Monday, November 19, 2001

The CourtMaster on Elite Programs

Originally posted on

Hear ye, hear ye! Court is now in session, and it's time to rule on the issue of elite basketball programs.

If you have listened to enough game coverage or read enough stories about college basketball, you will have seen numerous references to elite programs. The schools most often referred to in that manner are Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky. I have also heard Kansas, UCLA, and Indiana referred to as elite.

So what really makes a college basketball program elite? There are no standard objective measures to determine that, but I will offer some for your consideration: In a decade, a team must (1) win at least one national championship, (2) make at least four Final Fours, and (3) miss the NCAA Tournament no more than once.

I don't think you can truly be considered an elite team in any sport unless you occasionally win a championship. In addition, a team should consistently be good with regular flashes of greatness. There should be very, very few bad seasons; no peaks and valleys.

In the past decade, eight schools have won national championships, but only three would meet the stated criteria to be considered elite. Of those eight champions, Michigan State (2000) and Connecticut (1999) each missed the NCAA Tournament three times. UCLA (1995) only appeared in one Final Four, and Arkansas (1994) only made two Final Fours. Arizona (1997) was the school just missing the cut. They made all ten NCAA Tournaments in the decade, but made only three Final Fours.

The three elite programs in the past decade using these standards are Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Duke (1992 and 2001 champions) made four Final Fours and only missed one NCAA Tournament (1995). North Carolina (1993 champs) appeared in all ten NCAA Tournaments and advanced to five Final Fours. Kentucky won two titles (1996 and 1998), earned NCAA Tournament berths every season, and made four Final Fours.

For those of you who think a decade is not long enough to make a team elite, let's apply the single standard of averaging one championship every ten years. Going back to the inception of the NCAA Tournament in 1939, only two schools have won enough titles to qualify as elite; UCLA (12) and Kentucky (7). Since UCLA has won only one championship in 26 years, I feel that they have lost the right to be called an elite program.

I am most comfortable using the ten-year timeframe in judging which schools have elite basketball programs. Take Kansas for example, a school often given that tag. They have not won a championship since 1988 and, therefore, I feel that they have fallen from the elite status.

North Carolina has not won a national title since 1993, and if they fail to do so in the next two seasons, I would feel that they too would forfeit the right to be thought of as an elite basketball school. They would still have a great history, but they would not deserve that title on a current basis using objective measures.

However, this type of issue cannot be limited to statistics. In this regard, I solicited the opinions of two nationally known and well-respected college basketball writers, Mike DeCourcy from the Sporting News, and John Feinstein, noted author and syndicated columnist.

DeCourcy told me "The notion of "elite" can shift with time. Right now, I would say that Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky and Florida are "elite" because they've had enormous recent success. But if you'd asked the same question in 1995, then Arkansas, North Carolina and Kansas would have joined Duke and Kentucky."

He added "If you're talking about the elite programs, the places where you practically have to try to screw up the situation and beg the fans not to come, I think there are but a few: North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky for certain, and possibly UCLA and Duke. The difference with the latter two is the lack of statewide support"

Feinstein took a different approach. He said, "To me, an elite basketball program is one with a winning tradition--multiple Final Fours; conference titles etc; a great coach; at least one or two superstar players through history and perhaps, a great moment or two that people remember? Maryland isn't there yet. One Final Four; zero conference titles doesn't make you an elite program although you can be on your way if you keep winning. Virginia in the 80s was on that track--two Final Fours in four years--but didn't get there either."

He continued, "I wonder if you have to win a national title to be considered elite--probably. Duke was as close as you can be without a national title pre-'91; same with Carolina pre-'82 since the '57 championship was ancient history by then. One place where I may differ from most: I factor in things like graduation rate and cheating. To me, Kentucky is NOT an elite program because of their lurid history? Same thing for Vegas when Tark was there. Arizona is borderline but falls short because of graduation rate. On the other hand, Knight's Indiana run was absolutely elite because he won titles and graduated most everyone; same thing for Duke and Carolina the last 15 years."

As I look ahead, Arizona and Michigan State could soon join the ranks of the elite programs. Lute Olson's Wildcats need only one more Final Four appearance in next two seasons to join the elite. If Tom Izzo's Spartans make the next five NCAA Tournaments and reach one Final Four during that period, they would qualify under my objective criteria.

Mike Decourcy adds this about the future; "It will be interesting to see what Duke becomes after Krzyzewski, and whether or not it will justify inclusion on that list. I'm not eager for that day to come, however. Krzyzewski is too good for the game." Judging by his new lifetime contract, we won't have to worry about that any time soon.

There was an interesting quote in Friday's USA Today attributed to Duke Athletic Director Joe Alleva. When defending the school's commitment to football, he was quoted as saying, "Most of the ACC has a head start on us, but we can offer something nobody else can: a great school."

I contacted Duke Sports Information Director Jon Jackson asking if Alleva would care to clarify or add to that comment, but after two days I still have not received a reply from Jackson. This type of quote represents the air of arrogance surrounding the Duke athletic program and basketball team that makes many ACC fans loathe the Blue Devils.

ACC schools cruised through their early season schedules last week with two notable exceptions.
If Florida State's basketball season were instead a Broadway show, the curtain would have dropped for good after Friday night's loss at Florida.

The 68-47 score was not particularly surprising, but the Seminoles' 26% shooting was an embarrassment. Turning the ball over 29 times did not help the 'Noles' cause either. Especially disappointing was the performance of Nigel Dixon. Despite being in better shape than last season, he only grabbed two rebounds and did not score a point in 18 ineffective minutes.

The shocker of the week was Hampton's win at North Carolina. The 77-69 loss was only the Tar Heel's second in their last 73 home openers. Very few teams win when they attempt 34 3-pointers, as Carolina did on Friday night, and even fewer prevail when they only make 6 of them. Perhaps they need to figure out how to get good shots against a zone defense (like Hampton played Friday), and then make them.

I have been very hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of people who think this could be a bad season for Carolina. I'm not going to change my mind after one game, but I am going to find out where that bandwagon is.

That's what I think. Please let me know how you feel on the message boards or by e-mail at

Next week, I'll preview the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Here's a hint-it looks good for the ACC.

Until then, court is adjourned.


Post a Comment

<< Home