What do World Cup and NCAA basketball champions have in common?


The 2014 World Cup came to a dramatic finale yesterday as Germany ousted Argentina 1-0, marking the fourth World Cup Championship for Germany and firmly placing them among the winningest nations in World Cup history.

Here’s a breakdown of World Cup Champions ranked in order of most titles:

  1. Brazil 5 (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
  2. Germany 4 (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
  3. Italy 4 (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
  4. Argentina 2 (1978, 1986)
  5. Uruguay 2 (1930, 1950)
  6. France 1 (1998)
  7. England 1 (1966)
  8. Spain 1 (2010)

Together, Brazil, Germany and Italy claim 13 of a total 20 World Cup titles. That’s 65% of all championships awarded throughout the Cup’s eighty-four year history. And they’ve won consistently, each winning within the first 2 to 3 decades, throughout the middle period of the 70s, 80s and 90s and also since 2000.

That’s impressive.

In some ways, these teams – Brazil, Germany and Italy – remind me of NCAA basketball champions like UCLA, Kentucky and Indiana, teams that, historically, have dominated the game.

Consider the following list of the top eight NCAA basketball teams with championships:

  1. UCLA 11 (1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1995)
  2. Kentucky 8 (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012)
  3. Indiana 5 (1940, 1953, 1976, 1981, 1987)
  4. North Carolina 5 (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009)
  5. Connecticut 4 (1999, 2004, 2011, 2014)
  6. Duke 4 (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010)
  7. Kansas 3 (1952, 1988, 2008)
  8. Louisville 3 (1980, 1986, 2013)

Interestingly, the top three NCAA basketball teams combine for a total of 24 out of a possible 76 championships. That’s 30% of the total number of NCAA basketball championships and it’s a lot, but not close to the total combined World Cup titles of Brazil, Germany and Italy.

Still, it’s important to view champions in terms of a complete history of the game. For example, Brazil, the most winningest country in the history of the World Cup, is consistently competitive, reaching the semi-finals in two of the past four and winning the title once. Germany, with four World Cup titles, has reached the semi-finals each of the four past World Cups, winning once. Italy has reached the semis only once in the past four, also winning once.

Now compare those numbers with NCAA basketball champions. UCLA, the winningest team in NCAA basketball history with 11 championships, hasn’t won a title since 1995, though they made three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-2008.

Kentucky, ranked second in total number of NCAA basketball championships, has experienced better recent success, playing in three of the past four Final Fours and playing in two title games, winning in 2012. Third ranked Indiana, with a total of five NCAA basketball championships, has the worst recent track record of the three, failing to reach the Final Four since 2002, when they placed runner-up to Maryland. Indiana’s last championship was in 1987.

In some ways, World Cup and NCAA basketball champions are similar: they both share a small nucleus of dominant teams. But they’re also vastly different, in more ways than one. The most dominant World Cup champions are by far, more consistent than NCAA basketball champions. And that’s not all.

Blue-chip programs – Kentucky, Duke, UNC, KU and UConn – are not only climbing the latter of most NCAA basketball champions, they’re doing so quickly, sure to pass Indiana on the list in the near future. All five of these programs have won a championship in the past seven years. Combined, these blue-chip programs account for 10 of the past 15 NCAA national championships. Now, that’s impressive.

The landscape of the top three most successful NCAA basketball teams in terms of total championships won is sure to change in the upcoming years. Perhaps not for the World Cup. Of course, that’s in part due to the fact that the World Cup is only played every four years whereas the NCAA basketball championship is annual.

What will history say of Connecticut’s overwhelming success since 1999?  What about the consistent struggles of UCLA and Indiana in the past two decades? Does recent performance impact how history remembers champions? Who will dominate the next fifty years?