For the first time since its inception in 1939, there will be no NCAA tournament this season. The threat of the coronavirus pandemic has canceled March Madness just as the major conference tournaments were beginning to kick off. There will be no Selection Sunday, no bracket pools, no One Shining Moment. It was a correct and necessary call, but one that still leaves so many college basketball stories unfinished.
It’s the stories that keep us coming back to college basketball. In what was considered a wide open year from the very start, so many teams and fanbases could have experienced the thrill of a deep run through the tournament. As the tournament has been canceled, we can’t help but wonder about all the stories that will never get the endings they deserve.
These are the college basketball stories from this season that we’ll always wonder about.
Could Kansas finish the job?
Kansas was going to be the most popular title pick in every March Madness pool. The Jayhawks were set to enter the Big 12 tournament on a 16-game winning streak in the second toughest conference in the country. They had two national player of the year candidates in Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson. They were top 10 in the country in both offensive (No. 8) and defensive (No. 2) efficiency. They had four wins over teams ranked in KenPom’s top 15, beating Baylor, Dayton, BYU, and West Virginia.
Bill Self won a national championship at Kansas in 2008, but he still often faces doubters in March. Since that title breakthrough, Self’s teams have reached the Final Four twice while taking a No. 1 seed into the tournament six times. The Jayhawks were upset in the round of 32 last season by Auburn. Self wanted to prove he could reach the mountaintop once again, and he had the team to do it.
Would the nation fall in love with Dayton?
Dayton has long had one of college basketball’s most passionate fanbases. This season, they had one of college basketball’s very best teams. The Flyers were likely going to be a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance thanks to a high-powered offense that ranked No. 2 in America. Sophomore forward Obi Toppin would have been a March Madness phenom. The likely national player of the year and a future NBA lottery pick, Toppin is a monster athlete at 6’9 who dunks everything and finished in the 99th percentile of points per possession this season. He was the sport’s biggest star, and America deserved to see him on its biggest stage.
Toppin had a strong support cast around him. Junior point guard Jalen Crutcher was a great secondary option who could shoot from deep (43 percent from three) and serve as the hub of the offense as a facilitator. Trey Landers was a 6’5 senior glue guy who could slash to the basket and play solid defense. Ibi Watson, Rodney Chatman, and Ryan Mikesell helped make up the rest of the rotation for a five-out offensive attack that spaced you out, shared the ball, and took advantage of every opening. This Dayton team could have gone all the way.
What about the Big Ten?
The Big Ten was the best conference in college basketball all season. Our most recent bracketology projection from Chris Dobbertean had 10 teams from the league making the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten hasn’t won the national title since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000, and this year would have been a great chance to break that dry spell on the strength of raw numbers alone.
The Spartans were projected as a No. 3 seed after being the top-ranked team in the country in the preseason. MSU was about to enter the Big Ten tournament on a five-game winning streak, with arguably the top point guard-head coach combination in America with Cassius Winston and Tom Izzo. Maryland was likely to get its highest seed since it won the national championship in 2002. Iowa had a pair of stars in Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp. Ohio State was ranked in the top-20 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Illinois was set to make its first March Madness appearance since 2013 behind a pair of stars in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Michigan had Juwan Howard, Xavier Simpson, and Jon Teske. Rutgers was going to make the tournament for the first time in 30 years.
The Big Ten was loaded this season. We can only dream about how it would have ended.
Was San Diego State for real?
San Diego State was always going to have to prove itself in March. The Aztecs became one of the biggest stories in college basketball during a 26-0 start. No, they didn’t face the toughest competition in the Mountain West. Yes, they did lose two of their final six games, including a thriller to Sam Merrill and Utah State in the title game of the conference tournament. All the Aztecs wanted as the opportunity to prove they were as good as their record indicated. The loss of that opportunity stings so much.
It wasn’t hard to make a Final Four case for San Diego State. They had balance — ranking No. 11 in offensive efficiency and No. 10 in defensive efficiency. They had a brilliant point guard — always so critical in March — in Malachi Flynn, the Washington State transfer who should be an All-American. They shot the ball well from three and ground opponents’ possessions down to the very last second on defense. This team would have done some damage.
Could Creighton finally make the second weekend?
Creighton hadn’t made it past the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament since 1974. A deep run in March is just about all Greg McDermott’s coaching resume is missing since he took over Northern Iowa back in 2001. This team had a chance to do it thanks to a brilliant offense led by sophomore point guard Marcus Zagarowski, one of the country’s great floor generals. With Zagarowski conducting the show, the Bluejays launched threes all around him, hitting 38.7 percent of their attempts as a team, which ranked No. 6 in America.
Zagarowski’s recent ankle injury was going to keep him out of the Big East tournament and be a real variable in March. If this team was healthy and got the right matchups for their shaky defense, this could have been the year for a run.
Virginia never got to defend its title
Virginia lost so much from last season’s storybook national championship team, starting with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter. This was never going to be the same UVA team, a point that was hammered home during a 7-5 start to conference play. Very quietly, Virginia had been coming on lately, winning their last eight games heading into the NCAA tournament, including victories over top-10 teams Duke and Louisville. Mamadi Diakite, Kihei Clark, Braxton Key, and Jay Huff all brought veteran experience. The ‘Hoos weren’t going to be an easy out.
No team had a bigger split between the strength of its offense and its defense than Virginia. Defensively, UVA was No. 1 in the country once again. Offensively, they were No. 234. What’s the old saying about which side of the ball wins championships?
Who would be Cinderella?
America loves nothing more than an underdog in March Madness. So many of our best March memories involve the little guys pulling an upset, whether it’s Mercer Nae-Nae’ing their way to victory against Duke, UMBC shocking the world by defeating No. 1 seeded Virginia, or Middle Tennessee pulling the 15-2 upset over Denzel Valentine and Michigan State. Who would our Cinderellas have been this year? There were so many options.
Vermont had one of the great players in the country in Anthony Lamb and had won 16 of their last 17 games. Hofstra earned its first trip to the NCAA tournament in 19 years by winning the CAA and had a star guard in Desure Buie.
East Tennessee State had already won 30 games and earned an automatic berth behind a well-balanced attack. New Mexico State, Liberty ... the list of potential Cinderellas goes on. March won’t feel the same without them.
What the heck was this Duke team?
This Duke team felt different from the start. Despite the Blue Devils again welcoming the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, there was a notable lack of star power compared to the last few years. There likely wasn’t an NBA lottery pick on this team. Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr. were very good, but they weren’t Zion Williamson, or Marvin Bagley III, or Jayson Tatum, or Brandon Ingram.
Duke still would have entered March as one of the favorites to win the whole damn thing. Likely a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, Duke ranked in the top 15 of efficiency on both ends and played at the fastest tempo of any team in the ACC. March just doesn’t feel right without Duke being plastered on all of our televisions, win or lose.
Who would be this year’s late-rising draft star?
Seemingly every year, a player uses the NCAA tournament to boost their draft stock and launch themselves into fame and fortunate in the NBA. Former Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo is a recent example. After widely being projected to return to school the following year, DiVincenzo had a monster tournament with ‘Nova that concluded with him being named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. The Bucks took him at No. 17 overall and he’s now a key rotation piece for a team with championship aspirations.
Who would have made that leap this year? Maybe Kansas’ Devon Dotson, Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans or Immanuel Quickley, or Flynn from San Diego State? Perhaps it would have been Oregon’s Payton Pritchard or Baylor’s Jared Butler or Seton Hall’s Myles Powell.
Someone would have been kind of breakout March star that catches the NBA’s eye. Now we’ll never know.