The NCAA Tournament may be the most brutal post-season tournament in American sports. There are more than 300 Division 1 programs competing for a ticket to the Promised Land, but only four get to hang a banner in the rafters. Standing between them and history is the most unforgiving 68 team field known to man; the type of tournament where overwhelming talent can be erased in an instant by an unknown guy from Iowa City who decides to play the game of his life. Any college basketball fan knows how quickly a season can unravel when the other team refuses to miss. And no amount of coaching, planning, or strategy can compensate for the ball simply not going in the basket for you. Given the cruel nature of college basketball post-season play, it would be smart to assume that consistencies are few and far between. In a single elimination tournament, it’s unlikely the same schools will continue to rise to the top.
Except, they do….
Go back to our list. Now, follow it backwards in time until you find a year in which neither Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, or Indiana were playing at the end of the year. The first four schools listed have all won titles in the last five years, and the first three have appeared in two Final Fours in the last five years. Obviously, we’ll need to go back further to find a year in which none of these schools were at the top of their game. UCLA appeared in three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008, so that will take us a few more years back. North Carolina won another title in 2005, and Kansas played in back-to-back Final Fours in 2002 and 2003. Duke won the title 2001. Just like that, we’re heading into the last century. Kentucky dominated in the late 90s with three straight Final Fours, While UNC and UCLA picked up titles in the mid-90s. Of course, the first Duke dynasty spanned five Final Fours in early 90s and late 80s. Kansas and Indiana both cut down the nets in the late 80s as well.
The answer is 1985. That’s how far back you have to go on the list to find a year in which none of those teams played in a Final Four. 1985, the year the modern era of college basketball began with the introduction of a 64 team NCAA Tournament, is also the only year that neither Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, or Indiana played in a Final Four. That’s 27 straight Final Fours with at least one of those six schools participating. 11 of those Final Fours included at least two of those schools. Three Final Fours (1991, 1993, 2008) saw three of the teams competing. 14 of the last 27 national title winners have come from this group, which means you should be picking one of these teams as National Champion in your bracket every year; they win more than 50% of time.
For anyone unfamiliar with college basketball royalty, those six schools (the “Super 6”) are the six greatest college basketball programs of all time. While certain programs have maintained periods of dominance, only the Super 6 have been able to spread that dominance across multiple decades, establishing eras of supremacy under different coaches and rosters. While schools like Connecticut, Michigan State, Syracuse, and Louisville all boast impressive resumes, the Super 6 remain the cream of the crop in Men’s college basketball, and they have resumes of their own to back it up (see below).
So what makes this season so fascinating?
For the first time in history, all six programs have the potential to be very good at the same time. Take a look at the Associated Press Preseason poll released last weekend. Every Super 6 program is ranked in the top 15 nationally. While seasons come and go and each school enjoys their time at the top, never has there been a season when all six power programs have the potential to be national title contenders in the same year. We could see some dramatic match-ups come March, as well as intriguing storylines throughout the season.
UCLA has endured the second longest title drought of any Super 6 program, winning their last title in 1995. While certainly not a bad thing, UCLA’s three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 worsened the pain for many fans when they were unable to come away with a National Championship. What’s more, their clout has slipped in recent weeks with the ongoing investigation into their prized recruit, Shabazz Muhammad, as well as the shoulder injury that will reportedly keep him off the floor another 2-4 weeks. At this point, the top basketball prospect for this season has not been cleared by the NCAA and has yet to practice one minute with his teammates. If he is cleared of any wrongdoings and his shoulder heals properly, UCLA will jump into the top ten very quickly. If the investigation continues and the shoulder gets worse, it’s going to be another long season for the Bruins.
The remaining four teams have all picked up national titles in the last five seasons. Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina have all played in two Final Fours in that time, and Kansas has been in two national title games. Still, even the schools with recent success have major question marks for this season. Some say Coach K’s style is outdated in the one-and-done era, but I wouldn’t count on it. The man is a living legend who managed to win a title with virtually no talent in 2010 (I believe, the least talented National Champion of the modern era). Roy Williams has plenty of talent coming back to Chapel Hill, but his own health problems over the summer have many fans concerned about team chemistry. Furthermore, neither Duke nor UNC is picked to win their conference this year, as they’ll both have NC State to deal with. Still, for guys who win like Williams and Coach K, I won’t say they’re past their prime until they’re retired.
Calipari continues to recruit NBA level talent for the sole purpose of creating college “dream teams” that play their one necessary college season and then enter the NBA Draft. Most impressively, he manages to curb egos and convince his NBA-level talent that if they all play together they can accomplish more and increase their draft stock. Conversely, Bill Self certainly gets his share of talented players, but his recruits aren’t one-and-done material like Calipari. Self’s players stay for two or three seasons (sometimes all four), while he molds them into role players who stifle opponents with defense. This strategy allows him to accomplish more with less talent (6th man Connor Teahan was a walk-on from a Kansas City high school who saw significant minutes in the Final Four last season). Both coaches are geniuses at getting their players to do what they need them to do. Calipari refuses to tolerate selfishness, while Bill Self talks his athletes down so he can build them back up into the players he needs them to be.
