The 13 most debatable and surprising teams in Ken Pomeroy's ranking of all 353 college basketball programs
How does UConn, which has more national titles than any school in the past 25 years, not even crack the top 15?
That's the state of college basketball in 2019, or so says Ken Pomeroy's system, which on Friday revealed a 23-year dataset of results that provided a 1-353 ranking of every men's Division I basketball program from the past two-plus decades. It's delightful offseason fodder.
Pomeroy, whose "advanced analysis of college basketball" website has become embedded in the daily, in-season discourse of college hoops, has provided us with a neo-historical look at how college basketball's nation of programs ranks from the very best (Duke) to the very worst (Grambling State).
Pomeroy authored a blog post, in part explaining his rankings and how they are not strictly results-oriented.
"It's a tradition during coaching change season for fan bases and media alike (sometimes they are the same thing!) to talk about the status of their program that has a fresh coaching vacancy," Pomeroy writes. "The program rankings are designed to provide an objective input into this discussion."
I wanted a bit more clarity and explanation, so I called Pomeroy over the weekend to get some exposition.
"It's designed to be the list you'd create if you were coming up with the best programs," he told me. "If there's a job opening, there's a job opening that to a fan base that seems good and wants to get a [big-name coach], but in reality, their program isn't that great and they should set their sights a little lower."
Pomeroy said his overarching rankings examine how each school has performed over the past 23 seasons, bringing about a bit more clarity to the perception of how, say, the fourth-best ACC program stacks up against the No. 2 school in the Pac-12 or the No. 6 team in the Big Ten. The list attempts to align program prestige with fact-based performance, i.e. how good a program has been vs. how good a job is perceived to be.
"Those two things aren't unrelated but they will be slightly different," Pomeroy said.
So while the rankings are certainly interesting and easy debate material, it must be harped that this is not a ranking subjective to team performance only. Pomeroy also weighted the past 10 years worth of recruiting destinations for top-100 prospects and also said 15 percent of his formula accounted for conference affiliation. There is recency bias in team results for recent seasons, too.
His project reads like a sweeping power rankings more than a true evaluation of overall on-court performance/win percentage. Often times, of course, those streams meet. It's why the top four are no shock: Duke then Kentucky then Kansas then North Carolina. Those are the four best schools (and jobs) in men's D-I and have been so for nearly four decades.
"Most of it is results-based," Pomeroy said. "I could probably tease out a results-only measure vs. how much conference recruiting stuff influences it. The conference stuff kind of tweaks it and then the recruiting stuff plays, for the top schools, plays a bigger role than the conference stuff. I think Oregon moved up 15 spots because of recruiting. Wisconsin would have been eighth (if not for recruiting) and they're 16th. Once you get past the top 50 to 75 teams, those other schools' [recruiting] aren't much of a factor."
So, why all data since 1997? The 23-year cutoff seems a random one, but it's as far back as Pomeroy's data reaches; for as great as it would be to have something like this deep into the early '90s or beyond, gathering game statistics gets shoddier the further you go back. So this is what we get, and what we get is still plenty hearty. We're essentially talking about three eras of college basketball here. In 1997, the NCAA Tournament consisted of 64 teams (I will now stare wistfully into the distance) and recruiting websites did not exist. By 2005, with the NBA's age minimum still at 18 years old, we were getting more and more elite high school players bypassing college altogether.
In the one-and-done era, and thanks to a basketful of new or amended rules, what college basketball has grown into in the past decade is markedly different from what the game was when Arizona won its lone national championship. There's almost no carryover from the beginning of Pomeroy's data set to now, with the exception of Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Greg Kampe, Bob McKillop, Fran O'Hanlon and Tom Izzo: they're the only six coaches who are with the same schools now as they were at the start of the 1996-97 season.
Pomeroy told me his inspiration to do this was born out of a piece he wrote in April for The Athletic, which in retrospect served as a teaser for this bigger project. He said Texas, UCLA, Maryland and Florida State were some of the schools that jumped out most notably to him. I concur with some of those, so let's get on with it. Let us cruise through these rankings and pluck a baker's dozen worth of programs whose placement I found most interesting.
