Will there ever be another great men’s college basketball team?

TThe first NCAA men’s basketball tournament was organized in 1939 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The championship game – won by Oregon – was attended by 5,000 spectators and the tournament had a deficit of $2,531.

Times are changing. March Madness is now a billion-dollar dream machine that thrives on images of greatness. Stories of past dynasties and teams are reverently told with the promise of more to come. But in reality, men’s basketball dynasties are a thing of the past. And we may not see a truly great men’s basketball team again.

The standard for greatness in college basketball was set by the UCLA Bruins who won 10 championships in 12 years (1964 to 1975) under coach John Wooden. Three of these championships came with Lou Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at center and three more with Bill Walton at center. Alcindor’s Bruins won 47 games in a row. Walton’s won 88 in a row. During their 88-game winning streak, UCLA outscored their opponents by an average of 23.4 points per game.

Alcindor’s Bruins also participated in what many historians believe was the most important college basketball game ever played. On January 20, 1968, UCLA took on the Houston Cougars at The Astrodome in what was advertised as “The game of the century”. It was the first college basketball game ever broadcast nationally in primetime. Both teams entered the match undefeated. Houston (led by Elvin Hayes) won a thriller 71-69. Each team then won for the remainder of the regular season before meeting again in the NCAA semifinals. This time it wasn’t a competition. UCLA exacted revenge with a 101-69 blowout.

In addition to UCLA, six teams have won consecutive championships. San Francisco (led by Bill Russell and KC Jones) was the most celebrated of the six, winning 60 straight games en route to national titles in 1955 and 1956. Other consecutive winners include Oklahoma A&M (1945 and 1946), Kentucky (1948-1949), Cincinnati (1961-1962), Duke (1991-1992) and Florida (2006-2007).

Ohio State won the NCAA championship in 1960, but lost in the finals to Cincinnati in each of the next two seasons. Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Mel Nowell played on all three Ohio State teams, as did a scruffy guard named Bobby Knight (yes, that Bobby Knight).

UNLV (led by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony) won the league title in 1990 while in the midst of a 45-game winning streak. But the next year they lost to Duke in the championship game.

Two teams widely considered “great” fell short in championship games. In 1983, Houston (led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) lost to North Carolina State on a buzzer-beating dunk by Lorenzo Charles following a missed 30-foot jump shot by Dereck Whittenburg. Two years later, Georgetown had five players (led by Patrick Ewing) who would be selected in the first or second round of the next two NBA drafts. But the Hoyas were upset in the tournament final by a 10-loss Villanova team that shot 78.6% from the floor and missed just one field goal attempt in the second half.

All told, seven undefeated teams have won the NCAA men’s basketball championship: San Francisco (1956), North Carolina (1957), UCLA (1964, 1967, 1972, 1973) and Indiana (1976). Since the Hoosier title run 48 years ago, six teams have entered the tournament undefeated and failed to win it all.

In recent years the tournament has indeed become a mess. In 2023, none of the top ten ranked teams made it to the Final Four. The last time a team entered March Madness, ranked No. 1 in the polls and won the championship, was 2012. Furthermore, the No. 1 team in the country has won the NCAA men’s tournament just twice in the last 21 years.

Now we get to the reasons why.

First and foremost, men’s college basketball teams no longer have the talent needed to be great. A bit of history is in order here.

There was a time when the NBA wouldn’t allow players to turn pro until four years after their class graduated high school. This was partly because the NBA relied on colleges in its early years to develop stars with appeal. And young athletes were not considered physically mature enough to play professional ball. Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity basketball until the 1972-73 season.

In 1969, the Denver Rockets of the fledgling American Basketball Association signed a sophomore named Spencer Haywood. Two years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by Haywood that the NBA must allow high school graduates to enter the draft without the required four-year waiting period, provided the graduate could demonstrate giving ‘economic hardship’.

That opened the door for Moses Malone (1974), followed by Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby (1975), to go straight from high school to the pros. But another fourteen years passed before another player (Shawn Kemp) bypassed college to play in the pros.

Then the dam broke.