So who will be cutting down nets in Atlanta? As is always the case at the beginning of the season, it’s impossible to say. The Super 6 all have history on their side, but what will happen if storied programs collide in March? Will we get a rematch of last year’s national title game? Will fans finally see the coveted Duke-UNC NCAA Tournament match-up? Can Indiana or UCLA end their slump and bring a title home? For the first time ever, will we see four Super 6 schools make it to the Final Four? We’ll start to get a better idea as the season goes on, but don’t ignore the stats. Every year college basketball analysts throw out various theories and talk about how unpredictable college basketball can be. In truth, it’s about the most predictable sport on the planet. Every year, one of the Super 6 is in the Final Four, and 50% of the time they’re crowned National Champions. In the world of college basketball, the cream always rises to the top. If that’s not consistency, I don’t know what is.
Under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke Blue Devils have molded themselves into a pillar of college basketball, thanks to tremendous successes in the modern era. All four of their NCAA Championships have come since 1991, and 11 of their 15 Final Four appearances have occurred during Coach K’s tenure. Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Krzyzewskivilles that form outside have helped define the “madness” culture of the modern game, and their rivalry with fellow Super 6 school North Carolina is one of the most iconic and intense rivalries in all of American sports. Last season, Coach K surpassed mentor Bob Knight to become the winningest Men’s college basketball coach of all time. Duke currently ranks 4th on the all-time win list.
Currently ranked 3rd on the all-time win list, the Tar Heels boast a record 18 Final Four appearances with 5 NCAA Championships. Under the direction of legendary coach Dean Smith, North Carolina became a perennial powerhouse that recruited great basketball minds (Larry Brown, Roy Williams) and future NBA All-Stars (Michael Jordan, James Worthy). Three of their national title games are part of college basketball folklore: Their 1957 triple overtime win over Wilt Chamberlain-led Kansas; the 1982 title game, which featured future NBA Hall of Fame inductees Michael Jordan (who hit a game-winning shot), Patrick Ewing, and James Worthy (who was so out of position on the final play that Georgetown guard Fred Brown mistook him for a teammate and passed the ball right to him); and the 1993 title game, in which Michigan forward Chris Webber infamously called a time out in the final seconds when his team had none, resulting in a technical foul. In the last decade under Coach Roy Williams, the Tar Heels have won two additional NCAA Championships.
The history of UCLA Bruins basketball contains the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport, as well as the most controversial legacy. Coach John Wooden’s 10 NCAA Championships in 12 years (including four undefeated seasons) is unmatched, but there’s an elephant in the trophy room. As former UCLA star center Bill Walton puts it, “If the UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s were subjected to the kind of scrutiny Jerry Tarkanian and his players have been, UCLA would probably have to forfeit about eight national titles and be on probation for the next 100 years.” UCLA won an additional title in 1995, though it too was shrouded in controversy when head coach Jim Harrick was fired the next year for lying about “expense reports.” Still, with names like Lew Alcindor and John Wooden in the storied canon, it’s difficult to deny the Bruins mark on college basketball history. More recently, current head coach Ben Howland took UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008.
The Hoosiers accomplishments are less consistent than their Super 6 counterparts, but impressive nonetheless. Indiana won three of their five NCAA Championships under legendary coach Bob Knight, whose 1976 squad remains the last college basketball team to finish a season undefeated. Knight would take Indiana to five of their eight Final Fours using his revolutionary motion offense before being fired in 2000. Indiana currently has the longest title drought of any Super 6 program, winning their last NCAA Championship in 1987 (though they did play in a title game in 2002). Despite their gaps in success, current coach Tom Crean is slowly developing the Hoosiers into a powerhouse program again.
Regarded by some as perhaps the greatest college basketball program of all time, the defending champion Kentucky Wildcats rank first in all time wins, and second in the NCAA Championship count with 8 national titles (it’s worth noting that their 8 titles are much less disputed than UCLA’s 11). Beginning under head coach Adolf Rupp, Kentucky established periods of dominance that continued with national titles wins under coaches Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith in the 1990s. Despite recent turbulence, coach John Calipari has molded Kentucky into a national contender again by embracing the “one-and-done” culture of college basketball; essentially, recruiting top level talent for a single season before shipping them off to the NBA. Kentucky is the defending National Champion, and had six players drafted into the NBA this summer.
It’s difficult to argue that any school has a greater basketball tradition than Kansas. Their first coach was the inventor of the game, Dr. James Naismith. Legendary coach Phog Allen modernized the game at KU while also making himself a prominent voice for the implementation of the NCAA Tournament we know today. Two other Super 6 schools trace their lineage directly to Kansas, as Phog Allen coached and mentored Dean Smith and Adolf Rupp, who went on to establish programs at North Carolina and Kentucky, respectively (those schools play their home games in the Dean Dome and Rupp Arena, meaning North Carolina and Kentucky play in arenas named after Kansas players; both schools are also currently coached by former KU coaches). Kansas has won five national titles (3 NCAA Tournament titles, 2 Helms Foundation titles), played in 14 Final Fours, and is second on the all-time win list. They have more conference titles, winning seasons, and first team All-American selections than other college program. Allen Fieldhouse and the “Rock Chalk” chant that emanates from it is widely regarded as the best atmosphere in all of college sports. Under current coach Bill Self, they have won eight straight conference titles and played in two Final Fours in the last five seasons. Kansas is the defending national runner-up.