Top 10 men’s college basketball teams of all time
UCLA, Kentucky, and Duke have put together some of the best college basketball dynasties in history, but how do they stack up against each other?
College basketball has seen several dynasties in its history, including the “Wizard of Westwood” John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, the four-corners offense of Dean Smith’s UNC Tar Heels, and the relentless winning of Coach K and his Duke Blue Devils.
Some college basketball teams, including those mentioned above, have managed to sustain their dominance for more than a decade -- constantly adapting and persistently striving for championships. Other great teams, such as Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons, spent less time in the limelight but were no less outstanding.
How many Men’s College Basketball Teams are there?
According to sources, the exact number of Division I basketball teams in 2023 stands at 352 across all of the NCAA’s conferences. There are 10 other teams currently making the transition from Division II into Division I.
What Men’s College Basketball Team has the Most Championships?
The UCLA Bruins have the most NCAA championships in the history of college basketball. They have been crowned NCAA basketball champions 11 times, thanks largely to an incredible dynasty run under legendary coach John Wooden. Those Bruins teams won 10 championships between 1964 and 1975.
The Kentucky Wildcats rank second behind UCLA with eight championships, while North Carolina is third with six. All three are considered among the greatest NCAA basketball programs of all time.
Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Men’s College Basketball Teams of all time
- 1989 to 1991 UNLV Rebels
Achievements: National Championship (1990), Two Final Four Appearances (1990, 1991)
Head Coach: Jerry Tarkanian
UNLV was one of the most impressive schools in all of college basketball for a large portion of Jerry Tarkanian’s years as the Runnin’ Rebels’ head coach. Their best run, however, came between 1989 and 1991, when the Rebels reached the Final Four in back-to-back years and won the 1990 national championship.
The Runnin’ Rebels had a loaded college roster that included Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, and Stacey Augmon. With so much talent in its lineup, UNLV was one of the hottest teams in college basketball. They claimed the 1990 title in style, ripping through a very good Duke team in a 103-73 cakewalk.
Although they did not repeat as champions the following season, the 1990-91 Runnin’ Rebels were the talk of college basketball. They went into the NCAA tournament with a 30-0 record and were a clear favorite to claim back-to-back championships. However, their previous year’s rout of Duke led to payback from the Blue Devils, who ended UNLV’s perfect season in the 1991 Final Four. Despite losing its final game, the UNLV team of this era was truly special.
- 1974 to 1976 Indiana Hoosiers
Achievements: National Championship (1976)
Head Coach: Bob Knight
The Indiana Hoosiers of 1974-75 and 1975-76 put together one of the greatest two-season college basketball runs of all time. They had gone 30-0 in the first of those two seasons before reaching the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, where they fell short against the Kentucky Wildcats.
The Hoosiers came back the following year and ran the table, dominating a 32-0 season that ended with two major blowouts to dismantle their Final Four competition. The Hoosiers beat UCLA by 14 points before pulling Michigan apart in the finale to win the 1976 national championship game by 18 points.
Indiana has had multiple runs as one of the top NCAA basketball teams, but, in my opinion, the mid-1970s Scott May and Ken Benson era comes out as the best.
- 1957 to 1963 Cincinnati Bearcats
Achievements: Two National Championships (1961, 1962), Five Final Four Appearances (1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963)
Head Coaches: George Smith, Ed Jucker
While Cincinnati might not have been one of Division I college basketball's powerhouses in recent years, the Bearcats’ teams of the Oscar Robertson era were among the best in history – making five straight trips to NCAA Final Four.
Robertson is undoubtedly one of the best NCAA basketball players of all time. He was named The Sporting News College Player of the year three times from 1958 to 1960 as well as winning multiple Helms College Player of the Year, UPI College Player of the Year, and USBWA College Player of the Year awards.
“The Big O” was a three-time consensus All-American and led the Bearcats to the best dynasty run in school history -- averaging 33.8 points per game. Cincinnati made the Final Four in each of Robertson’s final two seasons, but the championship eluded them until after he had graduated.
