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Mike Lopresti | | March 19, 2020

127 teams finish the year with a win, leaving our imagination to fill in the blanks

NCAA's Dan Gavitt walks Andy Katz through the decision to cancel the NCAA tournament, including all contingencies

It will forever be the NCAA tournament with a blank bracket and dark, empty arenas. The year One Shining Moment was replaced by We’ll Never Know. 

So many compelling plots were in place to enrich this March, and then everything stopped. Here are some to be missed the most.

We’ll never know...

How far Dayton could go. They Flyers had waited generations for a team like this, and a player like Obi Toppin. They had every right to envision a Final Four trip for the first time in 53 years, if only there had been a Final Four. Oh, the Toppin slams left un-dunked. But they will always be able to say they never lost in regulation.

If Mike Krzyzewski’s tinkering would have worked out for another championship. By the end, Duke had used 14 different starting lineups, with 11 different players. But the Blue Devils had swept the ACC podium, with Tre Jones getting player and defensive player of the year, and Vernon Carey Jr. rookie of the year, and they looked prime for a run. Krzyzewski is 73. How many more chances will he have?

MORE: NCAA cancels basketball championships due to coronavirus concerns | Official NCAA statement

If it was Gonzaga’s — and Mark Few’s— time at last. The Zags had special balance and firepower. With six (and nearly seven) players averaging in double figures, it was no shocker they led the nation in scoring at 87.4 points a game. Only two scoring champions — North Carolina in 2005 and Villanova in 2018— have won the national championship in the past 56 years, but a third seemed entirely possible. Their 31-2 record goes into the book permanently as the best of 2019-20.

If Kansas had truly developed into the one super team, as many were beginning to suspect. In a season of wild swings in the rankings, the Jayhawks were the model of stability. They were never ranked lower than No. 6 in the Associated Press poll, or No. 5 in the NCAA Net ratings.

The look on the faces of the Rutgers basketball team on Selection Sunday. The last time the Scarlet Knights were invited to the NCAA tournament, Michael Jordan had never won an NBA title, Duke had never won a national championship, Tom Brady was in middle school, Tiger Woods was 15 years old, something called a web browser had just been introduced and gas was $1.18 a gallon. That was 29 years ago. No other team in any of the top six power conferences has waited so long. And now they must wait some more.

What Iowa’s Luka Garza might have done in the NCAA tournament. He was not named anywhere on the preseason Big Ten All-Conference Team and ended up National Player of the Year.

If Kentucky had found all the answers by the tournament, as John Calipari was beginning to sense. The poster Wildcat for this team’s steady development was Immanuel Quickley, who went from a 5.2-point average and 37 percent shooting as a freshman to SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore.

CAN'T MISS: The tournament had 81 years without interruption. Mike Lopresti was there when it all changed

If San Diego State’s magic would have rolled over into the postseason. This program has produced many good teams, but when’s the next time the Aztecs get to contend for a No. 1 seed?

If Leonard Hamilton would finally get his Final Four trip...or Scott Drew...or Chris Mack.

If Tom Izzo truly had Michigan State up to its customary tournament surge. Certainly looked that way the final weeks.

If the Big Ten would end its 20-year dry spell without a national championship. And how many teams — 10? 11? 12? — would be in the field trying to do it.

How stout a championship defense fast-closing Virginia would make. The Cavaliers were the yin and the yang of point production. No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 348 in scoring offense. Which is how they won four games when scoring under 50 points for the first time since 1944-45. So does this mean the Cavaliers get to be defending champion for another year?

Who the surprise package would be. East Tennessee State? Liberty? New Mexico State, and its under-noticed 19-game winning streak? BYU and its veteran shooters? And we do mean veteran. According to the website, five of the eight players in the rotation were married. Stephen F. Austin, who used the mighty upset at Duke to blast off to a 28-3 record? Or someone nobody could see coming? It seemed the spring for it. Well, it did once.

If a team from outside the Eastern time zone could actually win a national championship. Kansas did in 2008. That’s it for 23 years.

NEWS: NCAA cancels remaining winter and spring championships due to coronavirus concerns 

If Creighton was as dangerous as the Bluejays often looked. For the city of Omaha, the closing down of college sports was a double stake through the heart. No Creighton tournament run in March, no College World Series in June.

Which senior would find the happy ending that he returned to college to chase. Myles Powell? Cassius Winston? Udoka Azubuike? Payton Pritchard? Markus Howard – one of the most prolific scorers in Division I history who never won a tournament game? At least he got to play in a couple for Marquette. All-time leader Pete Maravich averaged 44 points a game and never saw the NCAA tournament. One of the true beauties of March is watching seniors go all-in, not wanting the ride to be over. They all understand their careers might have unhappy endings and intend to leave no regrets, win or lose. But...this?

We’ll never know the upsets that were coming, the buzzer-beaters that would have lived on in highlights, the joy of the champion or the broken hearts of the losers.  You know how the cliché goes — only a tournament champion gets to win its last game of the year. This nightmare March, when the world changed, 127 teams did.

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