Even though we have entered the third decade of the millennium, it still feels a bit weird having a retrospective on the 21st century. So much has changed since we were concerned that Y2K would end the world, and we traded in our pagers for cell phones.
With the 2021 NCAA Tournament coming upon us, it is fun to look back at the best college basketball programs over the last two decades. So much has changed in college hoops over this time. In 2000, high school players entering the NBA Draft was becoming much more commonplace, and in 2001 we had our first-ever high school player going No. 1 overall. Soon after, the one-and-done culture would be in place and would change the NCAA.
There were also massive conference realignments. The ACC went from nine to 15 schools, the Big Ten expanded to 14 teams and the Big 12 shrunk to 10. The Big East blew up and then split up. Louisville played in four different conferences in this century.
It is a tough task to truly rank the top 25 programs over this time frame. Only three of the programs have had the same coach the entire time, and aside from a select few, many programs experience considerable peaks and valleys during a 22-year stretch.
So let's see which are the top 25 programs of the 21st century.
Bill Self was around for only three seasons, but he ignited a run of eight straight NCAA Tournaments, four Sweet 16s, two regional finals, and a Final Four. Illinois would reach its peak during the 2004-2005 season, as Bruce Weber's Illini would win their first 29 games before losing their regular-season finale to Ohio State. They wouldn't lose again until the NCAA championship game against North Carolina. From there, the Illini struggled to enjoy that level of success. After the 2007 season, Illinois reached the NCAA Tournament just three times and won just two total tournament games. From 2001 to 2005, Illinois won four Big Ten regular-season titles and went 141-33. The 2021 Illini were back as an elite team.
The beginning of the century was the end of the 24-year Gale Catlett era. His final season in Morgantown was a school-worst 8-20 season in which WVU lost 15 of 16 Big East games. John Beilein took over and resurrected the program by leading the Mountaineers to two Sweet 16s, a regional final, and an NIT championship. Bob Huggins took the reins in 2007 and has led West Virginia to ten NCAA Tournaments in 12 years, including the 2010 Final Four, and has been a major factor since joining the Big 12 in 2012-2013. Huggins' "Press Virginia" defense in the late 2010s is one of the most difficult defenses to game plan for.
Rick Barnes took over a flailing Texas program in 1998 and instantly made it relevant. National Player of the Year T.J. Ford led the Horns to the 2003 Final Four where they would lose to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse. Four years later, Kevin Durant would be the first freshman to win the Naismith Award for the national Player of the Year. Durant's lone season in Austin was sandwiched between two regional final appearances (2006, 2008). Texas has been a player in the current one-and-done culture and has placed quite a few players in the pros. Shaka Smart took over the program in 2015 but has yet to find tournament success.
For much of the 2000s, Pitt was one of the best programs in the Big East and the nation. Ben Howland took a dormant program and built it into a Big East champion and a top 10 program. Jamie Dixon took over and continued the success. The Panthers reached five Sweet 16s since 2000 and the 2009 Elite Eight and were routinely receiving one of the top seeds in the tournament. Their move to the ACC (as well as Dixon leaving for TCU) has meant some tough times for the Panthers. While the Jeff Capel era has been down, you can't deny how good they were for much of the 21st century.
Think about all that has happened to Xavier over the last two decades. David West was a freshman for a solid program led by Skip Prosser in the Atlantic 10. From Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack to now Travis Steele, the Musketeers moved into the Big East and in 2018 earned their first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They reached the Elite Eight three times since 2000 (the Muskies first-ever trips there) and seven Sweet 16s. They have yet to break through to a Final Four, but Xavier has created a level of consistent success that has set it up as a power program going forward.
Who knew that when 2000 began Butler would make a list like this? True, Butler was beginning to dominate the Horizon League, but who could have seen a program that would go to back-to-back national championship games (losing to Duke and UConn) and become a member of the Big East? The school that was best known for its gymnasium became a factor in college basketball. Sure, we've had several non-power conference schools reach the Final Four this century, but Butler actually made it to the championship game...twice! The Bulldogs have been to 10 of the last 13 NCAA Tournaments and have finished in the top half of the Big East in three of their first four seasons since joining the league. LaVall Jordan has been up and down in his four seasons.