Rather than slowing down, the Bearcats got even better in 1961 and won the first of their back-to-back championships. Cincinnati is one of only three schools to make four consecutive Final Four appearances, and this run of success certainly qualifies for any list of great college basketball dynasties.
- 1954 to 1956 San Francisco Dons
Achievements: Two National Championships (1955, 1956)
Head Coach: Phil Woopert
The legendary Bill Russell not only won 11 NBA Championships, he was also the centerpiece of one of the best college basketball teams of all time.
The San Francisco Dons became an unstoppable force after Russell arrived and -- with the help of K.C. Jones and Hal Perry -- the team won back-to-back national titles in 1955 and 1956.
The Dons lost only one game during that two-year period and became one of the first undefeated college basketball teams in history by going 29-0 in 1955-56. Russell won a plethora of awards and was named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player in 1955. He then went on to become the winningest NBA player in history by claiming 11 championships with the Boston Celtics.
Many fans forget that Russell was a completely raw talent whom every college but San Francisco had overlooked. He was not a scorer, but had great instincts for the defensive side of the game. Once he arrived at USF and began to demonstrate his great defensive ability, Sports Illustrated wrote that “If he ever learns to hit the basket, they’re going to have to change the rules.”
That’s exactly what happened. Thanks to Russell’s talent, San Francisco’s teams were among the best defensive teams in history. When Russell became just as dangerous on the offensive end, the NCAA changed some of its rules.
In Russell’s junior year, the lane was widened, and basket interference (offensive goaltending) was also introduced to cut down Russell’s scoring totals. Unstoppable in their day, the Dons certainly ranks as one of college basketball's best teams.
- 1981-82 North Carolina Tar Heels
Achievements: National Championship (1982)
Head Coach: Dean Smith
One could comfortably include several years of Dean Smith’s coaching tenure with the North Carolina Tar Heels in this list of all-time great teams, but the 1981-82 edition stands out as one of the very best ever.
UNC had constructed a roster that centered on James Worthy while also featuring Sam Perkins and freshman Michael Jordan. Among several great UNC rosters that routinely boasted future NBA stars, the 1981-82 team had some of the best North Carolina basketball players in school history.
It seems fitting that this team gave Dean Smith his first national championship. Jordan hit a jumper from the left side to give the Tar Heels the lead in the dying moments of the final against Georgetown, and no one needs to remind Hoyas fans what happened next.
North Carolina finished the season 32-2 and rode its infamous four-corners offense to a national championship. Smith would go on to win his second title in 1993 and retired with the most wins of any coach in Tar Heels history.
- 2014 to 2018 Villanova Wildcats
Achievements: Two National Championships (2016, 2018), Two Final Four Appearances (2016, 2018)
Head Coach: Jay Wright
Jay Wright’s Villanova team became a regular title contender by 2016, and the Wildcats went on to win two championships in a span of three seasons.
The Wildcats specialized in picking teams apart with an outstanding game from behind the arc -- shooting 3-pointers at a high percentage and running an effective offense that ensured they always got the best looks.
Villanova set the record for total victories in a four-season stretch (136), taking down the previous record of 133 held by Duke. Not only did they accomplish that, the Wildcats also did it by an average victory margin of at least 14 points in each of the four seasons.
The team was largely led by point guard Jalen Brunson from 2015 to 2018. He was a key feature in both the 2016 and 2018 championship victories and was named the National College Player of the Year as a senior in 2017-18. Villanova also had some great 3-point shooters who are now honing their craft in the NBA – a group that includes Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Josh Hart.
- 2001 to 2018 Kansas Jayhawks
Achievements: National Championship (2008), Four Final Four Appearances (2003, 2008, 2012, 2018), Sixteen Big 12 titles
Head Coach: Roy Williams, Bill Self
The Kansas Jayhawks won the Big 12 Conference championship 16 times in a 17-season period, including 14 consecutive regular-season title wins from 2005 to 2018. They were ranked a No. 4 seed or higher for the NCAA tournament in each of those 14 seasons, including nine No. 1 rankings.
During that spell, the Jayhawks became a factory for All-American talent and NBA Draft prospects. In fact, critics suggest the Jayhawks should have won more championships in this era, considering the team’s greatness in each of those years.
