This year’s Kentucky team has been so dominant, more than a few observers of the sport have made the ridiculous claim that the Wildcats could beat an NBA team. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy is the latest voice of reason on that topic.
Still, this Kentucky team has a lot of NBA talent, they have gone through a season with only two losses, and have looked even better in the tournament. There are plenty that have expressed a belief that they are the best college team in a while.
Of course, they still need to win two games. Looking back through history, and top teams in the Final Four, that is far from certain. A loss to Louisville in the semis wouldn’t even register as one of the 10 biggest upsets in the Final Four in the last 25 years.
The belief that Kentucky is so good compared to other recent teams is a product of (a) one of the flukiest years ever the year before, where no dominant team emerged, (b) recency and the sensation that NOW is better, (c) relative to other national title winners, their schedule rates lower in strength, and (d) the promise of youth in the NBA draft, where plenty of guys are projected to be drafted, but some are drafted lower or not drafted at all when it finally happens. Kentucky will have three players selected in the lottery most likely at some point–Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Terrence Jones. Others could be drafted, and at least a few will.
Then, there’s the issue of age. Other dominant teams may have had three lottery picks, but some of them were 21 and 22 in college. That matters.
Of course, let’s stop talking generalities and try to measure teams and their dominance. To do so, I used the simple rating system (SRS) available at sports-reference.com/bb. I also, though, had to make some adjustments. For example, there were 260 schools in Division I in 1980, the first year the SRS is available. There are 344 now. Those additions are all smaller and mid-major schools, with the highest level being teams like Missouri State and Central Florida. Thus, the “average” team in Division I in 1980 was almost four points better than the “average” team today.
To calculate the adjusting based on division size, I found the rating for each new member in its first season, and then adjusted accordingly.
After doing that, this Kentucky team, when compared to only the National Champions, would come in at #17 since 1980. The SRS undervalues those teams before 1986 because of the shot clock and three point shot, two factors that increased scoring. So, here are the most dominant national champs since 1986, once we adjust for the amount of Division I teams.
You’ll notice that #1 on the list is Kentucky. That was a Pitino coached team, though, and one that happened to beat a John Calipari team in the Final Four.
#1: 1996 KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Adjusted SRS: +33.7
SOS Rank: 13th
NBA Players on Team: (9) Antoine Walker (6th pick), Ron Mercer (6th pick), Derek Anderson (13th pick), Tony Delk (16th pick), Walter McCarty (19th pick), Nazr Mohammed (29th pick), Mark Pope (52nd pick), Jeffrey Shepherd (UDFA), Wayne Turner (UDFA)
Overview: Nine players that played in the NBA at some point! Five of them selected in the top 20 of a draft. They rolled through the regular season, played a tougher schedule than the 2012 Wildcats and avenged their loss to UMass in the Final Four.
#2: 2001 DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Adjusted SRS: +33.3
SOS Rank: 5th
NBA Players on Team: (5) Jay Williams (2nd pick), Mike Dunleavy (3rd pick), Shane Battier (6th pick), Carlos Boozer (34th pick), Chris Duhon (38th pick)
Overview: A dominant regular season against a very tough schedule (18 wins against teams in the top 40), and three players who would be selected in the top 6 in a draft, plus Carlos Boozer. Not a bad group, and it is a shame that Jason Williams’ career was cut short.
#3: 1993 NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Adjusted SRS: +30.9
SOS Rank: 3rd
NBA Players on Team: (5) Eric Montross (9th overall), George Lynch (12th overall), Kevin Salvadori, Derrick Phelps (UDFA), Matt Wenstrom (UDFA)
Overview: A veteran team with George Lynch and Eric Montross, they also had size and depth, with seven footers Salvadori and Wenstrom coming off the bench. Phelps and Donald Williams, who never played in the NBA but was a McDonald’s All-American, made up the back court. This team probably ended up with fewer NBA caliber players than any on this list.
#4: 1989 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
Adjusted SRS: +29.6
SOS Rank: 6th
NBA Players on Team: (6) Glen Rice (4th overall), Rumeal Robinson (10th pick), Loy Vaught (13th pick), Terry Mills (16th pick), Sean Higgins (27th pick), Demetrius Calip (UDFA)
Overview: Michigan had five players who averaged double figures in 1989 and would eventually be drafted in the NBA. They lost some close games against a tough schedule, losing to Indiana twice in the final seconds. Then, head coach Bill Frieder bolted for Arizona State and Steve Fisher led them to a title as they avenged earlier losses to Illinois and then beat Seton Hall in the final.
#5: 2005 NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Adjusted SRS: +29.1
SOS Rank: 3rd
NBA Players on Team: (6) Marvin Williams (2nd pick), Raymond Felton (5th pick), Sean May (13th pick), Rashad McCants (14th pick), David Noel (39th pick), Jawad Williams (UDFA)
#6: 2008 KANSAS JAYHAWKS
Adjusted SRS: +27.6
SOS Rank: 13th
NBA Players on Team: (6) Cole Aldrich (11th pick), Brandon Rush (13th pick), Darrell Arthur (27th pick), Mario Chalmers (34th pick), Darnell Jackson (52nd pick), Sherron Collins (UDFA)
#7 1990 UNLV RUNNING REBELS
Adjusted SRS: +26.9
SOS Rank: 17th
NBA Players on Team: (3) Larry Johnson (1st pick), Stacey Augmon (9th pick), Greg Anthony (12th pick)
Overview: The Rebels were even better the next year, as they went undefeated until the Duke upset in the national semifinal. Three players that were top 12 picks, including first overall LJ, and they had more experience, make up for none of the other contributors, such as Anderson Hunt, playing in the NBA.
#8: 1992 DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Adjusted SRS: +26.9
SOS Rank: 13th
NBA Players on Team: (6) Grant Hill (3rd pick), Christian Laettner (3rd pick), Bobby Hurley (7th pick), Cherokee Parks (12th pick), Antonio Lang (29th pick), Brian Davis (48th pick)
Overview: Three major contributors drafted in the top 7 in a NBA draft, and more veteran than the current Kentucky group. The 1991 squad also just misses this list.