How do we define greatness, consistency and dependability in college basketball?

Conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances go a long way. Winning not just in March, but all season long, and doing it year after year after year -- that’s what keeps you at the top of the sport. 

Ask who are the five best programs in college basketball, you might get this answer: Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA. Those five could certainly apply in the present tense, and this season, all have realistic chances to win the national title. You could extend it even further and declare those five programs to be the best five in college basketball history. (You’d get some fight from Indiana fans, though.)

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Mark Few has turned Gonzaga into one of the few sure bets in the modern era. USATSI

But the NCAA Tournament is the endgame. Only one team can win the title every year, so we need broader guidelines for determining consistency and longevity. And although it seems like “everybody” gets into the field, the reality is that 68 out of 351 teams get in. That’s just 19.4 percent. One in five, basically. That’s a lower percentage than the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL allow into their postseasons. 

It’s a near-perfect number; only 64 would be better. The NCAA should never, ever consider expanding the field again. It’s still just tough enough to get in, while at the same time offering up a bracket that is big enough to make it the grandiose annual sporting event it’s become. 

Getting in is not an automatic. Not even for the bluebloods (mostly). On Wednesday I laid out how incredible Kansas’ streak of NCAA tournament runs is. The Jayhawks will set the record on Selection Sunday when they go dancing for the 28th season in a row. North Carolina has missed twice this century. Kentucky has missed under Billy Gillispie -- and John Calipari. UCLA is just now coming out of a dip. 

With this in mind, let’s shine a light on the five programs who best define consistency in the modern era of college basketball. Kansas and its impending 28 straight appearance lead the way, but here’s the interesting angle: we are in the midst of five of the seven longest NCAA Tournament-appearance streaks in the sport’s history. 

Kansas is set to make it 28 years in a row.

Duke will go to its 22nd straight this season. 

Michigan State, though a bubble team, should clear the bar and make it 20 straight Big Dances.

Rounding out the five are Gonzaga and Wisconsin, both of which will breeze into the field, doing so for the 19th straight time. For the past two decades, it’s these five programs that have far and away become the model of consistency. What’s interesting about them is how they haven’t all been guided by the same coach. Duke has only had Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State has only had Tom Izzo, and Gonzaga’s 19-year streak has involved Mark Few as coach for 18 of those seasons. But Kansas’ run is split between Roy Williams and Bill Self. Wisconsin went from Dick Bennett to interim Brad Soderberg to Bo Ryan to Greg Gard, who’s flourishing now. 

Kansas and Gonzaga are projected as 1 seeds. Duke a 3. Wisconsin a 6. Michigan State, in a rare down year, a 9. 

You better believe most coaches around college basketball are looking at these five programs and trying to concoct a way to emulate them. In the most competitive recruiting era the sport’s ever seen, and with so many different obstacles and hurdles and real-life situations (transfers, technology, etc.) being more prominent, it’s impressive to see how these five have stayed above the hoi polloi. 

All of them have reached an Elite Eight in this span, and only Gonzaga has not made a Final Four -- which could well change this season.

So impressive is the two-decade run of reliability, consider that the next-closest programs in terms of consecutive NCAA tournament streaks are VCU, Cincinnati and North Carolina. With six. Coaches, fans, athletic directors, all of college basketball measures success in good part with making the NCAA tournament. Nothing means more than that. Just get into the field, and then see what happens. In this century, there have only been five automatics, and they’ll probably all be there again this season. 

And it’s reasonable to think at least one of them -- Kansas, Gonzaga and/or Duke -- winds up in the Final Four.