Kansas won the 2008 national championship in head coach Bill Self’s fifth season with the team. That year, a heroic Mario Chalmers 3-pointer forced overtime against Memphis, and the Jayhawks eventually won the game.
Self-deployed a sturdy defensive team that was always tough to play against, and he helped the Jayhawks become one of the most consistent winners in college basketball.
- 1991 to 1999 Kentucky Wildcats
Achievements: Two National Championships (1996, 1998), Four Final Four Appearances (1993, 1996, 1997, 1998)
Head Coaches: Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith
Rick Pitino built one of the most impressive dynasties in college basketball history during the 1990s. In 1992, Kentucky’s roster was good, but it wasn’t yet the stunning factory of future NBA talent it quickly became under Pitino’s leadership.
The 1996 Wildcats made it all the way to a national championship -- their first since Joe Hall’s team did it back in 1978. Kentucky returned to the final in 1997 and lost in overtime to Arizona before reclaiming its crown with another championship in 1998.
In the 1990s, Kentucky reached the NCAA’s Elite Eight seven times in eight seasons, made four Final Four appearances, and won two titles. Pitino is considered one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, and his work with the Wildcats during that decade is the shining star of his career as a head coach.
- 1980 to 2022 Duke Blue Devils
Achievements: Five National Championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015), 13 Final Four Appearances (1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2010, 2015, 2022)
Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K)
I thought about focusing on just a portion of Coach K’s tenure in writing this piece, but that would have been unfair to the program he built with the Duke Blue Devils.
Coach K is a legend of the sport, and his Blue Devils teams demonstrated that every single year -- winning five national titles between 1989 and 2015 and reaching the Final Four on 13 occasions. Duke can claim some of the most valuable college basketball teams in history, having churned out top NBA talent year after year.
During the Coach K era, the Blue Devils had multiple runs as the most dominant team in college basketball, and they were always close to the very top. They made the Final Four six times in seven years between 1988 and 1994 and then appeared twice in three years between 1999 and 2001.
If you had to pick one Duke team as the most dominant of them all, you might lean toward choosing the 1998-99 squad, which put together a season often ranked as the best of all time, even though it lost the NCAA title game to UConn. The 1998-99 Blue Devils went 37-2, winning games by an average margin of almost 25 points that year. They were led by Elton Brand and Shane Battier, and they posted some of the best team stats the college game has ever seen.
Coach K is now the winningest college basketball coach of all time. The stats posted by his Duke teams are remarkable. Under Coach K, the Blue Devils became one of the nation’s most feared and hated teams because they were so very good for so long.
- 1963 to 1975 UCLA Bruins
Achievements: 10 National Championships (1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975)
I would be willing to bet that what the UCLA Bruins accomplished between 1963 and 1975 will never happen again in college basketball. They won 10 titles in 12 seasons while rolling out some of the most talented and unbeatable teams in the history of college basketball.
UCLA won seven straight titles, beginning with Lew Alcindor’s first varsity season, and the Bruins went undefeated in three of those seven years. Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) is considered the best player in college basketball history.
Legendary coach John Wooden considered the greatest college basketball coach of all time for his miraculous achievements with UCLA, led the team on an 88-game unbeaten streak during its dynasty era. The run was so incredible that UCLA still holds the record by 28 games.
Nicknamed ‘The Wizard of Westwood’, Wooden deployed a championship-winning team year after year largely because of the system he called the “pyramid of success.” Bruins teams wouldn’t prepare to beat their opponents, instead, their philosophy was to prepare to be the very best version of themselves. If his players could do that, Wooden believed the result would take care of itself.
As it turned out, he was right. Some of the greatest UCLA basketball players of that era included the likes of Alcindor, Bill Walton, and Gail Goodrich. The Bruins of the 1960s and 1970s were one of the very best dynasties in any sport.
Parameters for ranking
These great college basketball teams have been ranked based on the degree of their dominance within the timeframe designated for each team. I was sure to include a couple of teams that had incredible runs in shorter time frames, while also recognizing some of the greatest long-running dynasties in college basketball.
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