Top 10 of the last 10: Most underrated

In the third part of a weeklong look at the past decade in college basketball, ESPN.com anoints its top 10 most underrated teams from the past 10 years.

Originally Published: May 9, 2007
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This Top 10 list is an aggregate of the individual ballots from five ESPN/ESPN.com basketball experts. The experts' ballots can be found here.

The first two days of this exercise were pretty absolute. It's fairly clean to determine which teams or programs are in the running to be considered "the best." That's why the "others receiving votes" category was so thinly populated -- most of us agreed on most of the answers, albeit in different orders.

Today's category, though, is not so clean. Being underrated usually deals with a related lack of attention (media coverage, polls, etc.), but that's not always the case. Does it always have to be a smaller program that has achieved more than should be expected? Can a successful high-major program be underrated? How about one (or more) that have made a recent Final Four?

Maybe several of these programs are more "underappreciated" than underrated, but all 10 stay true to one central theme: Regardless of size, budget, league or absolute performance, all of them have delivered on the court in a fashion that surpasses the general perception of the programs.

Here they are … today's Top 10: Most underrated programs of the last 10 seasons.

1. Wisconsin (1 first-place vote)
Wisconsin
The Badgers are a classic case of underappreciated more than underrated, but anyone who followed the Power 16 this past season knows how, um, passionate the Badgers' fan base can be when it plays the no-respect card. Given this program's accomplishments, though, Wisconsin really should pop up more readily when the nation's top programs are discussed. The Badgers have made nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances (under three different coaches), and have Final Four (2000) and Elite Eight (2005) appearances on their ledger. The Badgers also have won two Big Ten regular-season titles (2001-02 and 2002-03) and a Big Ten tournament (2004). That doesn't even count this past season, when an injury to Brian Butch helped derail a team that had earned the first No. 1 ranking in school history. Oh, and good luck winning at the Kohl Center. In a league in which most home courts are tough, Wisconsin's stands out as almost impenetrable.

2. Southern Illinois (3)
SIU
This past season's media frenzy after the Salukis earned a No. 4 seed and went to the Sweet 16 before being edged by Kansas doesn't make up for years of insufficient love for one of the nation's best and most consistent programs. How good have the Salukis been since 2001-02? Try 152 wins in six seasons, with an average RPI of 27. Six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances -- including five as an at-large -- with two Sweet 16s (2002, 2007). Five outright Missouri Valley regular-season titles. The Salukis also have been nearly unbeatable at SIU Arena in that span. And all this has been under three different coaches -- Bruce Weber (who later led Illinois to the national title game in 2005), Matt Painter (who's doing good things quickly at Purdue) and now Chris Lowery, locked up with a new seven-year deal as the man in Carbondale. Is it the defense-first style of play that doesn't get them the love? It can't be the sweet, oversized jersey numbers …

3. Xavier
Xavier
There's another basketball program in Cincinnati? You wouldn't know it by the imbalance in national coverage, but the Musketeers have quietly authored season after season of high-quality hoops in the Bearcats' relative shadow. In the last 10 seasons, X has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight run in 2004 under now-Ohio State coach Thad Matta (whose Buckeyes barely survived Xavier in OT in the second round this year) that fell three points short of the Final Four. The Musketeers also have won four Atlantic 10 divisional or league titles and four A-10 tournament championships in that span, and have had their share of excellent coaches, also sending Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser off to high-major gigs. Bonus: The annual Crosstown Shootout with Cincinnati is probably the nation's most underrated rivalry game. Just incredible intensity -- and most often excellent games, too.

4. Stanford (1)
Stanford
The Cardinal are a legitimate sleeper team from a major conference. As noted in the Best Programs column on Monday, most of you probably didn't know that Stanford has won four Pac-10 titles since 1998 -- the same number as Arizona. The Cardinal also were a bit overshadowed by Saint Joseph's in 2003-04 as they embarked on their own long unbeaten run to start the season and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Do you remember that the Cardinal went to the 1998 Final Four, losing by a point in OT to eventual national champ Kentucky, and also made the Elite Eight in 2001? Stanford has made nine NCAA Tournament appearances in this 10-year period and also won the Pac-10 tournament title in 2004. All this while recruiting with some of the most restrictive academic requirements in the country.