In 1995, Kevin Garnett was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft. In 1996, Kobe Bryant (the No. 13 pick) and Jermaine O’Neal (No. 17) followed in Garnett’s footsteps. The exodus continued after that, with a total of 41 players drafted straight out of high school (most notably LeBron James, who was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft).

Players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant chose to forego college and go straight to the NBA. Photo: USA Today Sports

In July 2005, the NBA and the NBA Players Association amended their collective bargaining agreement to prevent players from being drafted straight out of high school. To participate in the draft, a player must be at least 19 years old and have been out of high school for at least one year. But some of the top high school graduates are now choosing to play in a developmental league for a year instead of going to college. And those who do go to college often do so on a one-time basis.

Freshmen are at an age where they can be expected to become physically stronger, improve their skills and increase their understanding of the game each year on campus. But many college coaches, desperate to compete for talent, are now telling recruits, “Come here for a year.” We will develop your skills as quickly as possible and introduce you to the professionals.”

skip the newsletter promotion

“One and done” robs a college team of what would otherwise have been the most productive three years of a player’s college career. It gives coaches less time to mold players into a cohesive unit. And many today’s college players are less willing to bend to a coach’s philosophy than in the past. Not only can the player become a professional; The transfer portal (which was introduced at the beginning of the 2018-2019 season) allows a player to pack up and transfer to another school if he is not satisfied with his coach’s guidelines.

Would UCLA have formed a dynasty if Alcindor and Walton had turned pro after one year? What about Walt Hazzard, Keith Erickson and Gail Goodrich (who carried the first two UCLA championship teams) and other UCLA greats like Lucius Allen, Henry Bibby, Curtis Rowe, Sidney Wicks, Dave Meyers, Richard Washington, Jamaal Wilkes and Marques Johnson, all of whom played before one-and-done, stayed the course for an entire college career and contributed to the Bruins dynasty

That’s a rhetorical question.

Take Kentucky under coach John Calipari, who was an early advocate of recruiting on a “one-and-done” basis. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were freshmen at Kentucky during the 2011-2012 season and turned pro after one year. Julius Randall (2013-2014) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2014-2015) followed suit. All four were All-Americans as freshmen. Imagine if, instead of finishing everything, they had stayed in college and played together with a lineup that included Willie Cauley-Stein (who came to Kentucky in 2012 and stayed for three seasons).

Foreign-born stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic and Victor Wembanyama might have studied in the United States if they had been young years ago. Imagine the impact they would have had if each of them had played four years of college basketball.

And there’s another statistic regarding the talent drain in men’s college basketball that’s turning heads. Only one of the top five picks in the 2023 NBA draft went to college. That was Brandon Miller, who turned pro after a year at Alabama.

The recent addition of NIL money (which allows a college athlete to benefit financially from the sale of his name, image and likeness for commercial purposes) provides some compensation to college stars previously exploited as unpaid labor and a modest incentive to stay on campus. But that NIL money is minimal compared to what an elite college player can earn on and off the field as a pro.

In the meantime, consider the fact that the most famous college basketball player in the United States right now is a woman: Iowa star Caitlin Clark. And it’s in women’s soccer where the big NCAA teams, like undefeated South Carolina, now reside, because good players can make more in college with NIL money than if they go to the WNBA, where the maximum salary is $235,000 (the rookie minimum in the NBA is $1.1 million).

No men’s college basketball team came close to greatness this season. By the second week of January there were no more undefeated teams. Twice (including this past weekend), four of the top five ranked teams lost in one 48-hour period. Only one team – Purdue – was ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll all season. And Purdue lost to Northwestern, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin (who have a combined 47 losses this year).

So here we are, March Madness is about to begin. The four No. 1 regional seeds (Connecticut, Houston, Purdue and North Carolina) have a combined 18 losses. And three of the four No. 1 seeds lost the most recent match they played.

For the record; I think the last great college basketball team was Duke’s 1991-92 NCAA championship team, led by Grant Hill and Christian Laettner.

Will there ever be a great men’s college basketball team again?

Probably not in the near future.

  • Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – a memoir titled My mother and I – is published this month by Admission Press. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor: induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.