooting for -- Final Fours and championships."

Like Calipari, Howland has had his hand in multiple high rankings. UCLA was No. 2 overall and No. 20 in the 2000s. Pitt, where Howland started earlier in the decade, was No. 13 in the 2000s, a credit to Howland and current Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, a former Howland assistant.

"I'm excited about the success we had at Pitt when I was there and Jamie continued," Howland said. "We've had great success here at UCLA with three Final Fours. I'd just like to win a national championship."

UCLA was the top-rated program in the 1960s and '70s. Kentucky was tops in the 1950s.

No one should be shocked that Duke and North Carolina were in the top three in the 1990s and 2000s, ranked at Nos. 2 and 3 in the '90s and 1 and 3 in the 2000s. UNC was No. 1 in the 1980s. Overall, UNC was No. 4 and Duke was No. 7.

That's why Maryland's Gary Williams was pleased to learn that the Terps, who were coming off an NCAA scandal when he took over, checked in at No. 38 overall, No. 14 in the 2000s and No. 17 in the 1990s.

"I think that's one of the toughest things, because Duke and Carolina are in everybody's top five," Williams said. "No other league has that. You can be good, but not everyone will think you're as good as Duke and Carolina, but nobody else has that. I'm proud of what we've done in a 20-year period."

[+] EnlargeSelf
Bob Donnan/US PresswireBill Self has played at No. 18 (Oklahoma St) and coached at No. 3 (Kansas) and No. 6 (Illinois).

Kansas was just as consistent in the rankings as Duke and Carolina. The Jayhawks were No. 3 overall, No. 2 in the 2000s and No. 4 in the 1990s, a credit to Roy Williams' taking over the proud program following an NCAA investigation and Bill Self's continuing the tradition by winning a national title in 2008. Self has coached at the No. 3 overall program (Kansas), No. 6 (Illinois), No. 66 (Tulsa) and No. 118 (Oral Roberts) -- and he played at No. 18 (Oklahoma State).

"It's amazing and humbling to me that I've had the opportunity to play and work at these schools," Self said. "I've played and coached at schools ranked so high, coaching the third and sixth all-time. The programs have been ultra-successful, winning conference championships on a regular basis and [having] the expectation of always being in the NCAA tournament. It's amazing we've had so many good players."

Illinois' No. 6 ranking, one spot behind No. 5 Indiana, shouldn't be a shock since the rankings are based on consistency of winning, not titles. Illinois, ranked No. 6 in the 2000s, 29th in the 1990s and fourth in the 1980s, hasn't won a title yet in its five Final Four appearances.

"I've learned to appreciate the history and great tradition here," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "There's been some good coaches from Lon Kruger to Bill Self and hopefully myself. We've had a pretty nice run here, some Big Ten championships, a Final Four run, and I hope it continues. The one missing link is that they haven't been crowned national champs."

The Big Ten dominated the overall rankings in the top 15, showing the remarkable consistency of the conference. Still, it was a bit jarring to see the order of the teams, even knowing that a 72-year history of data was crunched.

Indiana (5), Illinois (6), Purdue (8), Ohio State (9), Iowa (10), Michigan (13) and Minnesota (14) were all ahead of Michigan State (15).

But a glance at the most recent past showed the Spartans on top at No. 5 for the 2000s.

"We've had a strange career here," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "Good in the '50s, down in the '60s and '70s [save a title in 1979 and a regional final appearance in '78], average half of the '80s, good the rest of, started better in the '90s and in the last 12 years we've been damn good.

"We're not as consistent as some programs, but I'm surprised so many Big Ten programs are in there."

Izzo said the No. 5 ranking this decade is what makes him most proud. After the national title in 2000 and the three straight Final Fours during 1999-2001, he said he was cautious because he wanted to see what would happen over a 10-year period. Well, Michigan State went back to the Final Four in 2005 and '09.

"We've shown the continuity to be a great program like Duke, Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas," Izzo said. "We've scheduled well and won 20 games or more [in eight of the last 10 years]. We haven't done it the easy way."

Surprised to see Iowa at No. 10? Current head coach Todd Lickliter isn't. He said once he took over, he realized how storied the Hawkeye program had been in the sport.

"I keep telling everyone we've got to recapture it," Lickliter said of Iowa, which has missed the tournament three straight seasons. "It's a program that's been really consistent and just had great players and competed at a high level. Dr. Tom [Davis] was here 16 years and didn't get to a Final Four but look at the consistency. Tenth is really incredible, I don't care who you are. I'm not totally surprised because I know the consistency. We've got to recapture it."