John Calipari had Memphis positioned to become the outsider that was crashing the power conference's Final Four dominance. From 2005-2006 to 2008-2009, the Tigers went 61-1 in Conference USA play, reaching three regional finals and the 2008 national championship game. (The 2007-2008 season would later be vacated. ) He was cultivating his program to take advantage of the one-and-done era, which he would take with him to Kentucky in 2009. Josh Pastner took over and couldn't keep the train rolling, Tubby Smith struggled in two seasons as well, and now former star Penny Hardaway has been tasked with reviving the program. The four-year run that Calipari had with guys like Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Rodney Carney was magical. Hardaway's recruiting prowess has people believing the program is back, but that hasn't resonated on the court.
The Jim O'Brien era in Columbus ended after violations came to light which caused the vacating of wins over four seasons. Thad Matta took over and quickly brought success back to the Buckeyes. With the help of Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Ohio State reached the 2007 NCAA championship game where they'd lose to defending champion Florida. Over the next few years, Ohio State was a postseason staple. It would reach the 2012 Final Four and had several All-Americans. But it soured over Matta's last four seasons, as Ohio State failed to get out of the NCAA Tournament's first weekend (and failed to make the tournament his final two seasons). Chris Holtmann has gotten the Buckeyes back to the tournament but a lot more will be expected.
Kelvin Sampson led Oklahoma in the new millennium by taking the Sooners to the Final Four in 2002 and the regional final in 2003. In 2009, Blake Griffin took the nation by storm with his athletic dunks and led the Sooners to the regional final. In 2011, Jeff Capel was dismissed from the university, and there also had been an NCAA investigation into the program earlier. Lon Kruger took over and had huge success in 2015-2016 with Buddy Hield leading the team to the Final Four. Oklahoma has yet to bring home a title this century, but the program has had some impressive highs to go with some tough lows.
The century started off with the program suffering fallout from the Ed Martin scandal. Brian Ellerbe and Tommy Amaker struggled to recover from the sanctions. The 2010s have been a lot kinder to Michigan. The Wolverines went to the Final Four in 2013 and 2018 where they finished as the runner-up both times and have made the tournament nine of the last 11 seasons. That came after some dark times in Ann Arbor. From 2000 to 2010, Michigan made just one NCAA Tournament, and the 2008 season featured the most losses the Wolverines ever suffered in a season. John Beilein turned Michigan back into a contender but left for an ill-fated stint with the NBA's Cavaliers. Juwan Howard brings the past back to Ann Arbor and the future looks bright.
UCLA has won just one national championship since 1975 and that didn't happen this century. The Bruins did go to three straight Final Fours, from 2006 to 2008, but lost their only trip to the title game. Despite having many future NBA players and All-Stars, the Bruins have been notoriously inconsistent. They had four 30-win seasons, but they've missed five NCAA Tournaments — four of those were losing seasons — and failed to make it out of the first weekend on five other occasions (including losing a First Four game). Steve Lavin, Ben Howland, and Steve Alford were all fired, and the program still struggles to reach its potential despite landing great talent.
Dıck Bennett (father of Virginia's Tony Bennett) took Wisconsin to an unlikely Final Four in 2000. Bo Ryan would take over the program in 2001-2002, and he turned the Badgers into the team you hate to play against. Usually, sound defensively and playing an efficient, albeit slower, offensive style got Wisconsin to consecutive Final Fours in 2014 and 2015. The 2015 team, led by Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, upset previously unbeaten Kentucky and lost to Duke in the national championship game. Ryan left the program abruptly the following season, and Greg Gard has delivered a pair of Sweet 16 appearances, but the Badgers suffered their first losing season in 20 years in 2018. Despite not being a typical destination program for the nation's top talent, Wisconsin has certainly milked the most out of what it has.
The turn of the century brought in Maryland's heyday. Gary Williams' Terps reached their first Final Four in 2001 and would win their first national championship in 2002. Maryland had arrived, and its battles with Duke were among the most heated in all of sports. The Terps haven't been close to reaching that level of success since, making it to the Sweet 16 just once and not getting anywhere close to another title. They've missed eight NCAA Tournaments and haven't found a consistent level of success. Mark Turgeon has done a decent job as the Terrapins transitioned from the ACC to the Big Ten and have finally seemed to find themselves back on solid ground.
