Every five years since 1997, the Basketball Times' Jack Styczynski compiles and publishes an analytical ranking of the best basketball programs in the country. His formula, as he explained it in the New York Times college sports blog Wednesday (we'll come back to this piece in a minute) is as follows:
The qualifying criterion is teams that have won at least two-thirds of their games over the past 10 seasons, and in the latest version from the November 2012 issue, 33 programs made the cut. The teams were then ranked using six equally weighted criteria: winning percentage; number of former players currently in the N.B.A.; federal graduation rate; academic reputation, as determined by U.S. News & World Report; and coaching and perceived program 'cleanliness' as ranked by a panel.
Based on those criteria, for the third time in a row .... drumroll please ... the Duke Blue Devils are the "best" college basketball program in the country.
I use scare quotes not because I dispute Duke's legitimacy. I mean, do the math. Coach K has built a massively popular, massively successful, almost robotically consistent beast of a college basketball program (remember when people said Duke was in decline, and then they won a national title?) and one that has very rarely (but not never!) scratched the surface of NCAA impropriety. Duke is, you know, Duke.
No, my scare quotes exist because, while I find the Basketball Times' compilation of data completely fascinating -- you should check out the five lists of categorical rankings here -- I'm not sure I would go so far as to call said data scientific. At least three of those categories are arguably suspect. Graduation rate is decried by college coaches and has long since been replaced by the NCAA as a method of understanding the academic and professional progress of student-athletes. U.S. News & World Report rankings have frequently come under fire in recent years. (In 2007, 80 university presidents agreed to an informal boycott. If I had a dollar for every time someone complained to me about the magazine's rankings methodology, I'd have like maybe $20.) And "coaching and perceived program 'cleanliness'" is an awfully fuzzy enterprise.
There's some really interesting info in there, and when smashed together, the rankings do present a pretty fair picture. But I wouldn't go overboard.
Most interesting to me? Jim Boeheim's reaction. In the above linked NYT post, Styczynski asked college coaches for their lists of the best programs in the sport. Most of them casually listed off a handful of schools and a few specific reasons. This was Boeheim's response:
Programs named: Said there are 10 to 15 programs, but declined to name them.
Criteria: “How many wins, how many conference championships, how you do in the N.C.A.A. tournament.”
"Frequently scoring more points than the other team." Jim Boeheim remains awesome. That is all.