Ranking the best college basketball teams of the decade
More college basketball all-decade content here.
The 2010s are coming to an end, which should make you feel incredibly old.
We’ve now gone a full decade with John Calipari in charge of the Kentucky Wildcats. We’re more than a decade removed from the existence of Psycho T on a college basketball campus. In the last ten years, we’ve seen Kentucky and Duke win titles by playing as young as possible, Virginia win by playing as slow as possible, Villanova win by shooting as many threes as possible and UConn win a pair of titles by hoping a star point guard can carry them through a six-game tournament.
We’ve experienced Jimmermania. We survived Zion Williamson’s Shoegate. We watched Louisville win a national title and then had the NCAA erase it from our collective memory because an assistant coach liked to turn dorm rooms into the Champagne Room.
It’s been a wild ride.
And over the course of the next two weeks, we will be taking a look back at some of the best parts of the decade.
Today, we are giving you the ten best college basketball all-decade teams of the last ten seasons.
The criteria for ranking the best teams in college basketball over the last decade was pretty simple: We’re not ranking how good the players on these rosters ended up being once they reached the NBA, or how good those teams looked on paper, or even basing it strictly on whether or not they won the national title. Take, for example, 2015. Duke won the national title that season, but I think everyone will agree that the Kentucky team that started the season off at 38-0 was the best team in college basketball that year.
And, for clarity’s sake, we are including the 2009-2010 season in this discussion. We did consider this season as well, but since everyone in college basketball stinks this year, our life was made easier.
So without further ado, these are the definitive, unquestioned best teams that set foot on a college basketball court in the last decade.
2010 DUKE: Mike Krzyzewski’s first national title of the decade. It might go overlooked among Coach K’s best teams because there were no eventual superstars on the roster, but that team won a share of the ACC regular season title, the ACC tournament title and, of course, the national title with a team that had six NBA players on it. That number doesn’t include Jon Scheyer, who was a senior All-American that probably would have made a roster somewhere if he hadn’t injured his eye.
2014 WICHITA STATE: This was the best team that Gregg Marshall had at Wichita State. The Shockers won their first 35 games of the season, with Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker running the backcourt, but the best player on the roster that year was actually Cleanthony Early, who was eventually picked in the second round of that June’s draft.
2016 VILLANOVA: This season’s version of the Wildcats won the national title and rid Jay Wright of the stigma of being unable to get out of the first weekend of the tournament. I think that the 2018 iteration of the Wildcats was significantly better, but this group had to be considered because A) they won the national title, and B) there were six NBA players on the roster, including three (Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson) in the starting lineup.
2017 NORTH CAROLINA: I was such a big fan of this group. With Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks leading the way, the Tar Heels won the outright ACC regular season title before making a run to win the national title, redeeming themselves for a loss in the same game the previous season.
2019 DUKE: This Duke team had as much, if not more, talent on their roster than any team that we’ve seen the last decade. R.J. Barrett became the first player to average 22 points, seven boards and four assists at a high-major since Penny Hardaway in 1993, and he was the second-best player on that team. Remember Zion? The Blue Devils finished third in the ACC regular season standings, but they won the ACC tournament and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed before flaming out in the Elite Eight.
10. 2013 LOUISVILLE
RECORD: 35-5 (14-4 Big East)
WHAT THEY WON: Big East regular season title, Big East tournament title, national title
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell
Before we get into it, I need to clarify something: I know you remember this team. I know that you watched them win the national title, and that we all remember Russdiculous doing Russdiculous things and Luke Hancock hitting four straight threes in the title game. But none of that happened. The NCAA erased it all from the history books when they punished Louisville.
So just remember that, as we discuss this group, you are legally barred from actually remembering them. It’s the NCAA’s rule, my hands are tied.
In all seriousness, this was one of my favorite college basketball teams of the decade. It was the last great team from the old Big East, winning a share of the regular season title before taking home the Big East tournament title. They finished the season with the second-best rating in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric in his database, and they did it all with one of the most entertaining players we’ve ever seen in Russ Smith. They played fast, they forced turnovers and they were the crowning achievement for Rick Pitino, who went from building the best team of the 1990s at Kentucky to one of the best teams of the 2010s at Louisville.
9. 2011 OHIO STATE
RECORD: 34-3 (16-2 Big Ten)
WHAT THEY WON: Big Ten regular season title, Big Ten tournament title, lost in the Sweet 16
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, David Lighty, William Buford, Jon Diebler
For my money, this was the best team that Thad Matta ever had at Ohio State. I know he had the one year with Greg Oden and I know they reached the Final Four in 2012, but to be honest, this was his best. I just don’t know how you thought you were going to be able to guard them. Sullinger was a first-team All-American low-post scorer and he was surrounded with three big, long wings (Lighty, Buford, Diebler) who all shot at least 43 percent from three. Diebler shot better than 50 percent from beyond the arc while taking more than six threes per game. Craft was the guy that tied it all together.
