It’s still hard to process the cancellation of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Though we know the cancellation was made with the protection of the health of student-athletes and fans in mind, the lack of a resolution to the season is difficult to stomach.
Seniors will graduate without their last chance at glory. Programs with their best team in school history will not have their chance to shine. Questions will remain and “what ifs” will last forever.
These five storylines are among the things we’ll have missed most this March.
5. Sam Merrill and Utah State as a possible Cinderella
College basketball’s final hurrah of the season came the weekend before major conferences were abruptly forced to cancel their tournaments. In the Mountain West Tournament final, Utah State went toe-to-toe with highly-ranked San Diego State, knocking off the Aztecs thanks to Sam Merrill’s step-back game-winner in the final seconds.
Most years, March gives us a pile of heroes and plays that we’ll never forget. This year, Merrill may end up standing alone. Sadly, he and the Aggies were never given a chance to expand on their success this season in the NCAA Tournament. BracketMatrix pegged Utah State as an 11-seed, giving the Aggies a perfect chance to be this season’s Cinderella. Utah State had the size, skill, and star (in Merrill) to win multiple games this March. Instead, the Aggies will have to settle for having 2020’s last shining moment in the year without a tournament.
When the calendar turns to March every year, college basketball fans and pundits rush to the altar of Bracketology to discern who are the teams in the tournament and who is on the wrong side of the bubble. Seemingly every single year, the fans of the teams sitting perilously on the edge seem to forget that Bracketology has a fatal flaw in early March. The bubble shifts during conference tournament play. The number of at-large bids shrinks when surefire tournament participants are upset by teams with little to no chance of a bid.
In any conference that has a team capable of earning an at-large selection, there remains the possibility of a bid thief sneaking in and bumping that team into the at-large pool. The Mountain West was a perfect example. San Diego State was in the Big Dance no matter what, but Utah State sat on the bubble. With a win, and the automatic bid, the Aggies made sure that San Diego State required an at-large bid, taking an open spot from a needy bubble team.
This week, these five teams wouldn’t get an at-large spot but have a chance to make a run and steal a spot.
College basketball spends four and a half months allowing teams, fans, and media to sort things out. There are debates about the eye test, a full season resume, and what to expect from a team in the future.
Some teams, regardless of how they looked around Thanksgiving, are starting to round into form. In a sport with the wildest single elimination playoff format, getting hot at the right time can mean everything.
These five teams are hitting their stride just as March heats up and could be dangerous in the Big Dance.
With conference tournaments starting this week, the regular season wrapping up, and the promise of the Big Dance in the near future, now is a terrible time for a team to start to play poorly. Yet for many teams across the nation, that scenario has become a reality. Some have faced a series of injuries, others are fatigued, and others have struggled with the difficulty of conference play. Road games, rivalries, and familiar opponents make life more difficult for every team.
It’s concerning when a team is incapable of adapting and finding a way to win in February. It’s often a signal of what’s to come in the postseason. These five teams are stumbling down the stretch and should be monitored as we enter March.
As March approaches, the conversation around college basketball focuses on two areas: the top of the bracket, and the bubble. Everyone is eager to figure out the top seeds and the last teams in the tournament. That does a disservice to one of the most interesting groups of teams in college basketball. There’s a huge chunk of teams that aren’t contending for a top seed, should safely reach the Big Dance, and have a real chance to be a factor in March.
Every year we see teams seeded in the meaty middle of the tournament emerge with an upset or two and find their way to the second or even third weekend of play.
These five teams stand out as the kind of clubs that won’t be top-three seeds but could make a Final Four run.
As we careen towards March, one word will be ever-present in every college basketball broadcast, discussion, debate, and prediction this season: parity.
This season lacks a depth of great teams, with few, if any, surefire Elite Eight or Final Four clubs scattering the landscape. Instead, there are plausibly 35 teams that could make a deep run in the Big Dance, and at least a dozen teams with real hopes to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
Despite the excitement that parity might create, it has led to fewer blockbuster, must-see match-ups. Without those big games on the calendar each week, the National Player of the Year race has been quieted to an extent. Without a chance to impress in front of the brightest lights, this year’s top players haven’t been able to separate themselves and become household names.
These five players lead the race for the year end honors, though there is plenty of time for that to change down the stretch:
With football in the rearview mirror and the NBA about to hit the All-Star break, the nation’s eyes turn to college hoops. Even though the sport is just getting its first attention of the season, the action and storylines are far closer to a conclusion than you might think.
It’s a tad jarring to see how few games remain on the college basketball calendar, yet what we lack in quantity, we find in quality. So many of the games left yet to play have taken on greater significance at the top of conference standings or for bubble teams clawing towards a tournament bid.
With just more than a month left until Selection Sunday, these five games carry the greatest importance in the college basketball landscape.
