What if? Some of the possible storylines we'll miss in the 2020 NCAA tournament

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Monday, March 16, 2020

On Thursday, the NCAA made history when it canceled the NCAA tournament due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. It's an unprecedented set of circumstances for the players, coaches, teams and schools affected by one of the most significant developments in the history of college basketball.

Coaches around the country lamented the missed opportunity for veteran players who will not have the chance to see their hard work pay off. It's an unimaginable moment for the sport, which is dealing with a crisis that has impacted the entire world.

There's no way to account for all the great stories we might gotten beginning this week, but it's also appropriate to ponder just some of the possibilities a 2020 NCAA tournament could have yielded. What if ...

... Mark Few brought his first national title back to Spokane?

Gonzaga would have entered the NCAA tournament with a real chance to secure the first national title in the program's history. The Bulldogs fielded the most efficient offense in America, a unit that made 39% of its 3-point attempts and 57% of its shots inside the arc. In April, Few's 31-2 team could have marched in front of Jack & Dan's Bar and Grill in Spokane, Washington, while holding up Few's first national title trophy, the culmination of his 21-year journey at Gonzaga.

... Bill Self won NCAA title No. 2 amid uncertainty about his future?

When a coach wins a second national title -- a club that currently features just 15 names, including some of the all-time icons of the game -- he's elevated among college basketball fans. Self had the best team in America this season: Kansas was the clear favorite to win the national championship entering the NCAA tournament with Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, a pair of potential All-Americans, leading the way. Self recently told ESPN he doesn't intend to coach past the age of 60 (he's 57), and he's also in the middle of NCAA drama stemming from the FBI's investigation of college basketball that could result in penalties for the veteran coach. All of which means it's difficult to know how many additional opportunities Self will have to win another national title.

... Dayton and Obi Toppin proved they're the best team in America?

The questions about Toppin and Dayton lingered throughout the season, because the Flyers play in the Atlantic 10 and the league would have needed big wins in its conference tournament to send a second team to the NCAA tournament. But Toppin is an NBA lottery pick, and every metric suggests the Flyers played a schedule, nonconference and conference, better than those a number of Power 5 schools faced. Coach Anthony Grant had a special team and a special season led by a special player, so perhaps the Flyers would have put a bow on it with a magical run to a title.

... Leonard Hamilton got his first trip to the Final Four?

It's easy to root for Hamilton -- who is somehow 71 -- as he pursues the one prize that has eluded him throughout his career: a Final Four appearance as a head coach (he was a member of Kentucky's staff during the 1978 national title run and the 1984 Final Four trip). This season's Florida State squad had the potential to add that honor to his résumé after winning the ACC's regular-season title, connecting on 37% of its 3-pointers in league play and winning six of its last seven games. Florida State had a chance to get to Atlanta, and who knows what might have happened if Trent Forrest (11.6 points per game) & Co. had reached that stage.

... Coach K reached the Final Four in a fifth decade?

To most modern college basketball fans, Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest coach of all time, and his five national titles during the most evolutionary period in the history of college basketball proves as much. But what if he had led Duke to this year's Final Four? That would have put Krzyzewski in unprecedented territory, with his 13th Final Four appearance over his fifth decade (1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s).

... the Big Ten ended its national title drought?

It has been 20 years since Michigan State -- and the Big Ten -- won a national title, and this season, the league had a handful of intriguing teams that seemed capable of ending that drought. By the time the Big Ten tournament started, Michigan State had evolved into one of the best teams in America (its opponents had made just 44% of their shots inside the arc since Feb. 1), Wisconsin had won eight in a row and a slice of the conference title, and prior to a 2-3 stretch to close the season, Maryland had been the league's best and most consistent team. All three had the potential to represent the Big Ten in Atlanta.

... Steve Forbes and his veterans pulled off a first-round upset?

The East Tennessee State coach wasn't shy about expressing his disappointment at the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, while also acknowledging the health and safety concerns officials considered prior to making the call. But Forbes, who made his mark as a Division I assistant and junior college coach, had hoped to enjoy his first NCAA tournament victory (his team lost as a 13-seed in the 2017 tourney) with the five seniors on his roster: Isaiah Tisdale, Jeromy Rodriguez, Lucas N'Guessan, Tray Boyd III and Joe Hugley. With a victory over LSU and a 12-game winning streak, Forbes had a team capable of pulling off a first-round upset and advancing in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

... Markus Howard posted an NCAA tournament win in his final postseason run?

With 2,761 career points, the Marquette star finished his career as one of the most prolific scorers in the history of college basketball, capped by a nation's-best 27.8 PPG in his senior season. He'll leave Marquette with an assortment of records but without an NCAA tournament victory -- Marquette lost to South Carolina's Final Four team by 20 points in 2017 and to Ja Morant and Murray State by 19 points last season. We missed a chance to see one of the great scorers in collegiate history erase the one blemish on his résumé.

... Shaka Smart proved his value at Texas with a postseason run?

By all accounts, the Texas-Texas Tech matchup in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament was a significant game for a pair of bubble teams. But the lingering uncertainty around Smart and his future with the Longhorns made that game -- and its potential impact on UT's NCAA tournament hopes -- more significant for Texas. Various coaches have changed the trajectory of their careers based on success in the NCAA tournament, but we'll never know what an opportunity this year might have meant for Smart.

... Marcus Zegarowski had gotten healthy for the NCAA tournament?

Creighton's standout guard averaged 16.1 points and 5.0 assists per game before suffering a knee injury in a victory over Seton Hall in the regular-season finale. The injury would have cost Zegarowski the Big East tournament, but coach Greg McDermott called the star's status for the NCAA tournament "fluid." Creighton at full strength boasted a top-five offense and the weapons to power a long trip through the NCAA tournament.

... Scott Drew's team played its best basketball in March?

Drew has always encountered an unfair level of scrutiny despite rebuilding a Baylor program that nearly burnt to the ground under the previous coaching staff. He had an opportunity to shut down every critic after coaching a team that enjoyed a No. 1 ranking for a chunk of the season. The Bears hit a few bumps late, but overall, Baylor -- one of the top defensive teams in America -- was a likely No. 1 seed and clear threat to win a national title. It would have been a big opportunity for Drew.

... Virginia kept rolling?

Last season, Tony Bennett led Virginia to the national title a year after suffering the first loss to a 16-seed (UMBC) in NCAA tournament history. After the Cavaliers lost a trio of key players, few expected a similar result in 2019-20. But Bennett's squad was set to enter the postseason on an eight-game winning streak after victories over Duke, Florida State and Louisville in recent weeks, likely arriving in the NCAA tournament as a true sleeper.

... New Mexico State became a Cinderella this year?

Last year, New Mexico State lost to Auburn by one point in a thrilling, first-round, NCAA tournament matchup. New Mexico State went home, while Auburn made a run to the Final Four. The Aggies returned this season with a chip on their shoulder and had won 19 consecutive games entering the postseason as they awaited another opportunity to pull off an upset.

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