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Century's top 25 CBB seasons by strength ratings

By Steve Makinen  () 

I’m continuing my series on top teams in each sport from the 21st century by looking at college basketball. This was the week I was most anticipating, as I love looking back at the talent these teams had during these most successful seasons. Unfortunately, we had no tournament this season, but no team really was capable of making this top-25 list anyway. Kansas would have had to enjoy a truly dominant postseason run to climb from its No. 45 ranking.

 

You might ask why I expanded to the top 25 teams in college hoops rather than stay with the top-20 lists used in the other sports. Two simple reasons: The list I was pulling from was greatly expanded and included 7,150 teams back to 2000, and adding five teams enabled me to include four programs that didn’t make the top 20. Otherwise it simply would have been a collection of the blue-blood teams.

 

As noted last week for the NBA, basketball is probably the most statistically rich sport for which I offer strength ratings. Calculations are done down to the possession, which nowadays is about 70 per game. However, the rankings are 100% statistical, a calculation of the amount by which a team outplayed its opposition, comparing its points for and against versus the quality of opposition it faced. That latest variable is always huge in college hoops, as schedule strength can vary greatly. 

 

The formula I have used to create these ratings has not changed in the 25 years I have done them, an important factor to consider when comparing teams from different seasons or eras. You can get a feel for what the odds might be between two teams by comparing their overall Effective Strength Ratings. For instance, using the top two teams, 2000-01 Duke would be considered 1.06 points better than 2018-19 Gonzaga, so it would essentially be about a one-point favorite in a head-to-head neutral-court matchup, or a -120 moneyline favorite.

 

The list is dominated by Duke, which has six entries in the top 25. North Carolina holds runner-up honors with four, while Kansas has three. No other team has more than two, and noticeably shy with single entries are programs like Kentucky, Arizona and Indiana. Missing entirely is Michigan State, which has been wildly successful but not statistically dominant in any particular season. In fact, the Spartans’ highest entry, the 2000 team, checked in at No. 33. 

 

My top 25 college basketball teams since 2000 according to my Effective Strength Ratings are 100% statistically based and not impacted by eventual tournament accomplishments. Seven of these teams won national championships, with another pair losing in the title game. The other most popular fate for these teams was losing in the Sweet 16, as seven teams did that. This stands as a testament to the difficulty of the NCAA tournament and how the most important factor is playing your best at the right time. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.

 

Top 20 College Basketball Teams by Effective Strength Ratings Since 2000

 

1. 2000-01 DUKE: + 26.69

Record: 35-4 -9.1 units, 20-15-1 ATS (57.1%)

Tournament fortunes: Won national championship

Season recap: The Duke team of 2000-01 tops the list of best teams from this century, according to my strength ratings. These Blue Devils became the first since the era of Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley to win a title. They were 35-4 and upended Arizona 82-72 in the NCAA championship game. This star-studded group was led by Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy Jr. Battier was named Naismith Player of the Year after averaging just shy of 20 PPG. Duke went 10-0 in neutral-site games and had an incredible record of 16-1 SU and 14-2 ATS when playing with three or more days’ rest. This was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s third title team at Duke.

 

2. 2018-19 GONZAGA: + 25.63

Record: 33-4 + 3.05 units, 23-14 ATS (62.2%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Elite 8

Season recap: Because of the lesser schedule Gonzaga faces in conference play, the program typically isn’t regarded as highly as teams from major conferences. However, the 2018-19 team put up elite numbers and was a legitimate threat to win the national championship before being eliminated by Texas Tech in the Elite 8. The Bulldogs were 33-4 on the season and produced a 23-14 ATS mark for bettors. They had impressive wins over Duke and Arizona and outscored teams by nearly 23 PPG. The top players on this most highly rated team of coach Mark Few were Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins.

 

3. 2001-02 DUKE: + 25.6

Record: 31-4 -2.9 units, 17-17 ATS (50.0%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Sweet 16

Season recap: The 2001-02 Duke team was nearly as good as its predecessor at No. 1 but won four fewer games after being ousted in the Sweet 16. That was a shocking upset, as the Blue Devils were heavy tournament favorites and played as 13.5-point chalk in the loss to Indiana. This team played all 34 lined games as a favorite, splitting the ATS ledger 17-17. It had most of the same cast of characters as the ’00-01 team minus Shane Battier. Jay Williams was the national POY, scoring 21.3 PPG and averaging 5.3 assists. 