5. Dayton at Rhode Island, March 4
Dayton has earned a reputation as a top-ten team and national title contender by starting the season 22-2. The Flyers entered the national conversation by outperforming expectations at the Maui Invitational in November. In hindsight, however, Dayton’s wins that week over Virginia Tech and Georgia have proven to be less impressive. In conference play, the Flyers have started with 11 straight victories, of varying degrees of difficulty. A home win over VCU is nice and wins at Richmond and Duquesne can’t be ignored, yet you can’t blame the national media or the Selection Committee if they want to see a bit more from Dayton.
March 4 offers that chance, with a road date against the Atlantic-10’s second best team. Fatts Russell and the Rams should be in March’s NCAA Tournament but can really help their resumé with a victory over the Flyers. Seeding and bragging rights are on the line, and this game should be heated as soon as the ball is tipped.
February marks a key moment in the college basketball calendar. There is just enough time for teams on each side of the bubble to make their move in either direction. Good teams can get hot, turn into great teams, and earn top seeds. Discussion about awards, conferences, tournament bids, and draft prospects all reach their peak with March nearing.
At the same time, there isn’t that much season left. Most teams have fewer than seven games remaining. The majority of tournament resumés are solidified. The rope will run out soon.
With that in mind, let’s sort through the questions that we still have enough games to sort out and see if we can’t find an answer.
5. Will any of the premier draft prospects set themselves apart in the conversation to be the top pick in the NBA Draft?
There is currently no clear consensus player atop the draft boards of NBA teams. There is no Zion Williamson or Luka Doncic in this class. In fact, the more scouts see from this year’s crop of draft-worthy talent, the more they sour on the list of prospects.
Even though two of the year’s top prospects chose to play overseas rather than in NCAA competition, with LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton heading to Australia, there are still a handful of collegiate players with a chance to impress scouts down the stretch this season. Cole Anthony has returned from injury and will need to carry his North Carolina club. Anthony Edwards has been boom and bust for Georgia. Tyrese Maxey of Kentucky and Obi Toppin of Dayton likely have a lot of work to do to be factors in the discussion for the top pick, yet will be under a bright spotlight as they play deep into March.
4. Will any of the elite programs having difficult seasons bounce back?
Right now, it is totally plausible that we’ll have an NCAA Tournament that does not include Indiana, Virginia, Georgetown, Syracuse, UCLA, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina. At best, we can probably expect only half of those teams to reach the Big Dance. With the Heels still struggling after Cole Anthony’s return from injury, it is probably too late for North Carolina to rebound.
For the rest of that group, a season outside the tournament can feel like a black mark and has fanbases questioning the direction of the program. For teams like Virginia and Florida, who spent time in the top ten early in the season, there will be a lot of questions about how things fell apart.
3. Will the season end with a clear National Player of the Year?
College basketball’s lack of one true, united National Player of the Year honor leaves some seasons with a murky mess and no clear picture as to who was truly the best of the best. Every media outlet will spend time debating the subject, but if one player wins the Wooden Award, and another wins the Naismith Award, it can feel like there was no true winner.
That has only happened three times since 1990, yet feels possible this year. If votes were due today, I’d argue for Dayton’s Obi Toppin. The junior forward has been dominant for the Flyers, elevating them into the top ten. Others would argue for Myles Powell, Luka Garza, Vernon Carey, Cassius Winston, Jared Butler, Jordan Nwora, or Malachi Flynn. It is remarkable how many viable candidates remain.
2. Can San Diego State complete an undefeated season?
While there are many top players in college basketball, there is only one undefeated team left. San Diego State currently sits at 23-0 this season. The Aztecs will not face a top-75 team in the rest of regular season, with a potential rematch with tournament contender Utah State looming in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
KenPom currently pegs San Diego State’s chances of remaining unbeaten the rest of the regular season at about a coin flip, giving the Aztecs a 44 percent chance to win their final six games. That would make San Diego State just the fourth team this century to reach the postseason without a loss. They are certainly good enough to pull off that feat and in the discussion to compete for the national title. The Aztecs would be the first team to complete a perfect season in men’s Division I basketball since Bob Knight and Indiana did so in 1976.
1. Who will enter the NCAA Tournament as the favorites to win the championship?
San Diego State may be unbeaten, but due to a mid-major schedule, no signature wins, and a healthy East Coast bias, many will be searching for another team to herald as the favorites to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
Duke and Kansas will certainly attract tons of attention, yet the current most likely champions are two teams that defeated each of those blue bloods on their respective home floors. Louisville has outplayed a young Duke team in ACC play, notably in the Cardinals’ victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Jordan Nwora is one of college basketball’s best scorers and he’s surrounded by veteran, valuable role players.
Meanwhile, Kansas was defeated soundly by Big XII rival Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse, one of Baylor’s many impressive wins this year. The Bears have the inside track to the top overall seed in the Big Dance and have shown themselves to be one of the nation’s best teams on both ends of the floor. Scott Drew has a crop of versatile athletes who gel together to form a top-five defense in the country. The Bears have 13 wins over top 100 competition since their last, and only, loss which came all the way back on November 8. If they continue to play that well, they should be the most popular pick to burn through the bracket.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.