Ranking college basketball's best current programs: 6-10
There are a lot of different things that go into making a modern-day program into one of the nation's best. How you choose to prioritize those things will lead to significant debate over the overall ranking of programs as they sit today. If you want to be the best of the best, you have to have it all working for you: Great tradition, great coach, great fans, top-level success, national recruiting ... the works.
Now today, it's Nos. 6 through 10, where the differences between the programs get smaller and smaller, and the basketball culture gets stronger and stronger:
No. 10 Arizona
Pluses: Long history of success, excellent coach, national recruiting ability, recent success, bright future on tap
Minuses: Arena lags behind that of elite programs, no "local" recruiting base requires diligent regional and national success
I debated the Cats vs. Florida for a long while, ultimately deciding that Arizona's absolute top end is better than Florida's because of extended history, fan support and being the "biggest" program in its conference. Sean Miller is getting things rolling now in the desert, with national recruiting success combining with more and more success on the floor. The Cats will be a top-5 caliber team again this season, and are favored to win what should be a really tough Pac-12. They have a long history of generating good pros, and are the absolute only thing in a million-person urban center. Tucson's not for everyone, but it's one of the best college hoops markets.
No. 9 Indiana
Pluses: Great history, tradition and fan support, coach in place that can recruit locally and nationally is having success on the court to underscore that
Minuses: While IU lagged, other programs strengthened around them, making a return to the absolute top more difficult
There certainly aren't eight programs with fans and states that care more about them than Indiana, which makes the Hoosiers' extended dip in performance so disappointing. Tom Crean has things headed strongly back in the right direction, although the program has some work to do to become reestablished an annual force in the top 10. Michigan State and Ohio State, for starters, have passed them for now in the Big Ten (and Wisconsin obviously has been strong, too), and then Kentucky and Louisville and even Butler's surge have had an impact on the program. Last season ended in NCAA Sweet 16 disappointment, but cashing in the Oladipo/Zeller core to reach No. 1 in the nation was hugely important. It was a statement of intent on the court and shows what Indiana can be when it has the talent. Now Crean has to keep getting the talent, and that will be easier with recent established success.
No. 8 Syracuse
Pluses: Great tradition and history of success, elite fan support and revenue power, excellent coach
Minuses: Boeheim retirement risk
What's a move to the mega-ACC when you've had the run of success Syracuse has had in the formerly mega-Big East? No. 1 practically every season in attendance with a market all to itself, the Orange are in great position to make an immediate impact in their new league and establish themselves as an elite in that conference going forward. Jim Boeheim won't be there forever, and while Mike Hopkins is widely regarded as an excellent successor-in-waiting, you're never 100 percent certain how a transition from a legend will go. Syracuse has set things up as nicely as possible, though, to maintain their level during the transition, whenever it occurs. Last season's Final Four appearance is helping soften Cuse's rep for Sweet 16 bustouts under Boeheim, and the Orange have a very legit chance to get to Dallas this spring and make it back-to-back.
No. 7 Ohio State
Pluses: Great coach and staff, established as a national recruiting player, tremendous on-court success
Minuses: Nitpicking: Still a football school?
The vast majority of college hoops fans probably don't realize how good Ohio State has been under Thad Matta, in part because of a couple of untimely NCAA tournament losses, including to Wichita State in last season's Elite Eight. Ohio State has been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed six times since 2006. The Buckeyes have made four straight Sweet 16s, including two Elite Eights and a Final Four. They recruit at a very strong level and don't have very many dips, however modest, on the floor, even with significant personnel turnover due to early departures. In a league where Michigan State and Indiana are considered the marquee brands, Ohio State has been outperforming them. Thad Matta is well established and there are very few gigs that would be able to extract him, so the future looks very solid, as well.
No. 6 Louisville
Pluses: Great coach, fan base, tradition, arena. Huge budget. Defending national champs, recruiting pipeline is improving
Minuses: Presence of Cal/Kentucky in state, impact of move to ACC is undetermined
This was a really tough decision against the teams that ended up fourth and fifth. The defending national champs have a chance to repeat as Rick Pitino has reestablished the program to its peak level. The Cardinals may also have landed Pitino at the right time in his career. You never say never with him, but it looks like he could remain settled in Louisville for the duration. They have a great pro-style arena (and an absurd financial deal with the city on top of it) and are having more impact nationally for the top recruits. It will help if Montrezl Harrell (or someone) has a big season and gets strong NBA draft love. When the other program in the state is minting 1st-round draft picks, there's some room for improvement here in terms of impression on elite prospects. After a year rolling over the American Athletic, Louisville will join Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse to give the ACC an unmatched top four. Should be fun.