 

4. 2014-15 KENTUCKY: + 25.36

Record: 38-1 + 8.9 units, 19-17-3 ATS (52.8%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Final Four

Season recap: This team won its first 38 games and was the closest to matching ’75-76 Indiana’s full-season undefeated run before it was eliminated in the NCAA tournament semifinals by Wisconsin. The Wildcats were one of the most respected teams ever by oddsmakers, as they were just 19-17-3 ATS despite outscoring opponents by over 20 PPG. They were favored in all 39 games and only six times less than double digits, including by five over the Badgers in the lone loss. During the regular season, coach John Calipari’s team beat national powers Kansas and UCLA by 32 and 39 points, respectively. This was one of the best defensive teams of the 21st century, holding opponents to just 54.3 PPG and 35.4% shooting. Three of Kentucky’s top players scored in double digits, led by Aaron Harrison’s 11 PPG. Future NBA stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker were the others.

 

5. 2004-05 NORTH CAROLINA: + 24.11

Record: 33-4 + 7.95 units, 21-15 ATS (58.3%)

Tournament fortunes: Won national championship

Season recap: Although at least four North Carolina teams since have won as many games, the most highly rated squad of the 21st century was the 2004-05 championship group. This was coach Roy Williams’ first title team at UNC, and it improved immensely from his first season the previous year, which went 19-11. This was another team highly respected by oddsmakers, playing all 36 lined games as the favorite. The Tar Heels won the regular-season ACC title but lost to Georgia Tech in the semifinals of the ACC tourney. They survived two tight games in the second weekend of the tournament and beat Illinois 75-70 for the title. Sean May, the NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player, and Rashad McCants were this team’s top players.

 

6. 2007-08 KANSAS: + 24.1

Record: 37-3 + 1.85 units, 21-15-2 ATS (58.3%)

Tournament fortunes: Won national championship

Season recap: According to these rankings, the 2007-08 NCAA title game was the top one of the century, matching two teams in the top 16 on this list. The winner of that classic tilt checks in at No. 6. The Jayhawks swept the Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships, then went on an NCAA tourney run that included wins over North Carolina, Villanova and eventually Memphis in the title game. All three losses came in conference play as part of a stretch in which they went on a 4-3 SU and 0-6-1 ATS slide. For the rest of the season, coach Bill Self’s only national title team was an impressive 33-0 SU and 21-9-1 ATS. Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur were the top players. 

 

7. 2013-14 LOUISVILLE: + 23.57

Record: 31-6 -14.5 units, 19-15-1 ATS (55.9%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Sweet 16

Season recap: Two straight Louisville teams of coach Rick Pitino made the list, and strangely, the one that didn’t win the national title is ranked higher. The 2013-14 Cardinals were looking to repeat their championship run of the previous season but fell short in the Sweet 16, dropping a 74-69 decision to rival Kentucky. In fact, two of the team’s six losses came at the hands of the Wildcats despite being favored in both games — and in all 35 lined games. Louisville seemed destined for another run at the championship after winning regular-season and conference tourney titles in its only season in the AAC while outscoring opponents by over 21 PPG. Russ Smith was the top scorer at 18 PPG, while Montrezl Harrell chipped in 14.0 PPG and 8.4 RPG.

 

8. 2016-17 GONZAGA: + 23.52

Record: 37-2 + 12.95 units, 23-11-2 ATS (67.6%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in national championship game

Season recap: The only Gonzaga team to reach a Final Four won 37 games and featured an abundance of future pro players. The top scorer was Nigel Williams-Goss at 16 PPG, but the Bulldogs also featured Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Matthews, Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins as double-digit scorers. They won their first 29 games before falling at BYU in their final regular-season contest. They recovered to win the WCC tournament and then won five NCAA tourney games before falling 71-65 to North Carolina in the title contest. This team’s 23-11-2 ATS record is second only to 2017-18 Villanova on this list in terms of success at the betting window.  

 

9. 2006-07 NORTH CAROLINA: + 23.24

Record: 31-7 + 3.4 units, 21-14 ATS (60.0%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Elite 8

Season recap: North Carolina’s four entries on this list are in a five-season span from 2005-09, and the second-most highly rated UNC team is the 2006-07 squad, which came up one game short of the Final Four. The Tar Heels were 31-7, only their seventh-highest win total of the century. However, they won the ACC regular-season and tourney crowns and were upset as four-point favorites in the regional finals by Georgetown. Coach Roy Williams’ team scored over 85 PPG and started a run of three straight seasons of elite offensive play. The team was deep with NBA talent, headlined by Tyler Hansbrough, Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson.

