Welcome to 2020, the Year of Opportunity in college basketball.
No superpowers have been spotted out there. No unstoppable steamrollers. The early unrest at the top of the polls — six different occupants in the No. 1 spot, a dozen upsets of Associated Press top-10 teams by unranked opponents — suggests a landscape where anything is possible. Any number of programs could be gazing at the future with the same legitimate question.
Why not us?
To celebrate the new year, here are 13 why nots.
Why not Gonzaga as national champion?
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the Zags were a Cinderella story. Ancient history. They’ve been ranked No. 1. They’ve been in the national championship game and nearly won it. They’ve shown up in 21 consecutive NCAA brackets, and own more tournament victories this century than any team in the Pac-12 or Big East, more than anyone in the Big Ten except Michigan State and Wisconsin, and more than anyone in the ACC except Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse. There is only one thing left to do, and in 2020 they have the balance, the talent and no obvious behemoth in their way.
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Why not an end to the Big Ten title drought?
It has been 20 long years since the Big Ten produced a national champion, even while putting a team in the title game seven times — from six different schools. But look at the last Associated Press poll of 2019. There were six league members in the top-25. Even Penn State is listed, and the Nittany Lions haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2001.
Why not an unusual face in the Final Four?
Consider the latest NET rankings from the NCAA. At the top is San Diego State, with its 13-0 record and 11 double-digit victories, including a 28-point thrashing of the Utah team that upset Kentucky. The Aztecs have won only six NCAA tournament games in their history, and never seen an Elite Eight. Baylor is in the top 10, and the Bears haven’t been in a Final Four since 1950. Dayton is up there, and the Flyers’ only Final Four was 53 years ago.
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Why not a coaching Final Four breakthrough?
Louisville’s Chris Mack is one of the most renowned coaches without a Final Four spot. Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann is moving into that territory, too. At the moment, you could easily see both making it. Or maybe Leonard Hamilton, who between Miami and Florida State is the seventh winningest coach in ACC history, and somehow never gets his due notice. If his 11-2 Seminoles win at Louisville Saturday, that drum will really start to be beat upon. Or Scott Drew, who has won so regularly during his 17 years at Baylor. The door could be open for them.
Why not Butler deja-vu?
This is the 10th anniversary of Butler’s stunning run to the national title game, made all the more shocking the next season when the Bulldogs did it again. They are 12-1 with only a one-point loss at Baylor for a blemish, and their sky-high metrics make them look more than capable of a March run — never mind being picked to finish eighth in the Big East. Once they get inside the door of tournament, they’re a tough out. They’ve won seven first round games in a row.
Why not a Clemson victory at North Carolina?
On Jan. 11, the Tigers will be in Chapel Hill, where they are a perfectly imperfect 0-59 all-time. But seldom, have the injury-hampered, offensively-challenged Tar Heels seemed as vulnerable as lately. Maybe this is Clemson’s chance at last. Then again, the Tigers dropped five of their last six games in 2019, so maybe not.
Why not a March magic for a rejuvenated state icon?
Bob Huggins endured one of the worst seasons of his career in 2010, as West Virginia slumped to 15-21. Look at his alma mater now. The Mountaineers are 11-1 after upsetting No. 2 Ohio State Sunday, including victories over the Buckeyes, Northern Iowa and Wichita State — whose combined record is 32-4. Check back Saturday, after they go to Kansas. Huggins’ 871 victories make him the eighth winningest coach in Division I history, and at the top for those who have never won a national championship. The seven names above him — Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Bob Knight, Jim Calhoun, Dean Smith, Roy Williams and Adolph Rupp — have 21 titles among them.
Why not San Francisco in the NCAA tournament?
The Dons are 11-3, and if they stay on course during the West Coast Conference schedule — meaning picking off a BYU here, a Saint Mary’s there (probably best not to even bring up Gonzaga), they could present a sound argument for an at-large spot in March. Only two past NCAA national champions have not been back to the tournament this century. One is CCNY, which is no longer Division I. The other is San Francisco.
Why not a March trouble-maker from the underdog set?
If there was ever a season for the upstarts to make a lot of noise, this would seem to be it. We call your attention to Liberty, who took out Mississippi State last spring and was unbeaten until the past weekend. Or Northern Iowa, whose only loss in 12 games is a five-pointer to West Virginia. Or Yale and its pluck. The Bulldogs have already won three games in overtime. Remember George Mason? The Patriots are 11-1. Stephen F. Austin is 11-2. How dangerous are the Lumberjacks? Contact the Duke sports information office for further information.
Why not Indiana moving back toward the elite?
A census of the traditional powers? The usual answer is to round up the usual suspects: Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana. Wait, about that last one. Do you realize the Hoosiers haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in three years, something 126 other schools have accomplished? That they’ve had only three winning records in Big Ten play in the past 11 seasons? That they have been in one conference tournament championship game ever, and own fewer victories in the event than Penn State? That they have played in one Elite Eight game in 26 years? Archie Miller is trying for a renaissance, and the 11-2 record is promising, but the loss at home Sunday to Arkansas suggests how much work there is to do.
Why not DePaul in the NCAA tournament?
A genuine national force much in the 1970s and '80s, the Blue Demons have vanished from the March radar screen. It’s been 15 years since the last tournament invitation. But they’re 12-1, with wins on the road at Iowa and Minnesota and at home against Texas Tech. Given a decent Big East record, that's building a resume that would demand consideration by the selection committee.
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Why not Colorado in the Sweet 16?
The Buffs are 11-2 and beat Dayton, and that takes something this season. Few teams in the high majors should be hungrier for March success than Colorado, a program with two NCAA tournament victories in 56 years.
Why not a change of luck for Fresno State?
In this season of swaying fortunes, does anyone out there deserve some light at the end of the tunnel more than the Bulldogs? They’ve lost three games in overtime, another by one point on free throws with four seconds to go, another by two points on a basket with 0.5 seconds left, and the latest by three points to UC Riverside, when they blew a 20-point lead in the final 9:42, by getting outscored 25-2. This is how a team can carry a 4-9 record while outscoring the opposition by 56 points this season. “I don’t know if our confidence is gone,” coach Justin Hutson said the other day of all the near-misses. “Mine is not.”
And how does Fresno State get to celebrate the arrival of 2020 on Wednesday, and hopes of better karma?
With a trip to 13-0 San Diego State. Happy New Year.