Posted 13 hours ago | By Shiloh Carder
Even though we have entered the third decade of the millennium, it still feels a bit weird having a retrospective on the 21st century. So much has changed since we were concerned that Y2K would end the world, and we traded in our pagers for cell phones.
With the 2021 NCAA Tournament coming upon us, it is fun to look back at the best college basketball programs over the last two decades. So much has changed in college hoops over this time. In 2000, high school players entering the NBA Draft was becoming much more commonplace, and in 2001 we had our first-ever high school player going No. 1 overall. Soon after, the one-and-done culture would be in place and would change the NCAA.
There were also massive conference realignments. The ACC went from nine to 15 schools, the Big Ten expanded to 14 teams and the Big 12 shrunk to 10. The Big East blew up and then split up. Louisville played in four different conferences in this century.
It is a tough task to truly rank the top 25 programs over this time frame. Only three of the programs have had the same coach the entire time, and aside from a select few, many programs experience considerable peaks and valleys during a 22-year stretch.
So let’s see which are the top 25 programs of the 21st century.
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25 – Illinois Fighting Illini
Bill Self was around for only three seasons, but he ignited a run of eight straight NCAA Tournaments, four Sweet 16s, two regional finals, and a Final Four. Illinois would reach its peak during the 2004-2005 season, as Bruce Weber’s Illini would win their first 29 games before losing their regular-season finale to Ohio State. They wouldn’t lose again until the NCAA championship game against North Carolina. From there, the Illini struggled to enjoy that level of success. After the 2007 season, Illinois reached the NCAA Tournament just three times and won just two total tournament games. From 2001 to 2005, Illinois won four Big Ten regular-season titles and went 141-33. The 2021 Illini were back as an elite team.
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The beginning of the century was the end of the 24-year Gale Catlett era. His final season in Morgantown was a school-worst 8-20 season in which WVU lost 15 of 16 Big East games. John Beilein took over and resurrected the program by leading the Mountaineers to two Sweet 16s, a regional final, and an NIT championship. Bob Huggins took the reins in 2007 and has led West Virginia to ten NCAA Tournaments in 12 years, including the 2010 Final Four, and has been a major factor since joining the Big 12 in 2012-2013. Huggins’ “Press Virginia” defense in the late 2010s is one of the most difficult defenses to game plan for.
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23 – Texas Longhorns
Rick Barnes took over a flailing Texas program in 1998 and instantly made it relevant. National Player of the Year T.J. Ford led the Horns to the 2003 Final Four where they would lose to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse. Four years later, Kevin Durant would be the first freshman to win the Naismith Award for the national Player of the Year. Durant’s lone season in Austin was sandwiched between two regional final appearances (2006, 2008). Texas has been a player in the current one-and-done culture and has placed quite a few players in the pros. Shaka Smart took over the program in 2015 but has yet to find tournament success.
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22 – Pittsburgh Panthers
For much of the 2000s, Pitt was one of the best programs in the Big East and the nation. Ben Howland took a dormant program and built it into a Big East champion and a top 10 program. Jamie Dixon took over and continued the success. The Panthers reached five Sweet 16s since 2000 and the 2009 Elite Eight and were routinely receiving one of the top seeds in the tournament. Their move to the ACC (as well as Dixon leaving for TCU) has meant some tough times for the Panthers. While the Jeff Capel era has been down, you can’t deny how good they were for much of the 21st century.
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