Ranking the best team of every men's Sweet 16 school

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Well, this won't be controversial.

A few weeks ago, we had an idea.

What if there was a way to take the greatest teams of all time for each school in the Sweet 16, and put them all in the same gym to play a tournament? Which squad would emerge with the championship?

It wasn't easy.

See, NCAA tournament success is a good indication of a team's prowess in many cases, but not all. Remember, Florida Atlantic will participate in the Sweet 16 next weekend. That's something Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Durant never achieved.

So it can't just be about postseason results. Talent and experience have to play a significant role, too. Also, styles and potential matchups. One team might have a player who would dominate no matter who you put in front of him. That matters, too. They're all factors in how we reached these conclusions.

And then we took it to another level and ranked each team. You're welcome.

Here is our list of the best team -- in that winner-take-all format -- for each program that remains in the Sweet 16, and where they'd rank among their peers on this list:

1. UCLA Bruins (2-seed)

Best Team: 1971-72

Top three players: Bill Walton (21.1 PPG, 15.5 RPG), Henry Bibby (15.7 PPG), Jamaal Wilkes (13.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG)

Highest achievement: NCAA title

Best Game: 81-76 win over Florida State in the national championship

Next best team: 1968-69

Arguably the greatest college basketball team of all time, John Wooden's crew finished 30-0 with a national championship and continued a winning streak that began in 1971 and ended in 1974 with 88 consecutive wins. Led by Walton, one of the greatest college players of all time, this group had five future pros and beat its opponents by an average of 30.3 points per game.

2. Michigan State Spartans (7-seed)

Best Team: 1978-79

Top three players: Magic Johnson (17.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.4 APG), Greg Kelser (18.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG), Jay Vincent (12.7 PPG)

Highest achievement: National championship

Best Game: 75-64 over No. 1 Indiana State in the national title game

Next best team: 1999-2000

Michigan State had a multitude of contenders, but we'll take the team led by the 6-8 point guard who became one of the greatest NBA players of all time. Those Spartans could fly up and down the court, but they also held their opponents to just 62.6 PPG, a top-15 mark in the country.

3. Houston Cougars (1-seed)

Best Team: 1982-83

Top three players: Hakeem Olajuwon (13.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG), Clyde Drexler (15.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG), Michael Young (17.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG)

Highest achievement: National runner-up

Best Game: 94-81 vs. No. 1 Louisville in the Final Four

Next best team: 1967-68

This team was so good (82.4 PPG) it featured two future Basketball Hall of Famers (Olajuwon and Drexler) who weren't even the leading scorers. This squad reached the national championship game a year before it would return to the title game again. Four future NBA players anchored the "Phi Slama Jama" era of Houston basketball, which was unmatched.

4. Arkansas Razorbacks (8-seed)

Best Team: 1993-94

Top three players: Corliss Williamson (20.4 PPG, 7.7 RPG), Scotty Thurman (15.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG), Corey Beck (8.8 PPG, 5.0 APG)

Highest achievement: NCAA title

Best Game: 76-72 win over No. 2 Duke in the national championship

Next best team: 1989-90

Nolan Richardson's "40 minutes of Hell" turned this squad into the only national champion in school history with a win over a strong Duke team, a year before the Razorbacks returned to the national title game and lost to UCLA. From Jan. 19, 1994, to April 4, 1994 (the national championship), Williamson and Co. lost just once (90-78 against No. 10 Kentucky in the SEC tournament).

5. UConn Huskies (4-seed)

Best Team: 2003-04

Top three players: Ben Gordon (18.5 PPG), Emeka Okafor (17.6 PPG, 11.5 RPG), Rashad Anderson (11.2 PPG)

Highest achievement: National championship

Best Game: 82-73 vs. No. 14 Georgia Tech in the national championship

Next best team: 1998-99

Okafor and Gordon were the second and third picks, respectively, in the 2004 NBA draft after leading the program to its second national championship in five years. While that '98-99 team is legendary for ending Duke's 32-game winning streak and winning a national championship, this group had six future NBA players and outscored its opponents by an average of 15 points.

6. Gonzaga Bulldogs (3-seed)

Best Team: 2020-21

Top three players: Drew Timme (19.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG), Corey Kispert (18.6 PPG), Jalen Suggs (14.5 PPG, 4.5 APG)

Highest achievement: National runner-up

Best Game: 93-90 vs. UCLA in overtime in the Final Four

Next best team: 2018-19

This team was essentially this season's slick Gonzaga team, but with three future pros (Suggs, Kispert and Andrew Nembhard), which is why it's Mark Few's best. They're how the 2020-21 team managed to win 31 games in a row before losing to Baylor in the national championship game.

7. Alabama Crimson Tide (1-seed)

Best Team: 1991-92

Top three players: Latrell Sprewell (17.8 PPG), Robert Horry (15.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG), James Robinson (19.4 PPG)

Highest achievement: No. 13 in season's final AP poll

Best Game: 90-89 vs. No. 6 Arkansas in the SEC tournament quarterfinals

Next best team: 2022-23

This stacked SEC squad featured three incredible players who would all eventually leave Alabama and enjoy lengthy careers in the NBA. The rotation for this team, which inconceivably failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament that season, was so deep and difficult to crack that Jason Caffey, who won two NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, played just 11.0 MPG.