 

10. 2008-09 NORTH CAROLINA: + 23.11

Record: 34-4 -2 units, 18-19 ATS (48.6%)

Tournament fortunes: Won national championship

Season recap: The last of the three straight UNC teams to make this list was the 2008-09 championship squad. This was Tyler Hansbrough’s senior season, and while he didn’t repeat as national POY, he and his teammates took it further in the tournament, beating Villanova by 14 in the semifinals and Michigan State by 17 in the title contest. Besides Hansbrough, this team was deep with eventual NBA talent, including Ty Lawson, Danny Green, Larry Drew II and Tyler Zeller. The Heels scored 89.8 PPG, but since they were so heavily favored on most nights, they went only 18-19 ATS. In fact, the smallest total they were favored by all season was seven points.

 

11. 2018-19 DUKE: + 23.08

Record: 32-6 + 0.1 units, 18-19-1 ATS (48.6%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Sweet 16

Season recap: The Zion Williamson-R.J. Barrett-Cam Reddish team was the odds-on favorite to win the national title but failed to regain its early dominance and chemistry after Williamson was injured in February. Although he returned after missing five games, neither he nor the Blue Devils fully recovered. In fact, in the final seven games at full strength, Duke was 6-1 SU but 1-6 ATS, culminating in a 68-67 loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. This was one of the most highly respected teams in recent memory by oddsmakers but was just 3-12 ATS in its final 15 games. For the season, future high NBA picks Williamson and Barrett averaged 22.6 PPG.

 

12. 2007-08 NORTH CAROLINA: + 22.95

Record: 36-3 + 14.6 units, 23-11-2 ATS (67.6%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Final Four

Season recap: The middle team of the three straight North Carolina squads to make the list is the 2007-08 group, headlined by national POY Tyler Hansbrough, who posted incredible numbers of 22.6 PPG and 10.2 RPG. These Tar Heels put up 88.6 PPG and, according to my offensive rankings that follow, are the third-highest-performing team in that regard this century. Like the season before, they won the ACC regular-season and conference tourney titles. This group went a round further than the previous year, losing to Kansas 84-66 in the Final Four despite being favored by 2.5 points. The Jayhawks won the title and were ranked No. 6. UNC won its first 18 games and posted an impressive 23-11-2 ATS mark, good for 67.6%.

 

13. 2017-18 VILLANOVA: + 22.9

Record: 36-4 + 8.5 units, 28-12 ATS (70.0%)

Tournament fortunes: Won national championship

Season recap: Only one Villanova team makes this list, and to no one’s surprise, it’s the 36-4 championship team of 2018. This group played its best ball when it mattered most, winning its final 11 games, including the last 10 by double digits. The last of those victims was Michigan in a 79-62 decision in the NCAA championship tilt. I remember this team fondly because I cashed plenty of tickets with it in the tourney run, including a nice 5-1 title wager. Coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats enjoyed a 6-0 SU and ATS run through the bracket and outscored teams by 17.7 PPG in the process. This group, which also won its first 13 games, is the top team on the list in terms of ATS success at 28-12 (70%). The stars were guards Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo and forwards Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall. 

 

14. 2009-10 DUKE: + 22.88

Record: 35-5 + 5.55 units, 23-15-1 ATS (60.5%)

Tournament fortunes: Won national championship

Season recap: The 2009-10 Duke team is probably the least star-studded of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s five title teams, at least as far as future NBA talent. The team was led by Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and the Plumlee brothers as it beat Butler in the championship game 61-59. This wasn’t a prolific offensive team (77 PPG), but it was a very cohesive unit. Oddsmakers still showed this group plenty of respect, as it was favored in all 39 lined games and produced a profitable 23-15-1 ATS record for bettors.

 

15. 2009-10 KANSAS: + 22.67

Record: 33-3 + 0 units, 14-18-1 ATS (43.8%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in round of 32

Season recap: The 2009-10 Kansas team was probably the most disappointing of any in the Bill Self era. While others have lost earlier in the NCAAs, none went into the tournament with this group’s expectations. The Jayhawks were 32-2 at the outset of the tournament and landed a No. 1 seed before an uninspired win over Lehigh in the opening round and an improbable 69-67 loss to No. 9 Northern Iowa in Round 2. As usual, Kansas won the Big 12 regular-season and tourney titles. Its only two regular-season losses came at Tennessee and Oklahoma State. This team was very highly respected and owns the dubious distinction of being the worst-performing point-spread team of any on the list at 14-18-1. PG Sherron Collins was the leading scorer and was supported by Xavier Henry, the Morris brothers and Cole Aldrich.