5. Creighton
Creighton
The yang to Southern Illinois' Missouri Valley yin, the Bluejays have plenty to chirp about themselves. They are coming off a ninth straight 20-win season, and since 1998 they have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances and have owned the Missouri Valley tournament, winning the title six times. The Jays also are the standard-bearer for mid-majors with top-shelf facilities, playing in the terrific Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., in front of some of the game's rowdiest fans. Creighton regularly ranks in the top 30 in the nation in attendance. Bonus: In April, head coach Dana Altman took over at Arkansas for about a day and a half before changing his mind and returning to the post he's held for 14 seasons, meaning both Creighton and SIU retained their excellent coaches.

6. Butler
Butler
The Bulldogs got plenty of attention this past season, both when they won the NIT Season Tip-Off (knocking off Indiana, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Gonzaga) and later when they made the Sweet 16 and gave eventual champion Florida all it could handle. These Dogs are far from one-year wonders, though. They have made five NCAA Tournament appearances since 1998, and have won five Horizon League titles and three Horizon tournament championships in that span. They're even connected to Xavier in that Butler was the one-year launching pad for Matta, who left to take over the Musketeers after the 2000-01 season. Bonus: Yes, this piece of pop culture is a bit played out, but having Hinkle Fieldhouse -- famous in its own right but immortalized by the movie Hoosiers -- as a home court still is very cool. OK, real bonus: The Bulldogs' first conference was the Missouri Valley, which they joined in 1932.

7. Pitt
Pitt
Jay Bilas' description of the Panthers is fairly apt -- they are one of college hoops' equivalents to the "best golfer never to win a major." Under Ben Howland and now Jamie Dixon, though, this program has had a lot of recent success in a very tough and deep conference. This season marked Pitt's sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, during which the Panthers made the Sweet 16 four different times (2002-04, 2007). The Panthers also claimed at least a piece of three Big East titles from 2002-04 and won the Big East Tournament title in 2004.

8. Utah State
Utah State
This is a team that should be higher on this list. All the Aggies have done under underrated coach Stew Morrill is rip off eight straight seasons of at least 23 wins, including 28-win seasons in 1999-2000 and 2000-01. That doesn't even count a 25-win season in 1997-98 under Larry Eustachy. All told, the Aggies have made six NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 10 seasons while winning a total of 238 games. They also won three Big West titles and five Big West tournament championships before moving to the WAC in 2006. They also have one of the craziest home crowds in the country. Bonus: The Aggies were one of the NCAA snubs of the decade when they were 25-3 in 2003-04 and were sent to the NIT. Maybe karma came back around in 2006, when they were a controversial at-large after falling to Nevada in the WAC tournament title game.

9. Marquette
Marquette
The first of two more Final Four teams to close out the list, the Golden Eagles have operated very successfully in the relative shadow of fellow underrated Wisconsin. Now that Marquette has moved up from Conference USA to the Big East, though, it quickly has developed its own major-conference rep. In fact, the running joke soon after the Big East took on five Conference USA schools in 2005 was that it had to take on programs like Louisville and Cincinnati just to get the Golden Eagles. Marquette has made four NCAA Tournament appearances since 2003 in addition to making the Final Four that season behind Dwyane Wade.

10. Illinois
Illinois
Can you be on the cusp of the Best Programs list and still be considered underrated? Seems so. The magical 37-2 season in 2004-05 that ended in the national title game is widely remembered, but what's not known is that Illinois has one of the nation's best records since 2000 and went 66-4 over one stretch. The Illini have won at least a share of five Big Ten titles in the past 10 years as well as two Big Ten tournament crowns. Throw in the Orange Krush fan section -- arguably the nation's best -- and Assembly Hall, another in a long line of brutal home court venues, and you have a program that's as big and successful as almost any around.

Others receiving votes: Gonzaga, Davidson, Winthrop, Utah, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Boston College, Vanderbilt, Memphis, Penn, Nevada, Oregon, Cincinnati, Saint Joseph's

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.

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