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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

5 college basketball moments we missed out on this March

Obi Toppin

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.

4. Virginia’s reign as champions ends with a whimper

With no tournament played this year, Virginia becomes the first championship team unable to attempt to repeat as champions in college basketball. The Wahoos’ cast of characters had largely changed, yet by March it looked like they had a puncher’s chance to make a run through the brackets. Without Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and DeAndre Hunter, Virginia’s offense sputtered for long stretches this season. Kehei Clark, Mamadi Diakite, and Braxton Key took time to grow into their new roles in Charlottesville. In recent weeks, center Jay Huff emerged as a real scoring option in the middle.

Regardless of the Cavaliers’ offensive issues, Virginia ended the regular season as the top defensive team in the nation by defensive efficiency. Defense travels and can win games in March, which would have allowed the Hoos a chance to win games no matter their seed or their opponent.

Virginia fans may act like they will be the reigning champs for another entire year, but in truth, we’ll never know if the Cavaliers would have put up a strong fight to add another banner to the rafters at John Paul Jones Arena.

3. Gonzaga loses a chance at its first national championship

Mark Few’s work in Spokane has been so incredible over the last two decades that it can be easy to overlook just how far he’s brought the Zags in his time on the sidelines. When Few took over, Gonzaga was a plucky mid-major, expected to compete for the West Coast Conference crown on a yearly basis but nothing more. Now, his Zags are a factor in the national title race every single year.

The Zags hold the longest active streaks of consecutive years with a tournament win (eleven) and consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances (five). Despite all of that success, Gonzaga haters still note the Zags’ lack of a national championship. This season the Bulldogs had yet another chance to cut down the nets. Gonzaga was likely to be a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and among the favorites to win it all. Now, Zags fans everywhere will need to wait another year.

2. Myles Powell never has his March moment

Of all the seniors losing their last chance at NCAA Tournament stardom, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell feels the most notable. Cassius Winston and Payton Pritchard have already been to the Final Four; Powell hasn’t made the second weekend of tournament play.

Even though he’s had a tough year shooting the basketball, Powell remained as one of college basketball’s most electric scorers and performers. Perhaps March would have been the perfect time for his shooting to regressed positively to the expected mean, resulting in a scorching hot month. Powell feels like the perfect player who could have carried his team and become a household name throughout the Big East Tournament and into March Madness. Unfortunately for all of us, Myles Powell finishes his four years in Newark having played in just four tournament games and winning just once.

1. Obi Toppin and the Dayton Flyers

No fanbase should be more distraught about the events of this month than Dayton. Anthony Grant’s program was not a flash in the pan nor a paper tiger atop the Atlantic-10 standings. The Flyers had the best team in school history and were absolutely a team capable of winning the entire NCAA Tournament.

After San Diego State’s second loss of the season, Dayton had an opportunity to earn a No. 1 seed, with tournament games being played in Cleveland and Indianapolis, both under 200 miles from campus.

Obi Toppin should win National Player of the Year and was the most dominant performer in college basketball this season. He led the Flyers on both ends of the floor and made some of this season’s most memorable plays. Sadly, we likely won’t see him in an NCAA Tournament as he’ll head to the NBA Draft as a possible lottery pick.

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.

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