It really isn’t even much a debate. I’ve decided what the best college basketball program is that never won a national championship. And the winner is…
Seriously, it’s not even really close. In almost any way that you judge this, Illinois is the best overall basketball program to never win a national championship. Not only do they have the best program, but might have had two of the best teams to not win chamionships.
I’m not really sure how I feel about this. As a huge Illini fan, it’s not exactly something to be excited about. The Illini are sort of the “Crash Davis” of college basketball. Crash Davis, of course, is the fictional character in the movie “Bull Durham” that broke the record for most career home runs in the minor leagues. On the one hand, it’s pretty cool to have hit more home runs than any one else. On the other hand, he did it in the minors. For Illinois, it is pretty cool to stack up the accolades, the Final Fours, the All-Americans, Big Ten Championships, and then realize that they were never the last team standing. Ever.
Consider the following:
- Illinois has 38 all-time NCAA tournament victories. That is 18th all-time. Every team in the top 20, other than the Illini, have a national championship.
- Their 67 tournament games ranks 16th. Again, all the teams in front of them have won a title.
- 1,630 all-time victories is 13th all-time. Penn, St. John’s, and Temple have more wins without a title. Of those three, only St. John’s has a higher winning percentage.
- 17 Big Ten Championships. Purdue, Indiana and Ohio State have more. Purdue has never won a national championship, and could be in this discussion, but their NCAA past isn’t strong enough.
- 5 Final Four appearances. That is tied for 14th all time. Every team with more appearances has won a national championship. The other teams with 5 Final Fours are Houston and Georgetown. Georgetown won it in 1984. Houston has never won a title. But Houston had basically one great team in the early 80’s with Drexler and Olajuwon. They went to three straight Final Fours from 1982-84, and all five were under the same coach. Illinois’s Final Fours came in four different decades and were under three different coaches. Plus, Houston hasn’t won an NCAA game since 1984.
- 10 Sweet 16 appearances in four different decades – the 50s, 60s, 80s, and 2000s.
- 6 consensu All-Americans
- 1 title lost because of some of their best players, the original “Whiz Kids” enlisted to fight in World War II.
- 47 Illini that played in the NBA, including guys with pretty good careers, like: Deron Williams, Kendal Gill, Nick Anderson, Nick Weatherspoon, Eddie Johnson, Johnny “Red” Kerr, and Hall of Famer Andy Phillip.
- The website The Bleacher Report is the only other site I have seen that covered this topic. They picked Memphis. The author does not give a very good reason. His reasoning: Memphis has three final fours and two national championship games, one dating back to 1973. Nevermind the fact that one of those Final Fours has since been forfeited, but Illinois has more Final Fours, plus their three third place finishes date back to the post-war era. We’re talking 60 years of being almost great. Plus, he gives them extra credit for being in a non-power conference. Not sure why that is a plus. I’ll take Illinois’s 17 Big Ten titles.
- A year later the same website ranked the top 20 basketball programs of all time. Guess who was the highest ranked program sans championship? I’ll give you a clue, they wear orange and blue. Illinois was ranked #17. The only other team in the top twenty without a title was No. 20 Temple.
- Sports Reference came out with a formula just a few weeks ago. It is purely mathematical, using scores from all games. Top Five: 1. Duke, 2. North Carolina, 3. Kansas, 4. Kentucky, 5. Illinois. This is an objective figure. No weight given to championships or NCAA tournaments or prestige. It is purely about the scores of games, and Illinois came out 5th all-time.
I’m not sure what all of this proves. That last figure actually depressed me a little. What if those guys on the Whiz Kids stuck around and won a national championship and then enlisted? What if Kentucky wasn’t allowed to play their regional finals at home in the 80s? What if Nick Anderson had boxed out and kept Michigan from putting back the game-winner in Seatle? What if James Augustine hadn’t gotten into such ridiculous foul trouble? How many championship banners could be hanging in the Assembly Hall?
There are some other good programs that have never won titles. Memphis, Houston, Missouri, Purdue, Iowa, Temple, Kansas State could all make an argument. None of them have the same resume – especially the prolonged “excellence.” I guess I can take comfort in the fact that Phil Mickelson held the title, “Best Golfer without a Major” for years before finally breaking through with multiple championships. Maybe the Illini can follow Lefty’s footsteps. I fear, however, they’ll need a better plan against zone defenses and a stronger inside presence first.