8. Texas Longhorns (2-seed)

Best Team: 2005-06

Top three players: P.J. Tucker (16.1 PPG, 9.5 RPG), LaMarcus Aldridge (15.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG), Daniel Gibson (13.4 PPG)

Highest achievement: Elite Eight

Best Game: 74-71 vs. No. 22 West Virginia in the Sweet 16

Next best team: 2002-03

Aldridge was one of three future NBA players on a roster that won 30 games -- a school record at the time -- and finished top 15 in defensive and offensive efficiency on KenPom. The only thing that stopped this group from advancing to the Final Four was an overtime loss to LSU in the Elite Eight.

9. Kansas State Wildcats (3-seed)

Best Team: 1987-88

Top three players: Mitch Richmond (22.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG), William Scott (12.2 PPG), Steve Henson (9.1 PPG, 5.5 APG)

Highest achievement: Elite Eight

Best Game: 73-70 vs. No. 1 Purdue

Next best team: 2007-08

Richmond, a future Basketball Hall of Famer, led this group that averaged 75.4 PPG to the second weekend. This crew would still be a problem today with its 48.4% clip from 3-point range.

10. Tennessee Volunteers (4-seed)

Best Team: 1976-77

Top three players: Bernard King (25.8 PPG, 14.3 RPG), Ernie Grunfeld (22.8 PPG), Mike Jackson (15.4 PPG)

Highest achievement: SEC championship

Best Game: 92-89 at No. 4 Alabama

Next best team: 2018-19

"The Ernie and Bernie Show" put together a remarkable run, anchoring Tennessee's strongest roster. Although this group failed to win an NCAA tournament game in the 1976-77 campaign and would finish behind multiple Tennessee teams based off postseason success, its talent, sheer offensive dominance and NBA prospects give these Vols the edge in the conversation about the program's greatest team of all time.

11. Princeton Tigers (15-seed)

Best Team: 1964-65

Top three players: Bill Bradley (30.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG), Bob Haarlow (9.6 PPG), Ed Hummer (8.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG)

Highest achievement: Final Four

Best Game: 118-82 vs. Wichita State in the third-place game after losing to Michigan in the Final Four

Next best team: 2022-23

This season's Tigers have impressed, but in 1964-65 they had Bradley, the future Basketball Hall of Famer who led the team to a win over No. 4 Providence in the Elite Eight. That team won the Ivy League and averaged nearly 80 points per game.

12. Xavier Musketeers (6-seed)

Best Team: 2002-03

Top three players: David West (20.1 PPG, 11.8 RPG), Romain Sato (18.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG), Lionel Chalmers (12.0 PPG)

Highest achievement: Second round of the NCAA tournament

Best Game: 75-73 vs. No. 15 Creighton

Next best team: 2007-08

This team, ranked top 10 in the preseason AP poll, had West, Xavier's greatest player of all time and the AP national player of the year. These Musketeers fell short in the postseason, but they orchestrated a 16-game winning streak from Jan. 11 to March 14, ending with a loss to Temple in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

13. San Diego State Aztecs (5-seed)

Best Team: 2010-11

Top three players: Kawhi Leonard (15.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG); D.J. Gay (11.1 PPG, 3.1 APG); Malcolm Thomas (11.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.0 BPG)

Highest achievement: Sweet 16

Best Game: 72-54 win over No. 8 BYU in the Mountain West Conference tournament title game

Next best team: 2013-14

Before Leonard led the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors to NBA titles, he was an all-Mountain West first-teamer who helped SDSU beat Jimmer Fredette and BYU in the conference tournament championship. Then, Leonard and Co. helped SDSU reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

14. Creighton Bluejays (6-seed)

Best Team: 2002-03

Top three players: Kyle Korver (17.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG), Larry House (11.1 PPG), Mike Grimes (8.4 PPG)

Highest achievement: First round of the NCAA tournament

Best Game: 80-56 vs. Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game

Next best team: 2013-14

Korver won his second consecutive Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year award that year. But this team's strength was its depth: Five players averaged at least 7.8 PPG that season, even though they ended without a win in the NCAA tournament.

15. Miami Hurricanes (5-seed)

Best Team: 1998-99

Top three players: Tim James (18.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG), Johnny Hemsley (17.8 PPG), Mario Bland (11.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG)

Highest achievement: 10th in the final Associated Press poll

Best Game: 73-71 at No. 2 UConn

Next best team: 2012-13

James, who was named co-Big East Player of the Year with former UConn star Rip Hamilton that season, led Miami to 27 wins that year. This group lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament but also achieved a second-place finish in the Big East that season.

16.Florida Atlantic Owls (9-seed)

Best Team: 2022-23

Top three players: Johnell Davis (13.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG), Alijah Martin (13.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG), Vladislav Goldin (10.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG)

Highest achievement: Sweet 16

Best Game: 78-70 vs. Fairleigh Dickinson in the second round

Next best team: 2001-02

Prior to this season, FAU had never won an NCAA tournament game, and now Davis and Co. have led the Owls to wins over Memphis and Fairleigh Dickinson to reach the second weekend for the first time in school history. With or without another win next weekend, this group is already legendary in Boca Raton.

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