By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Basketball Writer
Sustained excellence is difficult to achieve in any sport.
It takes hiring the right coaches, year after year. A constant stream of great players to replace those that depart. It takes luck, to be sure, but also passionate fans, elite facilities, proper marketing and the flexibility to adapt to the times.
In college basketball, those that get the mixture right just might land atop the AP Top 25.
Since The Associated Press began ranking teams in January 1949, when Saint Louis was installed at No. 1, many schools have laid claim to the crown. Some fell by the wayside, replaced by others that climbed the venerable poll. But through the vast changes that have have transformed college basketball, and more than 1,200 polls that have tried to make sense of it all, one thing has remained constant: Kentucky is usually somewhere near the top.
To celebrate this month’s 75th anniversary of the Top 25, the AP reviewed every poll to determine the all-time No. 1 and the Wildcats — the winningest program in college basketball — narrowly edged North Carolina for the top of the heap.
“When I got here,” current Kentucky coach John Calipari recalled, “it was just knowing that it matters in this state. The fans are incredibly engaged. There were people who knew more about our recruiting than I did. That’s when you realize this is different.”
It’s been that way ever since Adolph Rupp, the Kansas-born farm boy who became the Baron of the Bluegrass, built the Wildcats into a perennial power over 42 seasons starting in 1930.
They eventually supplanted Saint Louis at No. 1 that first season and have rarely strayed too far over the past 75 years. So when teams were awarded points based on where they landed on each ballot, just as they are in the weekly rankings today, Kentucky ended up No. 1 with 17,852 points through last season. The Tar Heels had 17,268, while Duke, Kansas and UCLA were next.
“They all have an awesome following. They all recruit excellence. But it all goes back to the players,” said current St. John’s coach Rick Pitino, who won national championships at both Kentucky and Louisville, which came in at No. 6 on the all-time list.
“At Kentucky,” Pitino said, “every year you can get a great player, from Dan Issel and Pat Riley on down.”
Arizona was seventh on the all-time list, followed by Indiana, Syracuse and Michigan State rounding out the top 10.
The list is not intended to crown the greatest college basketball program, because greatness can be measured in different ways: Duke has been the most dominant program over the past three decades; Kansas is considered the cradle of coaches, laying claim in part to not only Rupp and Calipari but North Carolina’s Dean Smith and current coach Bill Self; and UCLA has the most national championships with 11. Besides, the final AP poll each season is released before the NCAA Tournament.
Rather, the AP’s all-time Top 25 is a measure of sustained excellence as reflected by generations of voters, men and women who have covered the sport and attempted to order the most deserving teams on their weekly ballots.
Did voters get it right over all those years? Pitino thinks so, as do many coaches surveyed by the AP in recent months.
“The AP poll is the one that everybody has a lot of respect for,” said Tom Izzo, whose four decades as an assistant and head coach at Michigan State helped land the Spartans in the top 10. “I think to do something like that means you’ve been consistent over 75 years. And a lot of those years I wasn’t alive, but a lot of those years I was part of it.”
Kentucky has appeared in more than 75% of AP polls, while Duke has been No. 1 more than any other program.
“I think the poll got it right,” said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, a longtime AP voter. “The voters take it seriously and make sure the most deserving teams are ranked. There’s a reason those teams are called the bluebloods, and this lends credence to that.”
START TO FINISH
There have been 14 teams that were wire-to-wire No. 1, including Gonzaga during a 2020-21 season perhaps best remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bulldogs’ perfect season ended against Baylor in the national title game.
Half of those wire-to-wire teams went on to win the title: Bill Russell and San Francisco in 1956; John Wooden’s teams at UCLA in 1967, ‘69, ’72 and ’73; Indiana in 1976, the last team to finish a season unbeaten; and the Duke team in 1992 that needed a heroic shot from Christian Laettner to beat Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, then toppled Michigan for the title.
Three other wire-to-wire No. 1s had perfect seasons end in the tourney: Ohio State in 1961, UNLV in ‘91 and Kentucky in ’15.
THE NUMBERS GAME
There have been 206 teams in the poll, including 13 that have made a single appearance. The most recent was Old Dominion, which was ranked No. 25 on Jan. 1, 2015, lost to Western Kentucky and has yet to return.
UCLA holds the record for consecutive polls at 221, beginning the 1966-67 season at No. 1 and sticking around until a loss to USC on Jan. 12, 1980. The longest streak entering 2024 belonged to Gonzaga, whose run of 142 barely stayed alive when the Bulldogs fell 11 places to No. 24 in the poll released Jan. 1.
Eleven programs that made the Top 25 no longer play at college basketball’s highest level. Some of them, such as Wayne State and West Texas A&M, dropped to Division II. Beloit, New York and Hamline, which played the first recorded intercollegiate game in 1895, are among those that dropped to the Division III level.
Some are no longer around at all. Texas-Pan American merged with Texas-Brownsville to create Texas-Rio Grande Valley, which does play Division I hoops. St. Francis (Brooklyn) ended all intercollegiate athletics last year due to financial concerns.
SPECIAL AND SUPERLATIVE
Given current conference configurations, the ACC had the most schools in the all-time top 10 (four) and was tied with the Big Ten for the most in the Top 25 with seven apiece. The Big East was next with four, followed by the Big 12 with three.
Kansas and Michigan share the record for the biggest poll jump, going from out of the rankings to No. 4 the following week. The Jayhawks accomplished the feat on Nov. 27, 1990, while the Wolverines did it on Dec. 2, 2020.
Maryland is the highest-ranked team in the all-time poll never to reach the top spot in the AP Top 25, though the 16th-ranked Terrapins have spent 25 weeks at No. 2. Next on the list of never-No. 1s is Utah at No. 43 in the all-time poll.
No preseason No. 1 team has won the national championship since North Carolina in 2009. Kentucky in 2012 was the last No. 1 entering the NCAA Tournament to cut down the nets. Each of the last eight champions have been in the top 10, though.
Seven schools have spent a single glorious week at No. 1: Oklahoma State (1951), Wichita State (1964), South Carolina (1969), Georgia Tech (1985), Iowa (1987), Saint Joseph’s (2004) and Wisconsin (2007).
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in East Lansing, Michigan, Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, and Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed.
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