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The greatest programs: No. 1, Kentucky

The greatest college basketball program has it all.

Kentucky has the titles, tradition, consistent success, iconic coaches and the passionate fan base to make it No. 1 on the list of greatest programs.

And really, there shouldn't be much debate about No. 1. The Wildcats have a lengthy tradition to match North Carolina, Kansas and Indiana. Like Duke, they're among the perennial title contenders. And if any school comes close to dominating the hoops landscape like UCLA did, it's Kentucky, which won four NCAA titles and an NIT trophy between 1946 and 1958.

No matter how one measures success, Kentucky's résumé has it.

  • Kentucky is No. 1 in wins (1,966), win percentage (75 percent), NCAA tournament appearances (50).
  • The Wildcats are 2nd in NCAA championships (7) and regular-season conference titles (49).
  • Kentucky is tied for 4th most Final Four appearances (13) and is sixth in NCAA tourney win percentage (.6897), though they do have the most victories in the Big Dance (100).
  • The 'Cats haven't missed an NCAA tournament since 1991. Only Arizona and Kansas have longer current streaks.
  • They've also won the NIT twice. They were 3rd, 1st and 2nd in a 4-year span in the 40s when the NIT was perhaps the nation's premier tournament.
  • Only UCLA and North Carolina have produced more NBA players.
  • Kentucky's been dominant the last 15 years, including 9 seasons with at least 25 wins. Just Duke and Kansas have more.
  • The 'Cats have had 15 players named consensus All-American 20 times (the most) and have been atop the AP poll 80 weeks (behind UCLA, Carolina and Duke). Oddly enough, no player has ever been AP player of the year, or won the Wooden or Naismith awards.

Perhaps the biggest testament to Kentucky's overall dominance? They're always a contender. Always.

No team won more games in the 1940s and '50s. The 'Cats won the 2nd most in the '30s and '90s, were fifth winningest team in the '60s and '70s and finished among the top 10 in the '80s and '2000s. That's eight decades either leading or being among the best programs. No other school is close.

That's not to say Kentucky's hoops history is perfect.

The NCAA's penalized the school three times for serious violations, including two instances where Kentucky was prohibited from playing games. (But the winning never stopped.)

College basketball's point-shaving scandals from the early '50s affected Kentucky when three players, Ralph Beard, Alex Groza and Dale Barnstable, were arrested in the fall of 1951. They were barred for three years. In '52, Bill Spivey, despite never being implicated in point shaving, also was barred. As a result, the NCAA suspended Kentucky's 1952-53 season. (Amazingly, the 'Cats went 25-0 in the '53-'54 season, but declined an NCAA bid.)

In 1976, Kentucky was placed on two-year probation because of improper benefits to players. (Two years later, the 'Cats won the NCAA title.)

In 1989, the NCAA gave Kentucky three years' probation and barred it from postseason play for the 1990 and '91 seasons for recruiting and academic violations. (The 'Cats reached four Final Fours and won two NCAA titles between 1993 and 1998.)

This isn't to hammer the 'Cats. Nearly every program has been hit with some kind of NCAA probation. But it's important in Kentucky's history for when it occurred (during some of the 'Cats' best eras) and how Kentucky responded (by winning even more). Also, it's fair to say that Kentucky has likely been under more scrutiny than most schools. Winning usually prompts more oversight from the NCAA.

Another issue Kentucky fights is Adolph Rupp's legacy. Not his coaching legacy, but his social views.

Rupp is one of the game's coaching legends. Over 41 seasons, he won 876 games (3rd) at an astounding rate (.822 win percentage is 2nd). His teams won four NCAA titles, an NIT title, an Olympic gold medal and turned Kentucky basketball into a national powerhouse.

Coaches regarded Rupp as a master instructor of fundamentals and discipline. His teams often lacked height, but compensated by utilizing the fast break and a stellar defense.

But Rupp also was a man of the era. Kentucky, like any other southern school until the late '60s and early '70s, didn't recruit black players. Various reports indicate Rupp was entirely in favor of this un-written policy. (Kentucky's first black player was Tom Payne, who did play under Rupp in 1970.)