The Buckeyes were clearly the best team in the country in 2011. They were No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings, and gap between them and the team sitting at No. 2 was the biggest of any season this decade. They just happened to get a 2-for-16 shooting performance from Buford on the wrong night, as the dropped out of the tournament in the Sweet 16.
8. 2015 WISCONSIN
RECORD: 36-4 (16-2 Big Ten)
WHAT THEY WON: Big Ten regular season title, Big Ten tournament title, lost in the national title game
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Josh Gasser
The 2014-15 version of the Wisconsin Badgers was the consummate Bo Ryan basketball team. It was built around a 7-foot center in Frank Kaminsky that entered the program as an unknown three-star prospect that spent two seasons as a seldom-used sub before exploding into an All-American as a junior. He was paired on the front line with Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker, the former a future All-American and the latter a first round pick, to give Ryan three players that were impossible to guard because they could post-up, play on the perimeter and shoot the three.
The result was arguably the best offense that we’ve seen this decade. The Badgers posted the highest adjusted offensive efficiency in the KenPom era, and while there is a lot of noise in that number, there are two things that make me believe there is some truth to that statement: A) There are only two teams in KenPom’s database that had a higher raw points-per-possession, and B) This was posted in what was the best season of the decade. Seven teams finished the year with four or fewer losses, the only time that’s happened since the turn of the century.
7. 2015 DUKE
RECORD: 35-4 (15-3 ACC)
WHAT THEY WON: National title
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Quinn Cook, Grayson Allen
The interesting thing about this Duke team is that, for much of the season, they didn’t even look like the best team in the ACC. There was a point in mid-January where it looked like this thing could end up spinning off the rails. They had lost to N.C. State on the road, their first loss of the season, and they had gotten run out of Cameron Indoor Stadium by a pretty regular Miami team just two days later. They fell out of the top 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency and it looked like the idea of pairing a slow-footed center with a point guard that’s not exactly known for his physicality and toughness would come back to bite them.
Hell, they didn’t win the ACC regular season or tournament title.
But when it mattered, in the NCAA tournament, it all came together. Duke was awesome defensively throughout their run. The only team to score more than 1.0 points-per-possession against them was Wisconsin in the national title game, who had 63 points on 60 possessions. The Blue Devils ended up sweeping the Badgers - they had won by 10 in Madison in December - en route to Coach K’s second title of the decade.
6. 2012 NORTH CAROLINA
RECORD: 32-6 (14-2 ACC)
WHAT THEY WON: ACC regular season title, lost in the Elite Eight
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, John Henson, Reggie Bullock, James Michael-McAdoo, P.J. Hairston
From a neutral’s perspective, I don’t think that there was a more disappointing injury to take place during this decade than when Kendall Marshall fractured a bone in his wrist during the second round of the NCAA tournament against Creighton.
The Tar Heels were absolutely loaded. Every member of their starting lineup ended up being a first round pick, with four of the five getting selected in the top 17 picks of the 2012 NBA Draft. They had played Kentucky to a stalemate in Rupp Arena that December, losing when Anthony Davis blocked a John Henson shot at the buzzer to seal a one-point win. Kentucky was considered far and away the favorite to win the national title that season, but North Carolina was right there with them and on the opposite side of the bracket.
Everyone wanted the rematch.
And thanks to one, single scaphoid fracture, that never happened.
That should not change how we view the 2012 North Carolina team. They were, as you can see, absolutely loaded.
5. 2010 KENTUCKY
RECORD: 35-3 (14-2 SEC)
WHAT THEY WON: SEC regular season title, SEC tournament title, lost in the Elite Eight
WHO WERE THE STARS?: John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller
John Calipari’s first season with the Wildcats really set the tone for what we would get from him during his tenure.
For starters, Cal brought in an absolutely electric recruiting class, headlined by John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, arguably the two best recruits that season. Throw in Eric Bledsoe and add a sprinkle of the veteran presence that came from Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller, and suddenly Cal had a roster that included five NBA players - including two top five picks and four lottery picks in total. That team would go on to win both SEC titles before falling short of the Final Four when they went 4-for-32 from three in the Elite Eight against West Virginia.
That’s not the last time we’ve see a Coach Cal team loaded with talent lose because they couldn’t shoot it all that well.
But what made that season truly notable came during the draft. Five Kentucky players were selected in the first round, and Cal said that it was the greatest moment in the history of the program, something that rankled the feathers of Kentucky’s old guard. But it was also a prescient statement on the future of the program he wanted to build: He was going to turn Kentucky into the prime spot where you go to do your eight months before jumping to the NBA. Getting someone like Daniel Orton picked in the first round despite averaging three points was evidence that you didn’t need to thrive at Kentucky to make it to the next level. You just needed to be there.
And in the decade since, he’s had as much success as any coach in the country, even if there is only one title to show for it.
