The “Madness” has arrived. Soon, brackets will be busted. The brash hopes of hoopsters everywhere will be tried and tested. Cinderella squads will be born on the crucible of the hardwood. In one shining moment, a new champion will proudly emerge on the college landscape and take their place among a select fraternity of the greatest college basketball teams.
In honor of this annual ritual, we’re going to hearken to hoops past, to the quaint years of yesteryear; when wizards sanguinely prowled the rolling hills of Westwood; or when “The General” belligerently hurled unassuming courtside chairs across Assembly Hall; or even all the way back to James Naismith, a small-town educator in Massachusetts who unwittingly engineered an indoor game that could be conveniently played between football and baseball season.
All these decades later, our attention remains transfixed on the sport of basketball every March, during the seminal event of the NCAA tournament. In accordance, we’ll offer our own rankings and analysis of the greatest college basketball teams of all-time.
How to arrange such a list? If we’re being forthright, our selections are ultimately about as scientific as the reliability of even the most fastidiously selected bracket. We could ascribe a team’s value to their own respective memorability; their cultural influence on the sport; or perhaps rely on more quantifiable metrics like overall record. Ultimately, our list is subjective, and will incorporate a variety of considerations. However, these are not only our picks, but the picks based on a composite score from a survey of sports writers, editors, and bloggers.
See if you agree with our assessment of college basketball’s greatest teams or you may have your own opinion about who should be on the list. Please feel free to share. We certainly welcome adverse opinions. Honorable mentions go out to the 1963 UCLA Bruins, 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, 1966 Texas Western Miners, 1968 UCLA Bruins, 1960 Ohio State Buckeyes and the 1957 North Carolina Tar Heels.
1984 Georgetown Hoyas
The 1984 Georgetown Hoyas remain entrenched in college basketball lore for defeating Phi Slamma Jamma in the national championship. Featuring 6 future NBA draft picks, the Hoyas were certainly not lacking sufficient talent or depth.
Led by the future first-round pick and perennial NBA all-star Patrick Ewing, the early 1980’s Georgetown squads were known for their suffocating interior defense and efficient offense. Rugged and tough, the Hoyas embodied the grit of the Big East conference.
The Hoyas cruised through the 1984 NCAA tournament, facing a daunting UK team in the Final 4, before finally beating Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon in the national championship. John Thompson became the first African-American coach to win a national championship, while solidly announcing Georgetown as one of the premier teams in the Big East for years to come.
1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels
What blasphemy is this? How could a team bereft a national title possibly merit inclusion in any all-time list? It indeed, is a quizzical selection, as the 91’ Rebels eventually lost to Duke in a fierce national title contest.
The fact is, however, that the 91’ Rebels were rarely contested during the regular season or tournament, coasting to 35 consecutive wins. Of any team since the 1976’ Hoosiers, the Runnin’ Rebels were the closest to achieving an undefeated season.
Featuring stars like Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Elmore Spencer, Jerry (“Tark”) Tarkanian had almost assembled the depth of an NBA squad in the arid desert of Las Vegas. Though they were eventually defeated by a pesky and resilient Duke squad, the 91’ Rebels still retain a special place in college basketball lore.
1974 NC State Wolfpack – 10 of the Greatest College Basketball Teams of All Time
Who would’ve imagined that a scrappy squad from NC State would ascend to the pinnacle of the college basketball world in 1974? Coached by Norman Sloan, the Wolfpack featured two stars in high-flying guard David Thompson (nicknamed “Skywalker” for his aerial prowess) and 7”2 Tom Burleson. Jocularly referred to as “The Midget and the Flying Circus,” NC State was the squad that finally dethroned the UCLA dynasty that had strangled the sport for over a decade.
A strikingly balanced team, one coach remarked of NC State: “They’re a team of juniors and seniors with no weaknesses. They have size, they can defend, and they can pass, run, and score. Oh, and they have David Thompson.”
On the season, NC State lost only one game – To UCLA and Bill Walton – A loss they would swiftly avenge in the NCAA Tourney. In the NCAA Finals, the Wolfpack easily dispatched the Marquette Golden Eagles, 76-64, bringing a banner to the rafters in Raleigh, North Carolina. The basketball power dynamics in the state of North Carolina had finally shifted from the epicenter of Tobacco Road.
1996 Kentucky Wildcats
Rick Pitino’s first and only championship squad at the University of Kentucky, he dubbed his 1996 Wildcats as “The Untouchables.”
Graced with enviable depth and several NBA starters, including Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer, the 96’ UK team trounced their SEC opposition during the regular season. In the SEC tourney, they fell in a stunning upset to Mississippi State in the title game. Still, UK managed to accumulate 25 consecutive wins and received a #1 seed heading into the NCAA tournament.
Widely regarded as the heavy favorite heading into March, the Wildcats performed up to expectations, winning the program’s 6th national title banner. A year later, after losing in a national title bout against an upstart Arizona squad, Pitino departed UK for the NBA and the Boston Celtics, leaving Lexington in the stewardship of Tubby Smith.
University of North Carolina (1982)
The collection of talent on the 1982 University of North Carolina team was unparalleled. Coached by the legendary Dean Smith, the Tar Heels featured Sam Perkins, James Worthy, and future megastar Michael Jordan. While UNC had, previously, been among the nation’s winningest programs; the 1982 team vaulted them into the upper echelon of the college basketball stratosphere.