 

16. 2007-08 MEMPHIS: + 22.65

Record: 38-2 + 12.05 units, 18-20-2 ATS (47.4%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in national championship game

Season recap: Three teams from the 2007-08 season made this list, and all reached the Final Four as No. 1 seeds. This Memphis team, coached by John Calipari, was easily the best in program history at 38-2. When most people recall this team, they think of PG Derrick Rose, who went on to star in the NBA. However, Chris Douglas-Roberts was actually the team’s biggest producer, scoring 18.1 PPG while grabbing 4.1 RPG. Robert Dozier, Antonio Anderson and Joey Dorsey were other key players on this team, which came within seconds of a national title only to lose after a last-second shot by Kansas sent the game to overtime. The Tigers’ only other loss came against Tennessee. This is another team that played every game as a favorite but went just 18-20-2 ATS.

 

17. 1999-00 DUKE: + 22.54

Record: 29-5 -7.3 units, 19-12 ATS (61.3%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Sweet 16

Season recap: This is the first Duke team of the century and the first of three straight that made the list. Like the championship team of a year later, this group was headlined by the Jay Williams-Carlos Boozer-Shane Battier-Mike Dunleavy Jr. combination. Also playing a key role on this team was Chris Carrawell. Like most of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s teams, this one was heavy chalk, playing as a favorite in 30 of 31 lined games. The Blue Devils boasted an impressive 19-12 ATS mark. They started the season 0-2, swept North Carolina in the regular season and beat Kansas in Round 2 of the tournament before being eliminated by Florida in the Sweet 16.

 

18. 2010-11 OHIO STATE: + 22.39

Record: 34-3 + 13.05 units, 18-16 ATS (52.9%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Sweet 16

Season recap: Ohio State’s 2010-11 group won a program-best 34 games against just three losses. But the final of those three setbacks kept Thad Matta’s Buckeyes from reaching a seventh Final Four, as a 62-60 loss to Kentucky ended the season in the Sweet 16. The team won its first 24 games before an early February loss at Wisconsin. Jared Sullinger carried the load, averaging 17.2 PPG and 10.2 RPG. William Buford, John Diebler and Aaron Craft were also big parts of that team, which captured the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles.

 

19. 2010-11 DUKE: + 22.27

Record: 32-5 -2.6 units, 20-16 ATS (55.6%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Sweet 16

Season recap: The final of the six Duke teams to make the list is the 2010-11 squad that came up shy of its title-repeating goals when it lost to Arizona in the Sweet 16. These Blue Devils had many of the same pieces as the previous year’s championship team, notably Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, but added Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry to the mix. The team lost momentum and chemistry when Irving went out after eight games with a toe injury. He returned for the tournament, but top-seeded Duke was stunned by Arizona in a 93-77 Sweet 16 loss as a 9.5-point favorite. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team won its first 15 games before a January loss at Florida State.

 

20. 2012-13 LOUISVILLE: + 22.13

Record: 35-5 + 6.95 units, 24-16 ATS (60.0%)

Tournament fortunes: Won national championship

Season recap: Louisville’s national title team of 2013 enjoyed a 35-win season culminated by an 82-76 victory over Michigan in the NCAA championship game. The Cardinals lost three straight after a 16-1 start, seemingly dimming hopes for what would be a net-cutting season. However, they won their final 16 games, going a highly profitable 12-4 ATS and costing bookies big-time. The 2012-13 season was the last for Louisville in the Big East, and fittingly, it won the regular-season and conference tourney titles. Guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva were the standout players.

 

21. 2012-13 FLORIDA: + 22.01

Record: 29-8 -20.6 units, 18-16 ATS (52.9%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Elite 8

Season recap: Florida won national titles in 2006 and ’07 and lost in the Final Four in 2014 under coach Billy Donovan. Despite winning 30-plus games in each of those seasons, the Gators team that ranks highest in terms of Effective Strength Ratings is the 2012-13 group, which went 29-8 and lost to Michigan in the Elite 8. This group was elite defensively, allowing just 54.4 PPG while holding every one of its 37 opponents to less than 50% from the floor. Florida won the SEC regular-season title but lost to Ole Miss in the conference tourney title contest. Donovan’s team lacked stars but showed balance and cohesion and was led by Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton, all of whom averaged between 12.0 and 12.5 PPG.

