Is Purdue The Most Successful College Basketball Program Never Ranked #1?

Is Purdue The Most Successful College Basketball Program Never Ranked #1?

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The Purdue Boilermakers, our Purdue Boilermakers, are ranked #3 in the country and life is great. To be perfectly honest, this is the best we’ve collectively felt about Purdue basketball and the athletic department in a decade, and we’re really just running out of ways to drool over how fun this team is. I mean, watch this clip and try not to fall in love with this group:

We would typically spend this blogspace wringing our hands over the team’s vulnerabilities, break down film on awful help defense, implore a group on the team to step up, or yell at the sky about the state of Purdue’s athletic department.

Instead, Purdue basketball is in line for a 1-seed in the Tourney and getting love from national outlets and being praised as a National Championship contender, Purdue football is coached by a universally-praised rising star and being ranked on way-too-early 2018 Top 25 lists (shoutout to for winning over Purdue fans), the athletic department is being run by an ambitious Athletic Director with full backing from the Board of Trustees and President, and us fans are back to wearing Purdue swag every day of the week.

So, let’s take a dive into a question that’s been gnawing at me over the past few weeks, as Purdue basketball’s ranking has been on the rise since Thanksgiving:

Is Purdue the most successful college basketball program never ranked #1?

If Purdue gets through this week’s tricky games (home vs Michigan, at Indiana) unscathed, and Villanova stumbles (vs Providence, or more likely at Marquette), they’re likely to leap Virginia to take over the #1 ranking for the first time in the Polling era (post-1949). Now, we’re all reminded every single year that Purdue is one of the most successful teams to never win an NCAA Tournament (thanks, Hoosier faithful, for the constant reminders of your extremely relevant championships), but what about that #1 overall ranking?

That’s right, it was time for me to break out the spreadsheets.

First, I went through the NCAA’s official D1 Men’s Basketball Records for most wins (page 71), added this year’s wins so far, and filtered out the teams that have been ranked #1 for at least one week:

This list was a little too short...

But, at first glance, the list didn’t look right. I had to toss in NCAA Tournament title winners never ranked #1 into that mix, and this became a great place to start:

Adding NCAA Tournament champions who have never been #1 overall helped.

On jumped the Maryland Terrapins, Cal Golden Bears, Wyoming Cowboys, UTEP (aka Texas Western) Miners, and City College of New York Beavers. Here are all the teams, sorted by number of total wins:

Seriously, go look up the CCNY point shaving scandal.

The next filter removed the programs that were fairly irrelevant on the national stage in 2018. I don’t mean to tempt the Karma Gods in a potential tourney upset here, so let’s call these the Extremely Honorable Mentions. Congrats to the Wyoming Cowboys, UTEP Miners, Murray State Racers, Missouri State Bears, Illinois State Redbirds, Akron Zips, and the cheating and point shaving CCNY Beavers.

Here's the table you clicked this post to see:

Relevant Programs in 2018, Never Ranked #1:

This list right here is why you clicked on this post. Shoutout to Xavier for barely missing the cut.


Here’s where the toughest cut was made: I used a formula that weighted all of their achievements (wins/losses, conference titles, NCAA Tournament success), added program stability (coaching tenures and their successes), and the cutoff was fairly clear:

This is a list you want to be on, but also don't want to be on. Congrats (?) to the final four.

The title of “Most Successful College Basketball Program Never Ranked #1 Overall” comes down to these four schools: the Maryland Terrapins, the Utah Utes, the BYU Cougars, and our Purdue Boilermakers.

Thanks to the Ultra Extremely Honorable Mentions for making it this far: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Washington Huskies, Princeton Tigers, Oregon Ducks, Dayton Flyers, Vanderbilt Commodores, and Cal Golden Bears.

Easily the toughest omission in the top four was the Penn Quakers, who have been a historic college basketball program in a semi-nationally relevant conference. But their lack of recent national-level success (their last Tourney win was in 1994) cut them from the top four.


