The teams with the most Sweet 16 appearances in NCAA history (men’s)

Most NCAA sweet 16 appearances

When the second round of March Madness finishes up the last game on Sunday, the once-huge tournament field that boasted 68 teams just a few days ago will have been trimmed down to a less than a quarter of that number.

To be exact, just sixteen college teams will remain in the bracket. These 16 college basketball programs comprise what is known as colloquially known as The Sweet 16 round for both the Women’s and Men’s tournament.

When first announced, the tournament field is a mix of smaller colleges hoping to become a Cinderella, Mid-Majors and big universities. Then there are the Blue Bloods, those college teams that consistently do well season-in and season-out that their name alone brings in top recruits, the best coaches and where an appearance on national television is just another day. These teams have been so historically successful that a season is considered a let down if they don’t make it past the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Most NCAA Basketball Sweet 16 Appearances

All that success had us thinking about which college “Blue Bloods” have had the most success? Not only are they at the top of preseason rankings but in the top 25 at the end of the college season, too. In regards to the the tournament, how many times have the program advanced to the Regional Semifinals?

Quick off the top of your head — which teams do you think of? Odds are if you are able to come up with a handful, you’ve probably named a few of those teams correctly. Here’s the 21 college teams that have appeared in the most Sweet Sixteens in NCAA college basketball history.

Most NCAA Tournament Appearances in Sweet 16
Rank School Appearances Last Time
1 Kentucky 44 2019
2 North Carolina 34 2019
3 UCLA 33 2017
4 Kansas 31 2018
4 Duke 31 2019
6 Louisville 28 2015
7 Syracuse 23 2018
8 Indiana 22 2016
9 Arizona 20 2018
9 Michigan State 20 2019
11 Notre Dame 17 2016
11 Connecticut 17 2014
11 Kansas State 17 2018
14 Villanova 16 2016
14 Marquette 16 2013
14 Utah 16 2015
14 Michigan 16 2019
18 Ohio State 14 2013
18 Maryland 14 2002
20 Cincinnati 13 1996
21 San Francisco 12 1974

Yes, there’s no surprise to see North Carolina or Duke at the top of the list, nor should it shock you to see historically-great teams like Kentucky and UCLA, but you might be surprised to others. Without looking these four teams have produced some of the best college players in the history of the game: Lew Alcindor, Christian Laettner, Bill Walton, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Phil Ford, Dan Issel, Jamal Mashburn, J.J. Redick, Grant Hill, Tyler Hansbrough, Walt Hazzard, Anthony Davis, Danny Ferry, Shane Battier, James Worthy, and Ralph Beard

The two things that initially stuck out were at the extreme top and bottom of the list. With their success in the earlier decades of college basketball, Kentucky has by far the most Sweet 16 appearances. At the bottom of this honorable list is San Francisco, the school led by All-American centers Bill Russell (1950’s) and Bill Cartwright (1970’s), appeared in 12 Sweet Sixteens, but hasn’t advanced to that round in over 40 years. The last times the Dons were in the Sweet 16 was 1974.

To me the biggest surprises in the list were smack dab in the middle. Marquette, Kansas State and Utah obviously has been successful programs, but they wouldn’t have been in my list if I were to list out my top 20. Shows how much I know about college basketball.

Lew Alcindor led UCLA to 3 straight NCAA titles

When looking at the above table it’s important to note that the NCAA tournament started in 1939 and in the next decade included a grand total of eight teams in the entire tournament field. It would remain at eight teams (thus, where the “Elite Eight” came from) when the tournament field doubled to sixteen teams for the 1951-52 season. The following season, the committee opened up the field again, but included 22-25 teams. That’s the way things played out until 1975 when the tournament field was expanded to 32 teams. The year it went officially to a 32 team field was when all teams had to now to win to advance.

The Most Sweet 16 Appearances From 1985

So when it comes to which teams have appeared in the most Sweet 16s since the field was at least 64 teams in 1985 are as follows:

Teams with Most Sweet 16 Appearances Since 1985
Rank School # Last
1 Duke 25 2019
2 North Carolina 23 2019
3 Kansas 21 2017
3 Kentucky 21 2019
5 Arizona 17 2017
6 Michigan State 16 2019
7 Louisville 14 2015
7 Connecticut 14 2014
7 Syracuse 14 2017
7 UCLA 14 2017

The above probably feels a lot more familiar as it displays more recent success. On top of that it’s a better comparison as we’re now looking at apples-to-apples in terms of the number of teams included and a standardized understanding of what it takes to make it to the “Sweet 16.”

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find an easy way to list out the women’s NCAA teams that have the most Sweet Sixteen occurrences, but we’re working on it (Pssssst… without the data, we’re confident that UConn is #1 and Tennessee is #2 with Stanford, Louisiana Tech and Notre Dame somewhere in the top ten). Stay tuned.

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