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Can Arizona call itself truly elite? Photo by Wildcat Universe

The conversation started when Arizona Basketball hit No. 1 in the polls on Dec. 9. Is Arizona back? Are the Wildcats among college basketball’s elite programs?

What constitutes “elite” anyway?

The beauty of college hoops is you settle it on the court. You can’t hide behind soft schedules and claim to be champions. Teams from all conferences and every part of the country meet in the greatest sporting event this country has to offer and fight for the right to be crowned the best.

The NCAA tournament is when the best face the best and the programs that have succeeded in the tournament time and time again are the game’s true elite. Analyzing championships and Final Four numbers, you can divide the history of college basketball’s upper echelon into six tiers:

BluebloodsGreat then and now

SchoolChampionshipsFirst TitleLast TitleFinal Fours
Kentucky81948201216
North Carolina51957200918
Duke41991201015
Kansas31952200814
Louisville31980201310

With Duke not winning a title until the ‘90s it doesn’t have the championship pedigree of the other schools on this list but the Blue Devils went to the Final Four three times in the 1960s, once in the ‘70s and three more time in the ‘80s.

Honorable mention at this level goes to:

SchoolChampionshipsFirst TitleLast TitleFinal Fours
Michigan St.2197920008

They qualify for “then and now” by winning a championship in two different generations but we’ll call them a Lightblueblood because you wouldn’t rank them above…

NewbloodsModern dynasty

SchoolChampionshipsFirst TitleLast TitleFinal Fours
Connecticut4199920145

What keeps UConn off the top list is the lack of Final Four appearances before 1999. Connecticut didn’t join a major conference until the founding of the Big East in 1979 and the Huskies only advanced to the Elite Eight once before 1990.

But what UConn misses in history and quantity it more than makes up for in recent quality. Four national championships out of five Final Four appearances is insane efficiency.

Honorable mention here to:

SchoolChampionshipsFirst TitleLast TitleFinal Fours
Florida2200620075

That list of accomplishments is better than a whole lot of really strong programs but they need a third title to get into UConn’s company.

Major point: I’m not saying UConn is ranked below the Bluebloods. When you have four championships (one more than Kansas!) you don’t take a back seat to anybody. The goal here is not to rank the schools in order but the above eight programs are where I would draw the line for true elite status. Debate amongst yourselves how you would slot the game’s elite eight.

Everyone below has had high-level success but the resume needs work.

Dormant BehemothsUsed to be elite, could be again

SchoolChampionshipsFirst TitleLast TitleFinal Fours
UCLA111964199517
Indiana5194019878

Some would call these “Sleeping Giants” but I believe Arizona State football holds the trademark on that term.

It may be hard to believe UCLA, even with 11 national championships, is not considered elite but there’s an expiration date on that status. You can’t go 19 years without a championship (and that being your only title in 39 seasons) without suffering a downgrade. The potential is still there, however. The Bruins completed a Final Four 3-peat under Ben Howland just six years ago so, with the right coach, UCLA could quickly rejoin the elite.

One LegendOne championship under one hall-of-fame coach

SchoolFinal FoursYear of TitleCoachYear of HOF
Arkansas61994Nolan Richardson2008
Syracuse52003Jim Boeheim2006
Georgetown51984John Thompson1999
ARIZONA41997Lute Olson2002
UNLV41990Jerry Tarkanian2013

The success of the above five programs will be attributed to one coach until someone else is able to come in and win big.

Win ShadyA lot of wins but not without scandal

SchoolValid Final FoursVacated Final FoursChampionships
Ohio State1011
Michigan521

These two schools have the wrong kind of rivalry on the hardwood, having combined for more tarnished Final Fours than national championships.

Dusty Old TrophiesTwo championships a long time ago

SchoolChampionshipsFirst TitleLast TitleFinal Fours
Cincinnati2196119626
Oklahoma St.2194519466
North Carolina St.2197419833
San Francisco2195519563

Two trophies are two trophies but Bill Russell isn’t walking through that door.

There you have it, the six tiers of college basketball greatness. If you don’t like where your team is slotted the good news is things can change in a hurry. Because John Wooden and UCLA dominated in the ‘60s and ‘70s the college hoops hierarchy is relatively flat and rapid advancement is possible. UConn wasn’t on the map 20 years ago and now it resides among basketball royalty. Winning two championships gets you into the top 10 all-time and three has you rubbing shoulders with Bluebloods.

So, right now, in 2014, Arizona is not elite. Not yet. But Sean Miller has the program in position to make a big move. All it might take is one Final Four breakthrough and things could take off.

Just 10 months until the next chance for an upgrade.

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