Here’s the conference and March Madness stats for those final four teams:

Purdue has a balance of regular season success and sustained national relevance to be the most successful team never ranked #1. Hooray?

Maryland and Utah both have national championships, but Maryland’s 2002 championship is much more relevant than Utah’s 1944 title.

Purdue has 23 conference championships in a historically better conference than either Utah (29 titles, in the Rocky Mountain, Mountain States, WAC, and Mountain West conferences) or BYU (27 titles, in the Rocky Mountain, Skyline, WAC, Mountain West, West Coast conferences). Maryland’s ACC affiliation would be more impressive, if they only had more than 6 conference titles to their name.

BYU (1,802), Utah (1,791), and Purdue (1,766) are all within striking-distance of total wins, and all among the 20 winningest programs in D1 history. Maryland (1,445) lags behind.

Maryland (400) leads Purdue (350) in Total AP Poll Appearances, with Utah (239) and BYU (129) trailing.

If “Most Weeks at #2” counts towards this analysis, Maryland holds the definitive lead (26 weeks) over Purdue (10 weeks) and Utah (2 weeks). BYU has never been ranked #2.

BYU trails all three in tourney success, with 7 Sweet 16’s, 3 Elite 8’s, and zero Final Fours to their name. They hold the obscure record for “Most NCAA Tournament Appearances without a Final Four”, which is a thing you would only know if your school held that record. I think it’s time to eliminate BYU, after their valiant effort.

Really, you could put forward a great argument for any of these three schools as the Most Successful Never-#1 Basketball Program. To me, Utah gets bumped down a peg because of their conference affiliation, and a lack of consistent national-level success since the Rick Majerus teams of the 90’s. Current HC Larry Krystkowiak is really good at his job, and has that program closer to their historical position.

And thus, the argument boils down to two Big Ten teams: the Maryland Terrapins and Purdue Boilermakers. (It’s still very weird to call Maryland a Big Ten team, but change is weird sometimes.)

This comparison is really interesting to me. Maryland trails Purdue significantly in virtually every regular season category (Total Wins, Winning Percentage, Conference Titles), but their March Madness success is very comparable, and Maryland has claim to a recent National Championship. Both programs have been fairly consistently ranked inside the top 20 over the past 25 years, with Maryland peaking at #2 (three different seasons) while Purdue peaked at #3 (three different seasons) during that span.

Really, the difference is simple. Would you rather have 17 more conference championships and 300 more overall wins, or would you rather have that one National Championship?

I know, that recent title blinds most logic. I’d probably take that latter choice, too. As of right now, the Maryland Terrapins are (probably) the Most Successful College Basketball Program Never Ranked #1.

Purdue is in great position to finally get off this list, should Villanova stumble. But, as we’ve learned with the Maryland comparison – the real goal is to end the Tourney with a win.


Some final notes:

  • Xavier’s last 30 years stacks up with anyone in college basketball, and they’ve never been ranked #1, and were probably the first team cut from the list. If you want to make an impassioned plea that they belong on the fringes of this conversation, I’m here for it.
  • Seriously, go read about the CCNY point shaving scandal. It’s incredible.
  • Shoutout specifically to these teams that have been ranked #1 overall: Saint Joseph’s and La Salle and Duquesne (all in Pennsylvania), Bradley, and DePaul.
  • DePaul should be a basketball powerhouse, and they’re not, and it’s confusing.
  • Cincinnati has made 45 appearances at #1, and that’s not shocking if you’re looking at their history of players, but that’s shocking if you’re not 85 years old in 2018.
  • Shouts to TCU and Texas Tech for getting close(ish) to their first #1 this year.
  • Villanova has been #1 for 17 weeks since 1949 (tied for 14th most overall), and they’ve all been within the past three seasons. Jay Wright might really be the best college basketball coach we’ve got.

Much thanks to College Basketball Sports-Reference, the people who keep Wikipedia mostly accurate, and CollegePollArchive for the help.

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