Arizona typically has been one of the best regular-season teams but hasn't found the level of success it should come tournament time. The Wildcats haven't won a title since 1997 and reached just one Final Four (their 2001 championship game loss to Duke). They've had five stunning losses in the first round in that time despite routinely recruiting NBA-level talent. Add in vacating wins for the 2007-2008 due to playing ineligible players, Lute Olsen's puzzling behavior prior to his retirement, plus a lot of heat around the program from the FBI's investigation into college basketball, and there have been some dark times off the court. Sean Miller has gotten the Wildcats back to the winning ways the school enjoyed during Olsen's prime, but he's yet to guide it back to the Final Four and there is a cloud that lives around the program. The lack of a title is what certainly keeps the Wildcats from a spot in the top 10.
Gonzaga has truly had a Cinderella journey this century. Dan Monson did the mid-major coach thing and jumped to a power conference job (Minnesota) after guiding Gonzaga to a surprising Elite Eight run in 1999. Mark Few took over and turned the Zags into a perennial power despite playing in the West Coast Conference. During this century, Gonzaga has reached the No. 1 ranking in the polls, its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, reached its first Final Four in program history, and lost a close game to North Carolina for the 2017 title. In 2021, they joined 2014 Wichita State and 2015 Kentucky as schools who entered the NCAA tournament undefeated this century. The program has put guys in the NBA and has become one of the top destinations for international players who want to go to college in the U.S. The knock against the Bulldogs is the "yeah, but they don't play anybody" which gets validated by critics when the Zags fail to make deeper-than-expected runs in March. Still, Gonzaga joins only Kansas and Michigan State as schools that have been to every NCAA Tournament this century and it continues to behave like a legit college hoops powerhouse. Few, who could be a candidate for any job opening, have stuck around the entire time.
The Orange finally won a national championship in 2003 behind Carmelo Anthony's and Hakim Warrick's stellar play. That title season came one year after they were in the NIT...and that has been the narrative of Syracuse basketball of the 21st century. Jim Boeheim's bunch went to the 2013 and 2016 Final Fours and has been known to pull off an upset or two in the tournament (the 2016 Final Four team was a 10-seed). There have also been the five NCAA Tournaments that they missed and the 101 wins that were vacated due to improper benefits. Syracuse also made the difficult move from the Big East to the ACC, effectively ending the Big East as we knew it. Still, the 'Cuse is one of the more fun teams that come every March whether it is a high seed or riding the bubble.
Louisville has made a long, strange trip through the 21st century. Hall of Famer Denny Crum ushered the Cardinals in, then Rick Pitino guided the program as it moved from Conference USA to the Big East, then the American Athletic Conference, and finally the ACC. In that time, Louisville reached six regional finals, three Final Fours and won the 2013 national championship. And there is where the difficulties began. The school and program have been mired in various scandals that have involved Pitino's personal conduct, an escort scandal, and the federal probe into pay-for-play schemes. The FBI investigation caused a messy divorce between the school and Pitino as the NCAA vacated its 2013 national championship due to the escort scandal. On the floor, Louisville has been solid despite all the changes it has dealt with. Yet current head coach Chris Mack inherited a lot of baggage.
Florida is the only program to win consecutive national championships this century. The Gators have been to four Final Fours and eight regional finals and really became the first true foil to Kentucky in the SEC in decades. Since those titles in 2006 and 2007, the Gators have been up and down. They missed the tournament for two seasons after their title runs and had that magical 36-3 season of 2014 end with an upset loss to UConn in the Final Four. (They followed that with a 16-17 campaign.) Donovan left for the NBA after that 2015 season, and Mike White has yet to get Florida back to elite status. Still, the Gators were among the most feared programs in college basketball for a 15-year stretch and had Florida fans caring about something else other than football (which was also very good).
Sparty began the century winning the 2000 national championship with the "Flintstones." Michigan State (and the Big Ten) has yet to win a title since but continues to play one of the nation's toughest schedules, and Tom Izzo's teams are generally considered to be as well prepared as any. It has paid off in the postseason, as Michigan State has reached seven Final Fours this century (most this century) and nine regional finals. (Only Kansas has more.) The 2000s have been more kind to Izzo's bunch than the 2010s have — the Spartans have reached two Final Fours since 2010 and once failed to get out of the tournament's first week for three straight years. Even in years that the Spartans don't seem dominant, they are always dangerous when the tournament arrives.
