I’m sure most of you have read the ESPN “50 in 50” series, putting the most successful men’s basketball programs of the past 50 years in order from 1-50. Kentucky was slotted in the #3 spot, just behind North Carolina and UCLA. Arguments can be made for any 3 of those programs to top the list. Kansas, Duke, Louisville and Indiana are certainly the next closest but all fall into the tier just below the top 3. We all know the successes of North Carolina, UCLA and Kentucky. Between the 3 programs, many national titles, player of the year, coach of the year, conference titles, etc. have been won. A large number of overall victories have been compiled and the great moments and memories have been plentiful. Depending on what your measure of success is, all 3 could fall under the title of “most successful.” What about the “worst of the best” though? We often talk about the high moments for these programs, but which program has the most losing seasons? Which program has the most seasons not resulting in a bid to the NCAA tournament? Which program has had the longest droughts and slumps? Perhaps with 3 programs so neck and neck when it comes to success, the best way to determine which program has had the most success is to determine which program has had the least amount of failures.
Losing Seasons since 1962
8-20 record (2001-2002) under Matt Doherty
10-19 (2001-2002) under Steve Lavin
11-17 (2003-2004) under Ben Howland
14-18 (2009-2010) under Ben Howland
13-19 (1988-1989) under Eddie Sutton
Below 20-win seasons since 1962
North Carolina: 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1970, 2002, 2003, 2004 (8 seasons)
UCLA: 1966, 1984, 1986, 1988, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, 2012 (9 seasons)
Kentucky: 1963, 1965, 1967, 1974, 1979, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, 2008 (10 seasons)
Seasons w/o NCAA Tournament Appearances since 1962
North Carolina: 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 2002, 2003, 2010 (11 seasons)
UCLA: 1966, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 2003, 2004, 2010, 2012 (10 seasons)
Kentucky: 1963, 1965, 1967, 1974, 1976, 1979, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 2009 (11 seasons)
10+ Year Droughts w/o an NCAA championship since 1962:
North Carolina: 1963-1982 (19 years), 1983-1993 (10 years), 1994-2005 (11 years)
UCLA: 1975-1995 (20 years), 1995-current (17 years)
Kentucky: 1963-1978 (15 years), 1978-1996 (18 years) 1998-2012 (14 years)
Conclusions: First of all, for these 3 programs to only have 5 losing seasons all together in a span of 50 years is a testament to the longevity and success of each program. In only looking at a 50-year span, each team has noticeable weaknesses. North Carolina is the only program to have won a national championship in each of the decades since 1980. Before 1980 though, North Carolina held the longest drought for a national championship and also had the most seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance. As a program, UCLA clearly dominated during the 1960s and 1970s. In practically a reverse situation with the one just described for North Carolina, most of UCLA’s least successful seasons have taken place in the last 10 years. The Bruins have not won a national championship in 17 years and have had more than a few faulty seasons in the 2000s. Kentucky’s successes and low points have probably been the most spread out of the bunch. Kentucky won championships in the 70s, 90s, and most recently in 2012. The droughts in between though have been lengthy. The stretches of unsuccessful seasons have not been as tied to one decade or another at Kentucky.
The number of losing seasons, below 20-win seasons, droughts, etc. for the 3 programs are quite similar when you take a closer look. I was hoping to find some earth-shattering/staggering statistic that would drop at least 1 program from contention of being the most successful in the last 50 years but alas, one program does not stick out overall as being the “worst of the best.” The separation between the 3 is thin and likely comes down to a matter of personal opinion based on a very few differing points of contention.
BONUS: In case you were wondering how the ESPN readers felt the top 25 should shake out, here are the results: