With the NCAA’s landmark and precedent-setting decision Thursday to cancel the 2020 NCAA Tournament comes a cold realization: there are no winners. It stinks for fans who were hoping to travel to host cities to see their favorite team compete in the postseason. It stinks for players who busted their butt, constantly juggling academics and athletics throughout the season for an opportunity to be in the March Madness mix. It stinks for coaches, who recruited players years in advance, navigated the grueling season and positioned themselves and their teams to be among the field of 68 come Selection Sunday.
It stinks for host sites, which will miss out on an unknown-but-surely-beneficial economic boom. And it stinks even for the NCAA, which dragged its feet but eventually decided — like the NBA and other major sports across the country — that moving forward by playing games was simply not feasible.
It all stinks.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. That the NCAA chose to cancel the tournament amid coronavirus outbreaks across the country shows tremendous foresight. It protects all those who surely are hurt and frustrated by the decision. But the reward of the decision is that the risk of not cancelling the tournament will never be known. Given what we know about the virus and its spread, it could have prevented dozens of cases. Or hundreds. Or thousands.
Nonetheless, it’s just a bummer all the way around. And here’s the parties who should feel especially bummed. Unlike our weekly winners and losers column, there’s only losers. These are their stories:
Gonzaga’s best shot to win a title is gone
Cruising through the WCC like Gonzaga did — and always does — doesn’t attract the same attention as when other major conference teams do the same. And that’s fair to a point, I guess, considering its conference schedule is significantly weaker than other major conference teams face. But it also slashes Gonzaga’s real credentials. This team went 31-2 — 31-2! — and people like to discount the Zags as if any team could zombie-walk its way to 31 wins.
No. Stop that. Not only are you a hater, you are wrong.
Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie was able to cut down the net at the WCC Tournament, but not in the Big Dance.
This team smacked its opponents with an NCAA-leading scoring margin of 19.6 — a full 4.1 points more than the next team, Dayton, which had a 15.5 scoring margin on the year. Gonzaga’s dream team in 2016-17 — which went to the national championship — led the NCAA in scoring margin, too, at 21.1. It’s possible this team could have done what that team couldn’t and cut down the final nets on the season, potentially giving Mark Few the all-time resume bump of a natty.
Dayton’s dream season comes to an end
Consider this: A Dayton player has never been named the AP Player of the Year since the award was given out beginning in 1961. And yet when we vote for Player of the Year at CBS Sports in the coming days, Flyers star Obi Toppin is, without question, going to be earning my vote. He was a human highlight reel and so much more: a catalyst for the second-most efficient offense in college basketball, a devilish dunker for a team that led the NCAA in field goal percentage, a must-watch phenomom whether he and his Flyers were playing Rhode Island or Charleston Southern. (No offense, Charleston Southern.)
That’s never been the case in Dayton — and may never happen again. Toppin’s a lock to go inside the lottery of this summer’s NBA Draft.
For context, here’s how historically efficient Dayton’s offense was as a 2-point shooting team this season compared to other historically efficient offenses (via the inimitable Matt Norlander):
1. Princeton 1996-97 (63.3%) 2. Belmont 2015-16 (62.6%) 3. Dayton 2019-20 (62.3%) 4. Samford 1998-99 (62.2%) 5. Belmont 2017-18 (61.7%) 6. Gonzaga 2018-19 (61.4%) 7. Belmont 2016-17 (60.9%) 8. Samford 1999-00 (60.6%) 9. Princeton 1997-98 (60.4%) 10. Samford 2001-02 (60.3%)
And just like that, poof, the dream season is done. 29-2 Dayton is no more. The lightning Anthony Grant caught in a bottle this season with Toppin and the surrounding vets around him may never be bottled up again. It’s a bummer for one of college basketball’s best teams.
Baylor’s double-title dreams
The Baylor men’s team won 23-straight games spanning from mid-November to mid-February as one of college basketball’s most consistent squads all season. The Baylor women’s team went 28-2, losing only once since December. The odds both teams could win it all given the randomness of a single elimination NCAA Tournament is admittedly, low, but considerably higher than most schools. It’s entirely reasonable to think that both the men’s and women’s teams could have brought home the national title — something only a few programs, the most recent being 2014 UConn — have ever accomplished.