It took a couple of years for the Jay Wright era to get going (he took over for Steve Lappas after the 2001 season), but the Wildcats began to hit their stride with a Sweet 16 appearance in 2005 and reaching the 2009 Final Four. Villanova then became a true power player when it defeated North Carolina on a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater to win the 2016 national championship (the only buzzer-beater to win an NCAA championship game ever). After being upset in the second round of the 2017 tournament as the favorite, 'Nova would go on to win the 2018 national title. Wright's Wildcats have dominated the reconfigured Big East (they won seven of the first eight regular-season championships) and in that time have been one of the best programs in the country. Their lean and average seasons keep Villanova out of the top five, but it has become a true power.
UConn is one of the trickiest programs on this list. No program has won more NCAA championships this century than the Huskies (their three ties Duke and North Carolina), but they also unceremoniously got lost in the Big East breakup and ended up in the American Athletic Conference where they have failed to be selected for three of the four NCAA Tournaments recently. They also have had a postseason ban and several scandals mixed in, and their 2014 title team entered the tournament as a No. 7 seed (not exactly a juggernaut). Still, this program in Storrs has done blue blood things without owning a membership in that club. UConn deserves to be considered a top-five program thus far, but its standing among college basketball's elite is tenuous at best. Their return to the Big East got them back to the NCAA tournament.
It has been a tale of two decades in Lexington. From 2000 to 2009, the Wildcats failed to reach a Final Four as they underperformed during the unpopular Tubby Smith and fumbling Billy Gillispie eras. Then John Calipari came along with his one-and-dones and brought Kentucky back among the top programs in the nation. He has led Big Blue Nation to four Final Fours and the 2012 national championship. Kentucky also went undefeated in 2015 until it lost to Wisconsin in the national semifinal. The Wildcats have been first or second in the SEC in nine of the last ten seasons and have flooded the NBA with top-level talent. They are arguably the best program of the 2010s. With the mix of both decades and just the one ring, Kentucky is a top-five program but isn't the best of the 21st century.
North Carolina started off the century with an unlikely trip to the Final Four. (Julius Peppers was on that squad!) That was followed by the much-maligned Matt Doherty era that was punctuated with an ugly 8-20 record in 2002. Roy Williams arrived for the 2003-2004 season and placed the Tar Heels back among the elite with three NCAA championships, six Final Fours (including that 2000 season), and nine regional finals during his 18 seasons. The Tar Heels haven't exactly littered the NBA with all-stars during this stretch, which makes what they've done all the more impressive. Their three titles (they lost a possible fourth on a buzzer-beater) and six Final Fours trail no one this century, but four missed NCAA Tournaments, ugly 2002 and 2020 seasons, and their 19-30 record against our No. 1 team keep them from taking the top spot.
The Jayhawks have been one of the steadiest programs of the 21st century. Roy Williams began the 2000s by reaching the 2002 and 2003 Final Fours before leaving for North Carolina. All Bill Self has done is win at least a share of 14 straight Big 12 regular-season titles and the 2008 NCAA championship. In this century, Kansas has been to five Final Fours (only Michigan State and North Carolina have been to more), and no one matches its 10 regional final appearances. The Jayhawks have done a fantastic job riding the fence of developing players (like Frank Mason III) and one and dones (Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid).
Duke has won three national championships this century in three different ways. The 2001 team may have been the best and most talented team this century. The 2010 championship was won by a senior-laden squad, while its 2015 title squad was led by a trio of one-and-done players. Mike Krzyzewski has become the all-time winningest coach, and the Blue Devils qualified for each tournament in the first 20 years of the century. The knock on Duke is that it reached the Final Four only four times (that trails only North Carolina, Michigan State, and Kansas) and has had a couple of head-scratching tournament losses (Lehigh, Mercer). Still, what coach K has built over these two decades is remarkable. He took over Dean Smith's torch as the face of the ACC, burst through Bobby Knight's win record, and stole John Calipari's thunder as the best accumulator of one-and-done talent. That makes Duke the top program of the 21st century.