Tom Izzo has led the Spartans to six Final Fours over the last 12 years, but hasn't been past the Sweet 16 since 2010. (Lance King/Getty Images)
Ranking the top 20 current college basketball programs isn't easy. Ordering the top five may be even tougher. When you're parsing through the bluest of blueblood programs, the differences become miniscule. They all have great coaches, great fanbases, great facilities, great tradition and access to the best national talent.
Still, differences are there, and they're what separate the great from the best (and the best from the rest).
Here are the previous ranking results:
Now, here are the top five current programs in college hoops, and why they ended up in the order they did:
No. 5 Michigan State and No. 4 North Carolina
These two programs have been remarkably good for an extended period of time under their current elite coaches, but there are a couple of relative weak points that separate them from the top three in that sense.
1) Overall consistency of performance
The Spartans had a 19-win season as recently 2011, and have a reputation as a better postseason team than regular-season team. Also, while Tom Izzo made six Final Fours over a 12-year span, the Spartans haven't been past the Sweet 16 since 2010.
North Carolina has made six Elite Eights in the last nine seasons, but also has had a couple of dips when they had to reboot after national title runs. The first time worked out pretty well, with Tyler Hansbrough arriving and, after a second-round loss to the miracle George Mason team in 2006, starting an immediate next run to an eventual title. The second time, not quite as much. In 2010, the Tar Heels ended up in the NIT before they bounced back the next two seasons to make regional finals.
When you're at this level, though, any dropoff is key. Two of the three programs ahead of them don't dip like that, and the third -- Kentucky -- has had one bad season under John Calipari, with Nerlens Noel's knee injury likely costing them at least an NCAA berth.
2) Recent recruiting level
While both Michigan State and North Carolina certainly are in the mix for elite national recruits, they seem to have fallen a bit behind the three programs ahead of them.
Michigan State has only landed two truly top-level recruits in the last three classes -- Branden Dawson and Gary Harris (although the three others in Harris' class all were in the tail end of the top 100). The Spartans just nailed down Lourawls Nairn, ranked No. 72, for the Class of 2014, but a megarecruit isn't in the pipeline yet.
The Tar Heels have a loaded class on tap in 2014, but they haven't really made a splash since 2011, when they landed James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, both decent players, but neither of whom has become a star.
So, we're down to three, and this really could go in any direction. Let's break it down across a bunch of different categories:
All three have extremely good coaches, although if you asked most people, the batting order would go Krzyzewski, Self, Calipari. Duke's advantage in actual coaching may be offset by Krzyzewski getting closer to the end of his career, and the risk that Duke won't be able to replace him at close to the same level of success.
That doesn't mean that Self and Calipari are locks to remain where they are, or even outlast Krzyzewski. Self continues to have NBA rumblings around him, and if the San Antonio or (maybe) Oklahoma City jobs open up, a mega-offer could be very tempting. Calipari has already done the NBA thing, but not well. Would someone take another run and be able to pry him away from Lexington? Would he ever get tired of having to rebuild every year with freshmen or simply burn out under the microscope of Big Blue Nation?
It feels like all three men will be at their current helms for the next several seasons, at least, but while Self and Calipari would leave because of an opportunity elsewhere, Krzyzewski's pending retirement likely presents the largest coach risk of the three.
Calipari is the runaway king of college recruiting at this point, with Kentucky's 2013 class considered by many to be the best recruiting class ever. But it's the one who got away from this class that has resonated, with uberprospect Andrew Wiggins landing in Lawrence to spearhead what should be an extremely good Kansas team by the end of the season. Duke's recruiting had lagged a touch, but K showed his chops in luring Jabari Parker to Durham.
The combination of Calipari + Kentucky is too much for anyone to regularly trump for the best of the best talent, but Self and Krzyzewski have gotten some very crucial wins lately.
Recent track record
Self's run at the top of the Big 12 has been remarkable, with at least a share of nine straight league championships. Self has also chalked up four Elite Eights, two title games and a national championship in the last seven seasons. Early-round losses to Bradley, Bucknell and Northern Iowa blight the tournament resume a bit, but they've probably been overstated at this point.
Krzyzewski's regular-season consistency of excellence has been amazing. He's mastered scheduling, parlaying a bunch of location-friendly neutral-site games into huge RPI points, and managed a 1- or 2-seed in six straight years and nine of the last 10. Based on Duke's seeding, though, the Blue Devils have badly underachieved in the NCAAs in that decade. The 2010 national title helped erase some of the demerits, but last year's regional final loss to eventual champ Louisville was the only other time Duke has made the Elite Eight in the last 10 years.
Calipari's first three years in Lexington were top shelf. He went 102-14 with an Elite Eight, a Final Four and a national title. Last year's descent into the NIT, with a first-round road loss at Robert Morris, looks to be a one-year blip, but it's still on the resume. This year's team likely will make people forget about last year.
All three play in historically great venues. Even Cameron's reduced size doesn't diminish the atmosphere. Tons of history at all three, with extended history favoring Kansas and Kentucky. Forced to choose, I'd go Allen Fieldhouse, Cameron and then Rupp Arena, but you could argue this any way and have a compelling case.
All three were in the top six of the 2012 rankings. Their coaches make a ton of money and they don't skimp elsewhere, either.
Kentucky has the second-most national titles behind UCLA. Duke has been the best modern program of the last 25 years. Kansas has a great mix of both.
Hard to pick, right? Well, someone has to do it ... here goes!
No. 3 Duke
By virtue of the disappointing NCAA tournament performance, the greatest potential coach risk, and not consistently recruiting at quite the level that Kentucky (especially) and Kansas (lately) have established themselves.
OK, now it gets really tough.
No. 2 Kentucky
Really for the reason that Calipari's operation feels like more of a comet than a star. The Wildcats are burning bright and are annually the biggest story in the game, but last season put a small dent in the armor of Calipari's annual build model, and more coaches now feel they can beat Calipari for strategic recruits.
The consistency and stability in Lawrence is just better. They have been masterful under Bill Self, and were outstanding under Roy Williams. The future is looking really good, too, if Self continues to recruit at his current level. There are a lot of rumblings he could strike big at the top of the Class of 2014, and the groundwork would be in place for another extended run of excellence.
As for Calipari, each program he has left has not been able to maintain his level of elite performance, and we have seen Kentucky fade a bit (over time under Tubby Smith) and then crater (under Billy Gillispie), and that doesn't even include last year.
This choice will look pretty awesome if Kentucky rips Kansas for the national title in April, but for now, the Cats will have to settle for second.