The memorable 1966 NCAA championship game that featured Rupp's Wildcats losing to Texas Western (now UTEP) has become a significant point in NCAA history because it featured an all-black starting five (Texas Western) beating an all-white starting five (Kentucky) on hoops' biggest stage, during the heart of the civil rights movement.

Was it seen as a watershed moment in 1966? Some associated with that game disagree, pointing out that other champions, starting with San Francisco in 1955 and onto Loyola (Ill.) in 1963 featured four black starters. College hoops was already moving toward integration, the reasoning goes.

Perhaps Kentucky's loss cemented it. Perhaps it was inevitable. But in the 40 years since that game, it's become the focal point for the game's race relations and how they progressed, spawning countless articles, interviews and even a movie.

Rupp may have been a racist. He may not have been. There's a comprehensive rundown of his career available here, which includes reasons why he was and was not a racist.

All of this isn't meant to defend or castigate Rupp, but to raise points why Kentucky has its share of detractors -- and to be somewhat amazed that through the NCAA issues and racial tension that Kentucky is still No. 1 on this list.

Frankly, it's because Rupp began an amazing trend of winning at Kentucky that's lasted to this day. Rupp's first team finished 15-3 in 1931. The 'Cats have had zero one losing season since. (To be fair, John Mauer was 40-14 in three seasons before Rupp, but Rupp elevated the program.)

His teams hit their zenith in the '40s and '50s. The NIT saw the 'Cats place 3rd in '44, win in '46 and finish as runner-up in '47, when it vied with the NCAAs as the nation's preeminent tourney. They won the NCAAs in '48, '49 and '51. They were 25-0 in '54, but declined an NCAA bid. They won NCAAs again in '58.

But it didn't stop when Rupp reached mandatory retirement age in 1972.

Longtime assistant Joe B. Hall coached for the next 13 years, reaching three Final Fours and winning a title in 1978. That title not only gave Big Blue Nation a long-awaited championship, but featured one of the sport's most memorable title-game performances when Jack Givens torched Duke for 41 points.

Hall, who won 75 percent of his games and eight regular-season SEC titles, was replaced by Eddie Sutton in 1985. He never matched Rupp's legacy – who could? – but thrived in his own right. Kentucky's upset of previously unbeaten Indiana in the 1975 signaled his teams were capable of big things. The NCAA title sealed it.

Sutton lasted just four seasons, winning a couple of SEC titles and nearly 70 percent of his games, but his tenure ended with NCAA violations – and ushered in the Rick Pitino era, which effectively cemented Kentucky's status as the all-time elite program.

Coming off a failed stint as the Knicks coach, Pitino settled right in at Kentucky. He opened up the Wildcats' offense by embracing the three-pointer and used a full-court press to create easier scoring opportunities.

Jamal Mashburn's arrival during Pitino's second season gave the 'Cats a superstar player that Pitino could build around and eventually ride to the '93 Final Four. Mashburn also signaled an accumulation of NBA talent in Kentucky few teams had seen before.

Kentucky's 1995-96 squad was so loaded (five first-round NBA draft picks), it ran away with the NCAA title and is often on the short list of the sport's greatest teams. Only a stunning OT loss to Arizona kept the 'Cats from back-to-back titles.

In the end, Pitino's 8-year tenure saw Kentucky win 250 219 games, reach three Final Fours and win another title (and set the stage for Tubby Smith to win in '98). As if that wasn't enough, the 'Cats played in perhaps the best game ever seen in college hoops, if not the most replayed.

Smith replaced Pitino, but fans never fully embraced him, despite an NCAA title and seven SEC titles in 10 seasons, including a 16-0 SEC run in 2003.

Part of that stems from Smith never taking Kentucky back to the Final Four after that initial trip. Part of it comes from replacing a legend like Pitino. And part of it comes from Kentucky backers' sky-high expectations for their school.

Is it fair? Probably not. But that's part of coaching at Kentucky. Even if one wins 76 percent of the time (as Smith did), the ultimate goals are NCAA titles and Final Fours.

Such is life at the greatest college basketball program of all time. Kentucky's not perfect, just the best.