KenPom program ranking: No. 7
Pomeroy told me there is some recency bias in his ratings, thus explaining VU's prominence and top-10 appearance. Recency bias makes some sense: a program's greater standing in the college basketball universe is usually discussed or recognized for its successes, or lack thereof, in recent seasons as opposed to how it was operating two, three, six decades ago. Still, Nova at No. 7 was a stunner to me. The Wildcats' median ranking at KenPom since 1997 is 28. What's all the more surprising is Villanova's lack of major recruiting coups in the past 10 years. Obviously, dominating the Big East since conference realignment has been the biggest factor in Nova become a new-age blue blood. Lest you forget, Villanova has been a 1, 2 or 3 seed eight times since 2006.
KenPom program ranking: No. 10
Texas is the highest-rated program without a national championship not only since Pomeroy's dataset begins, but without a title period. While some readers might be stunned about this, it's really not much of a surprise.indicated that Texas is viewed as a borderline top-five job by the coaching community. The program's incredibly impressive history under Rick Barnes of making the NCAA Tournament (16 times in 17 seasons) led to its strong showing in Pomeroy's rankings. UT's big recruiting classes in recent years edge it to the top-10 tier, narrowly beating out Ohio State.
"Texas was probably the first one to jump out to me, but when you dig into their history, they were so consistent under RIck Barnes," Pomeroy said. "Even under Shaka (Smart) they've recruited well, they just just tend to get guys who are either one-and-done or guys who don't make a huge impact their freshman season."
KenPom program ranking: No. 12
When Pomeroy shared his rankings, before I clicked, there were two schools in particular that I was most curious to see where they landed. Gonzaga was one of them, UConn the other. We'll get to the Huskies in a minute. These rankings almost align perfectly with the rise and sustained prowess of the Gonzaga program, which has made every NCAA Tournament since 1999. The Bulldogs unquestionably feel like a top-15 school in the past two decades. What's all the more impressive is how Gonzaga managed to make it to 12th despite not being in a power conference, which to Pomeroy's own admission held the program back just a little. This is all the more reason why Mark Few should eventually be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
KenPom program ranking: No. 17
If Villanova didn't benefit more than any other program from recency bias, then it's clearly Virginia. Check this out: the 34-spot difference between UVA's ranking and its No. 51 median position in the past 23 seasons marks the greatest discrepancy of any school in the top 88 teams in these program power rankings. Virginia is a serious overachiever. The past five seasons (the best stretch in school history) have seen the Cavaliers skyrocket into the stratosphere, and it begs a great question: how good of a job and a program is UVA without Tony Bennett as coach? It's definitely not in the top 20 and probably isn't in the top 30. But Virginia has had the benefit of Bennett for a decade now and seems a mortal lock to remain in the top 20 so long as he's in Charlottesville.
KenPom program ranking: No. 19
Probably the most controversial listing in Pomeroy's rankings, which is saying something considering we are talking about a top-20 program here.
"The conference drags them down a little bit," Pomeroy said of UConn. "If I plug in the Big East for them, they might move up two or three spots. But given how spotty their track record has been recently, and they're in the seventh-best league in the country, it kind of makes sense."
But UConn's so fascinating because four national championships -- the most of any program in the past 25 years -- isn't enough to get the Huskies onto the top shelf. What's the hold-up? Well, Pomeroy told me that NCAA Tournament performance did not factor into these rankings. Disagree with that if you will, but Pomeroy's rankings have never put extra emphasis into March Madness success: beating good teams in the tournament inherently boosts your standing in his rankings as is. This IS about season-long performance.
"Obviously tournament performance is going to help you," Pomeroy said. "You don't get bonus points for winning a national title. UConn has been pretty good at busting my system."
In fact, UConn's title runs inarguably helped its positioning, but also the 2011 title-winning team (which finished 10th in the final KenPom rankings that season) and the 2014 team (15th) are the lowest-rated champs in his database.
KenPom program ranking: No. 21
I wondered: which school gets highest ranking despite not having a Final Four since 1997? Purdue is your answer. Gene Keady was a great coach, of course, but Matt Painter is getting closer by the season to being on the Keady level. He probably needs a Final Four to really get there, but it still feels like Painter's ability is underrated nationally. Historically, going back 80 years, Purdue certainly rates as a top-25 program in the sport's history. It's obviously maintained that status across the most recent two-plus decades despite not bringing in many top-100 recruits. Painter's a maestro, having cultivated eight NBA players in 14 seasons in West Lafayette.