4. 2019 VIRGINIA
RECORD: 35-3 (16-2 ACC)
WHAT THEY WON: ACC regular season title, national title
WHO WERE THE STARS?: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Mamadi Diakite, Kihei Clark
We all know about just how good Virginia is on the defensive side of the ball, and this roster was no different. Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite were both plus-defenders, among the best that you are going to find in college basketball at their position. There’s an argument to be made that De’Andre Hunter is the best defensive player that we saw in college basketball this decade. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
But what set this version of the Cavaliers apart was just how efficient and lethal they were offensively. Kyle Guy was an NBA draft pick because of how well he can shoot. Ty Jerome was a first round draft pick because of his ability to operate in ball-screens. And Hunter was simply bigger and more athletic than anyone that tried to defend him.
When you give a Tony Bennett team three NBA players who excel on the offensive end of the floor, you are going to be very, very difficult to beat.
3. 2012 KENTUCKY
RECORD: 38-2 (16-0 SEC)
WHAT THEY WON: SEC regular season title, national title
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, Darius Miller
We always hear about just how close the 2015 Kentucky team came to going undefeated on the season. We don’t hear all that much about how close this Kentucky team, the first team to win 38 Division I basketball games in a single season, came to finishing out the year unblemished. If it wasn’t for a buzzer-beating Christian Watford three at Indiana and an SEC title game loss to a Vanderbilt team that had three pros, we might remember this group differently.
As it stands, Kentucky had the consensus National Player of the Year, Anthony Davis, surrounded by a perfect compliment of young talent (Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist) and wily veterans (Lamb, Jones, Miller). They finished the season as one of the nation’s elite offenses, and defensively, Davis took them to another level. Fun fact: Kentucky finished the 2012 season with the highest block rate of the decade. The only teams in the KenPom era that bettered them were a couple of the UConn teams in the mid-00s.
This group also changed college basketball in a pretty significant way. This proved that national titles could be won with rosters built around the best freshmen in the sport. The one-and-done era was already in full swing, but this win turned each and every recruiting class into an arms race. Arizona jumped in the mix. Kansas jumped in the mix. Even schools like LSU, or Missouri, or Cal tried to replicate what Kentucky did in 2012.
I think there’s an argument to be made that this team was the most influential team of the decade.
2. 2015 KENTUCKY
RECORD: 38-1 (18-0 SEC)
WHAT THEY WON: SEC regular season title, SEC tournament title, lost in the Final Four
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Ulis
I think there’s a very strong case to make that this Kentucky team is the best team in college basketball history that didn’t win the national title. There was so much talent on the roster that, if you remember, Coach Cal had to talk about ‘platoons’ as much as possible to try and keep everyone happy. They legitimately went 10 deep. Devin Booker, who is one of the top five young scorers in the NBA, came off the bench. That is an embarrassment of riches for one roster.
And what made this team so good is that they were unquestionably the best team in the country on the defensive side of the ball that season. The only two teams that have posted better adjusted defensive efficiency numbers in KenPom’s database were Texas Tech in 2019 and Louisville in 2013. When you have a team with that much game-changing talent - remember what Karl-Anthony Towns did to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight? - that is willing to sacrifice minutes, accept roles and defend the way they defended, it’s the Coach Cal masterpiece.
It’s unfortunate that they didn’t win the title.
Because if any team deserved a 40-0 record, it was this group.
1. 2018 VILLANOVA
RECORD: 36-4 (14-4 Big East)
WHAT THEY WON: Big East tournament title, national title
WHO WERE THE STARS?: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall, Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth
This team was Jay Wright’s Mona Lisa. They were old, they were positionless, they shot a ton of threes and they were loaded with soon-to-be NBA players.
Let’s start with the basketball side first. This team finished as the second-best offense in the KenPom era, according to his adjusted offensive efficiency metric, but no one since 2002 has posted a higher raw points-per-possession than this Villanova team. They shot better than 40 percent from three while firing up nearly half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. What made them so difficult to defend was that their point guard, Jalen Brunson, the National Player of the Year, was a lethal post scorer while Omari Spellman, their center, shot 43.3 percent from three and averaged two blocks per game. Throw in myriad versatile, sharp-shooting wings that would go on to play in the NBA, and there was just no way to stop this group. They only lost two games at full strength all season long - at Butler when Butler shot 15-for-22 from three, and at Creighton in overtime when Creighton shot 12-for-29 from three.
But the other side of it is that this roster was quintessential Jay Wright. Brunson was a McDonald’s All-American, but he needed three years in college because the NBA doesn’t recognize talent when it doesn’t come in freak physical packages. Bridges was a redshirt junior because he needed to add weight in college and accepted playing behind Josh Hart as a sophomore. Paschall was a redshirt junior after transferring into the program from Fordham. Booth (redshirt junior), DiVincenzo (redshirt sophomore) and Spellman (redshirt freshman) all missed a season due to injury or, in Spellman’s case, academics.
Booth is the only one of those five that hasn’t found success in the NBA, and I think he’ll get there eventually.
When you combine next-level talent and elite shooting on an unselfish, old roster, this is what happens.
You get the Team Of The Decade.