Rutgers dancing dreams dashed
Rutgers — in search of its first NCAA Tournament berth in nearly two decades — needed a strong finish to its season to overcome a late-season swoon. And so it did. It beat Maryland at home in decisive fashion, then went on the road and outlasted Purdue at Mackey Arena. That late work padded its resume and had the Scarlet Knights as a No. 11 seed in Jerry Palm’s Bracketology.
And now, it’s all for naught. A potential tourney berth for the first time since 1991, vanished. Maybe Rutgers gets bounced in the first round, maybe it wins it all. Either way, it’s a gut punch for a program on the rise under Steve Pikielll, one of the top-two coaches in the Big Ten this season.
There’s silver lining, however. Geo “Big Shot” Baker is just a junior. The team’s leading scorer, Ron Harper Jr., is just a sophomore. And Pikiell? Rutgers reportedly extended his contract through the 2025-2026 season, which should ward off any would-be suitors impressed by the turnaround in Piscataway.
The Big Dance drought doesn’t end in 2020, but I’m betting it doesn’t last much longer.
Self, Kansas had legitimate title shot
Clown on Bill Self all you want, but here’s his plight in layman’s terms: he was the coach of a team that was an overwhelming favorite to win the national title in 2020. And yet in several months, as a result of the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into his program, it’s entirely possible — if not likely — that he’ll enter the 2020-2021 season facing a postseason ban, a suspension — or both. He’s currently facing five Level I NCAA violations.
And all of that flipped in a matter of days.
Kansas is actively fighting all five charges and, a week ago, it submitted its formal response arguing against why it should be charged. We’ll see what comes of it. But it’s undeniable a cut at the knees for Self, chopping down one of his best shots to win a second national title.
Career of Oregon’s Ionescu ends too soon
The best player in college basketball this season was arguably Sabrina Ionescu — the star of the Oregon women’s basketball team. She averaged 17.5 points, 7.3 boards and 9.0 assists per game for the 31-2 Ducks — and just recently, she became the first NCAA player — men’s or women’s — to record 2,000 career-points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.
A fitting end to a brilliant career would have been leading Oregon to its first-ever women’s national title. Or repeating as a Final Four participant. Or making her star turn to super stardom in the NCAA Tournament. She was bound and determined to turn that unfinished business to finished.
“I came back to the University of Oregon as a junior in 2018-2019. We made the Final Four,” she wrote in a Players’ Tribune piece last year. “And now I couldn’t be happier to announce that I’m coming back to the University of Oregon for the 2019-2020 basketball season.
“I won’t predict exactly how far we’re going to go….. but I’ll just say this.
“We have unfinished business.
“And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. My teammates and I, our coaches, our fans, this program — we’re not going on a “run,” you know what I mean?? We’re not doing one of those things where, like, a team appears out of the blue, on the backs of a few good players, and then makes some noise for a season or two before heading back underground. Nah. This isn’t that.”
You can feel the energy and excitement oozing out of each word. She was integral in building Oregon’s best team. She wanted to be critical in one-upping that. “We’re building a program that wins national championships,” she wrote.
It’s a missed opportunity for the world to get to know Ionescu. Like, really get to know her. As a competitor. As a force. As a winner. Make no mistake, though, NCAA Tournament or not, the star turn has already been made long ago.
San Diego State’s renaissance run sinks
The last San Diego State team to win 30 or more games before the NCAA Tournament was a Kawhi Leonard-led Aztecs team that earned a No. 2 seed and eventually fell in a close one to the title-winning UConn Huskies. This team was on that same level. It was the final undefeated team standing in the sport before taking its first L on Feb. 22 to UNLV. It went 30-2, eventually succumbing to Utah State in the MWC title game. And, by all accounts, it was positioned with a top-10 player in Malachi Flynn to do its best work in March.