ESPN put out its top ten individual teams of the last decade, and we see some definite problems with some of their choices. First of all, only fourteen teams received votes, and we figure that at least four others – Kentucky 1998 (a champion, mind you), Arizona 2001 (runner-up), Duke 2002 and Arizona 1998 – deserve to be mentioned. As it stands, here is our list of the best teams of the past decade:
Team of the last decade?
1. UConn 1999 (34-2) – nobody on this list had a better season from start to finish as this Huskies team. People tend to forget this team because it was considered at the time a bit of a fluke that they’d beaten a loaded Duke team for the title, but they actually had held the #1 position for more weeks that season than Duke. Make no mistake about it, this team was legit across its lineup (Voskuhl, Freeman, Hamilton, El-Amin, Moore), and simply went about its business methodically winning game after game on its way to the championship.
2. Duke 1999 (37-2) – the primary reason UConn 1999 is #1 is because they proved their mettle by beating the sickest team of the last decade in a knockout championship game. Duke 1999 was the last “great” team of its era – along with its counterparts UNLV 1991, Duke 1992 and Kentucky 1996. This Duke team destroyed just about everyone they played all season long, but for a miraculous finish against a very talented Cincinnati squad in Alaska and the UConn “shock the world” game in the title matchup. A couple more baskets by Trajan Langdon and this team would be considered in the top five or ten of all-time.
3. Florida 2007 (35-5) – in terms of effectuating a repeat championship, and the manner in which they did it (virtually unchallenged in the NCAAs for two consecutive years), the 2007 Gators will be mentioned as one of the greatest teams of all-time. Horford, Noah, Brewer, Humphrey and Green were a true definition of “team,” with someone different stepping up in the clutch every time they needed it. However, a mind-boggling (albeit forgivable, considering the pressure on this team) midseason hangover including ugly road losses against Tennessee and LSU are all that keeps this team from jumping to the top of the list with UConn 1999.
4. (tie) Duke 2001 (35-4) – this Duke championship team exhibits the type of team that wins titles in the 2000s – those with versatile inside/outside players, a solid core of experienced veterans, but not much depth. Battier, J-Will, Dunleavy, Boozer, and Duhon were an all-star cast that makes you wonder what has happened to K’s recruiting in the last few years.
4. (tie) UConn 2004 (33-6) – a belief in our eyes that this team was better than its record is based on Emeka Okafor’s back problems during this season. Coming from behind and closing out a scrappy Duke team in the final three minutes of the semifinals was a testament to just how good this team could be.
6. North Carolina 2005 (33-4) – this was an extremely tough pick because this team only lost three games without Felton in the lineup, and they were absolutely loaded (a rarity in the 2000s game). We just can’t shake the sense that this team just wasn’t quite as tough as the teams above it. The big comebacks and jitters they showed against Villanova and Illinois during their championship run gives us reason for concern, and for that reason, we simply do not believe they would beat any of the teams above it on this list.
7. Michigan State 2000 (32-7) – this team was on a tear at the end of this season, going 23-3 once Mateen Cleaves returned from his foot injury. They simply were not challenged during the Big Ten nor NCAA Tournaments, with the closest margin of victory being 9 pts vs. Wisconsin. The only thing keeping this team from being higher on this list is their number of losses during the regular season, but this was an excellent team.
8. Maryland 2002 (32-4) – this is another underrated team, with a cast of tough, heady players including the triple-x’s: Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox. They blew through the NCAA Tournament as well, but had some ugly double-digit midseason road losses and a confounding ACC Tourney loss to NC State.
9. Kentucky 1998 (35-4) – this team is also often forgotten in light of its 1996 counterpart, which was one of the best teams to ever lace up the Nikes. But this version of the Cats, led by Jeff Sheppard and Nazr Mohammed, was a never-say-die outfit who ran off fifteen in a row to end the season. It wasn’t as talented top-to-bottom as some of the other teams on this list, but it consistently came through in the clutch (see: Duke in St. Pete; or Stanford in San Antonio).
10. Florida 2006 (35-6) – Syracuse fans will be miffed by their exclusion in this top ten, but that team simply wasn’t as good as any of the others ahead of them, including this Gator team. Again, a midseason meltdown affected this team’s placement, but when it came crunch time, only ball-control teams like Georgetown and South Carolina were able to stay within single digits of this team.
Best of the Rest:
11. Syracuse 2003 (30-5) – a very good but not great team that rode its superstar all the way.
12. North Carolina 1998 (34-4) – with stars like Jamison & Carter, this team should have been better than it was, and it was very good already.
13. Arizona 1998 (30-5) – coming off a title in 1997, this was a nasty team that simply got upset by Utah and Andre Miller’s trip-dub in the elite eight.
14. Arizona 2001 (25-6) – another loaded Arizona team that probably underachieved a little bit until making a run in the NCAA Tournament.
15. Illinois 2005 (37-2) – could have been considered great if Deron Williams had hit a three down the stretch vs. UNC, but he didn’t, and therefore UI’s lack of inside strength drops it to this spot – could they honestly have beaten anybody above them on this list?
What might have been?
Wildcard. Cincinnati 2000 (29-4) – this team was a scintillating 28-2 and nearly a prohibitive favorite to win the national championship when NPOY Kenyon Martin’s leg shattered one week prior to the NCAA Tournament; it could have finished as high as the top 5 of this list had they won the title.