 

22. 1999-00 STANFORD: + 21.97

Record: 27-4 + 3.15 units, 17-10 ATS (63.0%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Round of 32

Season recap: Not sure if many readers remember a lot about this team. Coached by Mike Montgomery, it featured a talented roster that included Casey Jacobsen, David Moseley, Mark Madsen and the Collins brothers. The Cardinal were very highly rated but actually boasted a better record (31-3) and went deeper in the tournament (Elite 8) the next season. This group was 25-1 at one point but went 2-3 SU and 0-5 ATS in its final five games. The Cardinal still outscored opponents by 19.3 PPG and posted a very profitable 17-10 ATS mark, including outright upsets of Duke, No. 17 on this list, and Auburn.

 

23. 2014-15 ARIZONA: + 21.93

Record: 34-4 -3.6 units, 23-14-1 ATS (62.2%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Elite 8

Season recap: Only one Arizona team made the top 25, and it is the group that got within one game of the Final Four but came up short against a very strong Wisconsin team. The Wildcats went into that Elite 8 game as 1.5-point favorites and winners of 14 straight, but they allowed 85 points to a Badgers team than scored just 72 PPG and lost by seven. It was the second straight season Wisconsin denied Sean Miller’s team a Final Four berth. Still, the 34 wins were second in program history, and they had conference regular-season and tournament titles to show for it. Stanley Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell headlined a deep and talented roster.

 

24. 2012-13 INDIANA: + 21.91

Record: 29-7 -12.4 units, 17-17 ATS (50.0%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Sweet 16

Season recap: I was somewhat surprised to see that the 2012-13 team was the only Indiana squad this century to win more than 27 games and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. The Hoosiers reached the Sweet 16 but, after averaging nearly 80 PPG for the season, scored only 50 in a loss to Syracuse. While this was coach Tom Crean’s best team at IU, it wasn’t playing its best at the right time, going 2-7 ATS in its final nine games. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo were the top players.

 

25. 2010-11 KANSAS: + 21.82

Record: 35-3 + 3 units, 19-17 ATS (52.8%)

Tournament fortunes: Lost in Elite 8

Season recap: The final entry on the list is the third for Kansas and coach Bill Self. This team tied a program record with 35 wins, but the season was spoiled by an upset loss to VCU in the Elite 8 in which the Jayhawks were favored by 11.5 points and riding an 11-game winning streak. Kansas once again won the Big 12 regular-season and conference tourney titles and was headlined by the Morris brothers, Marcus and Markieff. For a second straight season, Self’s team was favored in every contest it played.

 

Those were the overall Effective Strength Ratings. Here are the top 10 offensive and defensive teams of the 21st century using my effective scoring calculations. Three of the top offensive teams and only one of the top defensive teams won NCAA titles.

 

Top 10 Offensive Teams (Effective Offensive Strength)

1. 2006-07 VMI: + 23.21 — Didn’t qualify for postseason tournament

2. 2000-01 TCU: + 21.25 — Didn’t qualify for postseason tournament

3. 2007-08 NORTH CAROLINA: + 20.86 — Lost in Final Four

4. 2008-09 NORTH CAROLINA: + 20.59 — Won national championship

5. 1999-00 DUKE: + 19.91 — Lost in Sweet 16

6. 2004-05 NORTH CAROLINA: + 19.55 — Won national championship

7. 2000-01 DUKE: + 19.45 — Won national championship

8. 1999-00 TCU: + 18.16 — Didn’t qualify for postseason tournament

9. 2001-02 KANSAS: + 17.94 — Lost in Final Four

10. 2016-17 UCLA: + 17.63 — Lost in Sweet 16

 

Top 10 Defensive Teams (Effective Defensive Strength)

1. 2017-18 VIRGINIA: -20.58 — Lost in Round of 64

2. 2019-20 VIRGINIA: -18.12 — No postseason tournament was played

3. 2016-17 VIRGINIA: -18.07 — Lost in Round of 32

4. 2003-04 AIR FORCE: -17.98 — Lost in Round of 64

5. 2014-15 VIRGINIA: -16.71 — Lost in Round of 32

6. 2018-19 VIRGINIA: -16.47 — Won national championship

7. 2000-01 WISCONSIN: -15.61 — Lost in Round of 64

8. 2011-12 WISCONSIN: -15.54 — Lost in Sweet 16

9. 1999-00 TEMPLE: -15.48 — Lost in Round of 32

10. 2004-05 WASHINGTON STATE: -15.46 — Didn’t qualify for postseason tournament

 

I’ll continue this series next week with a look at the top NASCAR seasons of the 21st century.

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