Ranked as the preseason #1 team heading into the season, the Tar Heels seldom lost their footing. Though they were challenged by conference foe UVA, and their towering Center, Ralph Sampson, UNC nevertheless entered the tourney with high expectations of contending.
The Tar Heels summarily cruised through the tournament, bringing Dean Smith, long regarded as one of the sport’s most brilliant tacticians, his first national championship.
University of San Francisco (1957) – 10 of the Greatest College Basketball Teams of All Time
The godfather of undefeated college basketball teams, the 1956 San Francisco Dons spent the entire season as the #1 ranked team in the country. Before John Wooden’s Bruins placed a stranglehold on the sport in the mid-60’s and 70’s; before Adolph Rupp engineered a string of dominant teams at the University of Kentucky; or before Coach K reinvigorated a moribund Duke program in the 90’s and aughts; Bill Russell and the USF Dons established a mini-dynasty in the 50’s.
Russell’s later achievements on the Boston Celtics, of course, overshadow his stellar career at USF. Yet, it cannot be ignored that Russell’s influence manifested itself as early as his college days, where he spearheaded a punishing, stifling defense that throttled the opposition.
Already a precocious rim protector, Russell also averaged 20.0 points per game. In conjunction with future NBA star, K.C. Jones, at the guard position, the Dons were college basketball’s first truly elite team.
Though perhaps not quite as exceptional as the 1972 squad, the 1967 Bruins were still a juggernaut. Led by “Big Lew,” the transcendent Center from New York City, the 67’ Bruins were the second squad of John Wooden’s to go undefeated.
Were the inclusion of Lew Alcindor not enough, the Bruins also featured several additional stars in Michael Warren, Lynn Shackleford and Lucius Allen. This amalgamation of perimeter and interior talent perplexed opponents, as the roster’s elasticity allowed the Bruins to score and defend in myriad ways.
The 67’ Bruins finished the season 30-0, won the PAC 8 championship, and their 3rd national championship in four years. The Wooden era was in full effect. No other program could match UCLA’s excellence till Wooden’s retirement in 1975.
One of the most detested teams to step on the college basketball hardwood, the 92’ Blue Devils cemented Coach K’s program as an elite contender for the next several decades.
The upsetting image of Christian Laettner, fresh off a turnaround fade from the free-throw line, triumphantly choking the air with his greedy hands raised aloft, remains forever imprinted in the memory of any devout college basketball fan. The unanimous National Player of the Year in 1992, Laettner and several other notable players, including Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, steered Duke toward a 25-2 regular season finish and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Initially, Duke struggled with several opponents in the national tournament, culminating in the aforementioned dramatics against a competitive Kentucky squad in the Eastern Regionals. After advancing to the Final 4, Duke effectively squelched the momentum of the “Fab 5” Michigan squad, winning their second consecutive national title. Though, in contemporary times, Duke is largely perceived as the eminent program in all of college basketball; in the early 90’s, they were still a fledgling power, largely overshadowed by their rivals, UNC. Consecutive national championships placed them prominently in the national discourse, ushering in an era of sustained Blue Devil success.
Indiana (1976) – 10 of the Greatest College Basketball Teams of All Time
The last college basketball squad to post an undefeated record, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were Coach Bobby Knight’s greatest team. From the very beginning of the season, Knight seemed to understand he had a special collection of players at his disposal. Quinn Buckner, the team leader at guard, once mentioned: “[That team] has stood the test of time: Coach Knight said it (then) and none of us knew what he meant. [Knight] said ‘Take a look at this team, you’ll never see another one like it.”
With astonishing depth and captained by one of the best players in the country, Scott May, the 76’ Hoosiers began the season with a dominant victory over the defending national champions, UCLA. The Hoosiers continued their dominance, largely without contest, for the remainder of the season, winning the Big 10 championship and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament.
During the tournament, itself, Indiana would play 5 teams that were once ranked in the top 10 of the national rankings. It was, ultimately, inconsequential, as the Hoosiers decimated everyone in their path, setting up a contest in the title game against Michigan. Despite a significant injury to Bob Wilkerson, Indiana easily dispatched the Wolverines, culminating in a perfect season.
Another ranking, another UCLA squad. The greatest team of all-time, affectionately referred to as “Walton’s Gang,” was a behemoth astride the college basketball world. A rare combination of fluidity, interior physicality, and stifling defense manifested in a 32-0 record, a streak of 75 wins by season’s end, and a national title.
The focal point of UCLA’s 1972 iteration was the “Big Redhead.” An effortless passer, preternatural rebounder, and graceful athlete, Walton was the herald of a UCLA squad unparalleled in dominance and beauty. On the year, Walton averaged 21.3 points and 15.5 rebounds per game – All the while spending an incongruous amount of time on the bench, largely due to UCLA’s frequently insurmountable leads. In the national championship against Memphis State, Walton went 21-22 on field goal attempts and scored 44 points in one of the greatest performances of all time. John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, once remarked on Bill Walton: “There have only been two men I have coached that could have played varsity during their freshman years – Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.”
Joined by other stars like Henry Bibby, Jamaal Wilkes and Larry Farmar, the UCLA squad of 1972 is the definitive greatest college basketball team of all-time.