As for Weber, he said Illinois would use the No. 6 ranking to its advantage in recruiting.

Taking advantage of the rankings seemed to be a theme.

BYU got the affirmation it has long believed it deserves with an overall ranking of 41.

Colorado Basketball
AP Photo/William P. StraeterCliff Meely and Colorado played in the 1969 NCAA tournament, but the Buffs have been back just twice since then.

"It's a little surprising," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "I know the won-loss records have been terrific here and there have been some great players here, some of the best basketball players in the world."

BYU consistently competes for its conference championship, so seeing that the Cougars are a top-50 program isn't a stunner. But a few other programs will try to spin the news of their historical place in the game to try to lift their programs out of their current abyss.

Colorado, which hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2003 and only twice since 1969, was ranked No. 51. The Buffaloes did go to two Final Fours (1942 and '55).

"You can show recruits that at one time Colorado was very good," CU coach Jeff Bzdelik. "But then basketball was neglected [in favor of football]."

Bzdelik said that other schools, like Texas, decided they wanted to be good in basketball as well as football and started pouring money into facilities.

"Colorado has been neglected," Bzdelik said. "Let's face it, a program can change quickly based on recruits and a commitment that hasn't been there before."

At one time, St. John's and DePaul were storied programs. DePaul was No. 6 in the 1940s and No. 15 in the '80s and is ranked No. 26 overall. St. John's is No. 16 overall, No. 18 in the '80s and in the top 30 in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s.

Now in the Big East, DePaul was once an independent. And when St. John's joined a conference, it was originally in a much smaller Big East. Now both are in the same 16-team league, without the football money that drives facility upgrades.

"I'm not surprised at all [with the ranking] because St. John's has such a great history," SJU head coach Norm Roberts said.

During the height of St. John's success, it was on a regional network, and New York players were staying home. DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright makes the same point about TV station WGN and the Chicago-area players who are on the Blue Demons' roster.

"It's still a great trade name after what coach [Ray] Meyer did," Wainwright said. "Sometimes if you live in the past it can be bad, but it can also serve as a reminder to where you've been, and this can give you inspiration to be there again. If you've been there once, you can have the confidence to be there again."

That's true of a program like Boston College, which was ranked No. 73 overall, but more importantly No. 35 in the 2000s. BC was able to weather some bad years but made several Sweet 16 appearances in the early-to-mid 1980s (Tom Davis and Gary Williams), had some success in the early '90s (Jim O'Brien) and more recently under Al Skinner.

"I'm actually surprised it's as high as it is overall," Skinner said. "If you consider the number of schools (330), then 73 is a good number, but 35 in the 2000s is pretty impressive without a Final Four.

"I don't think people appreciate the company we're in. This clearly let's people know where we are and the success we've had."

Stevens
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeBrad Stevens leads a Butler team that has become a March Madness staple over the last dozen years.

No three programs, though, burst onto the scene in the last 20 years the way Connecticut, Gonzaga and Butler have in college basketball.

Gonzaga was ranked No. 17 in the 2000s (127 overall), while Butler was No. 39 in the 2000s (98 overall).

"We've tried to maintain consistency," said Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose Bulldogs should be a top-15 team this season as he carries on the tradition of success from Barry Collier to Thad Matta to Todd Lickliter. "We've kept good players here, good students. It's not easy to do. It's very fragile, but to be in that company [in the top 100] over a 70-year period or a 10-year period [top 40], I can't see any negative to that."

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who took over the Bulldogs in 1999 after he and head coach Dan Monson led them to the Elite Eight the previous spring, said the No. 17 ranking in the 2000s was a "fair and accurate perception of the program in the last 10 years."

The Zags lost to Connecticut in that '99 Elite Eight game. The Huskies, who are No. 54 overall in the rankings, went on to win the national title -- and won another one five years later. After not showing up in the top 40 of the 1980s, UConn was No. 6 for the '90s and No. 9 in the 2000s. Sixteen of the school's 29 NCAA tournament appearances have come under coach Jim Calhoun.

"Only so many programs come from oblivion to become a national program, and we consider ourselves a national program," said Calhoun, who took over UConn in 1986. "I never thought it could or couldn't be done. But I knew we could do something special. The landscape has changed so much, and for us in the past 20 years to skyrocket to the upper echelon is something very special."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com