KenPom program ranking: No. 27
The Seminoles, at first glance, seem too highly rated. They're the highest-ranked program with a single-digit tally for NCAA Tournament appearances since 1997 (just eight bids). But they are a prime example of a team with a great conference affiliation that have also been consistently good on the recruiting trail. Leonard Hamilton has coached FSU since 2002. According to 247Sports, he's had top-20 class seven times: 2004, 2005, 2009, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019. Because of this, and since Florida State is coming off its strongest three-year stretch in Hamilton's tenure. FSU is not considered a top-30 job, and it's clearly not a top-30 program historically, but Pomeroy's formula declares otherwise. Even he is skeptical, though.
"FSU is another interesting one," Pomeroy said. "They're almost at the crux of this exercise. Obviously Leonard Hamilton recruits really well -- but doesn't get much out of it. But, if he leaves, is this next guy going to be able to recruit that well? Is that job really going to be that good? Those are the issues that slam round my head when I did this."
KenPom program ranking: No. 55
Arkansas provides one of the most glaring differences between Pomeroy's rankings and public perception, i.e. coaches, agents, school presidents and athletic directors. Coincidentally, this past July, over a late-night dinner while covering the Nike Peach Jam, I got to talking with my colleague, Gary Parrish, and some other writers/folks in the college basketball business on top jobs in college hoops. Arkansas came up. The most dismissive view of the job is that it's 25th or 26th best in America -- and probably closer to 21st or 22nd. The only jobs in the SEC that are objectively better are Kentucky and Florida. But in Pomeroy's system, a harsh light shines on how much of an underachievement the Hogs have been. The last time Arkansas made the Sweet 16 was the last year that doesn't count for these rankings: 1996. Eric Musselman has a huge opportunity and a lot to overcome.
KenPom program ranking: No. 61
Not surprised by its standing, but wanted to point it out because UGA is a weirdly irrelevant team way more often than it should be. Only six tourney showings in 23 seasons for the Dawgs. Right there with Arkansas in unfortunately holding the claim of being as big of an underachiever as any program in the sport. Great area, fantastic college town, good support, and for far too long did not take advantage in an up-and-down SEC. Sixty-first feels right for Georgia, and that in and of itself feels wrong.
KenPom program ranking: No. 73
This seems like a glitch. From a job perspective, it definitely is. VCU is a top-50 job in America. On fan base dedication and quality of facilities alone, it's arguably a top-15 school in the country. The Final Four run in 2011 is a nice bump, but remember, VCU was a No. 11 seed that season, a No. 11 seed that was sent to the inaugural First Four. VCU is in this spot for similar reasons that UConn is 19th instead of closer to (or in) the top 10: complete body of work. The Rams' median KenPom ranking since 1997 is 68. No power-conference alignment. Not a recruiting power. They're ranked too low, but I understand how they slip this far, even if I and most others would disagree with it.
KenPom program ranking: No. 79
On the very short list of most underrated jobs in America. Pomeroy's ranking here feeds into that. Dayton has been to the NCAAs eight times since 1997 and has been a top-shelf Atlantic 10 job the entire time. UD averaged 20.8 wins from 1996-97 up until last season. Man, falling to 79th feels about 12-15 spots too low. This Atlantic 10 bias cannot stand!
KenPom program ranking: No. 102
This seems coincidental, but if you want to know how being a member of the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 helps you in Pomeroy's rankings, know that only two schools from that "power six" structure fail to crack the top 100 ... and it's DePaul at 101 and Rutgers at 102. Not only that, Rutgers is the highest-ranked school without an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1997. It hasn't been there since '91! The Scarlet Knights are too high.
KenPom program ranking: No. 114
What's the best and most consistent program ranked the lowest? It's the alma mater of Ja Morant, Isaiah Canaan and Cam Payne. Murray State's gone to 10 NCAA Tournaments since 1997, a strong number for a team that pays rent in one-bid territory. No school with at least 10 NCAA tourney showings is rated lower than Murray State, which I'd argue is at least 15 spots too low. In fact, 34 teams with six tournament bids or fewer (including the aforementioned Georgia and, hello, Rutgers) are ranked ahead of Murray State. Do you realize Murray State went 85-16 over a three-year span from 2009-2012? And that it's 54-11 the past two seasons? This is where major-conference influence comes in. To be fair, if equal salary was offered to coach at Rutgers or Murray State, almost everyone in the business is taking the Rutgers job, probably mainly because of its power-conference affiliation.
You'll want to scoot over to Pomeroy's site to see the entirety of the rankings (subscription required via that link), but if the top 8.5 percent intrigues you, here's how 1-30 lines up:
4. North Carolina
6. Michigan State
11. Ohio State
27. Florida State
28. West Virginia
29. Notre Dame
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