The third Thursday in March. It is one of the days that we have circled on our calendar for months on end. It is of course the first day of the NCAA Tournament. And now, unfortunately it is gone. Like so many other things, taken away from us by the coronavirus.
And while there are obviously wayyyyyyyyy bigger concerns in the real world than this virus, from strictly a basketball perspective this sucks, man. It really, really sucks. Today was supposed to be a day of joy, of joining office pools, sitting around with friends, drinking beers and watching the greatest sporting event in the world. Now, it’s about stuff like “Hmm, should I work from bed today, or the couch?” And “how many mustard stains are too many before I change the shirt I’ve been wearing the last three days?”
Anyway, even without the NCAA Tournament, now seems like as good a time as any to reflect on the season that was, even if 2019-2020 will be the NCAA Tournament that never was. It’s time to highlight all the good things that happened in college hoops season, and players, coaches and teams we’ll remember.
Here are nine things that I will personally remember about the 2019-2020 college basketball season.
I don’t care what anyone says: It wasn’t a “down year” in college basketball
Over the last few years all the pundits who cover college basketball have started to do this weird thing, where they make a decision sometime in December whether its a “down year” in college basketball or not. It’s honestly something I’ve never really understood. In essence, if there isn’t a great player (Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, whoever) or a great team (normally either Kentucky or Duke) then it is deemed to be a “down year.” Again, I don’t really get why.
Now look, I understand the sport is always going to be better if a Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina dominates. And I get that if there are real, future NBA stars, it makes it more appealing for the average fan. I also understand that the basketball itself is a big part of this. But truthfully, with the turnover in the sport, the basketball itself will always be better in February and March than November and December.
Still, don’t tell me this was a “down year.” The freshmen weren’t great, but we still had plenty of stars – guys like Obi Toppin, Myles Powell, Cassius Winston, Luka Garza, Immanuel Quickley, Mason Jones, Payton Pritchard, whoever. The blue bloods weren’t unbeatable, but Kansas again dominated the Big 12 (insert your own “thanks, Adidas” jokes here), Kentucky won the SEC and Duke and Louisville were each a game back in the ACC. Dayton, San Diego State and others became great stories to watch in their own right.
And if you actually bothered to watch the basketball (which I know everyone reading this did), while the season got off to a slow start, by February, the basketball was actually excellent. Night in and night out the competitiveness in the Big East and Big Ten was through the roof, while teams like Kansas and Kentucky flexed their muscles in their respective conferences.
You don’t need a Zion or Anthony Davis for a season to be really fun. And this year proved that.
While there was “no Zion” we got ourselves a 2020 version of Ja Morant
Again, I get that the freshmen will always be the story in college basketball, essentially the new toys that fans can wrap their arms around every season. So yes, having a Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, Lonzo Ball, Trae Young brings in the casual fan. Even if star freshmen often put up big numbers while having minimal actual on the court success (see: Trae Young, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz etc.)
But even if freshmen will always be the headliners, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have upperclassmen emerge as real, future NBA stars. Last year it was Ja Morant who took the college basketball world by storm on his way to becoming the front runner for the NBA Rookie of the Year this season. And in college hoops we got the frontcourt version of Ja Morant in 2019-2020, which was Dayton’s Obi Toppin.
Like Morant, Toppin was a guy who could’ve gone to the NBA last year and potentially flirted with being a second round pick – but instead came back to the sport and absolutely dominated. He finished the season averaging 20 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, with one highlight dunk after another. Seriously, watch these highlights below. This kid was a monster.
— Jo Armen (@joseph_armen) March 13, 2020
But more than just putting up highlights, Toppin – like Morant last year – took an already good program, put them on his back and took it to unprecedented heights. Not only was Toppin my pick for National Player of the Year, he also took Dayton to the top of the polls and to a spot – as one of the national title favorites – that they will probably never be in again.
Seriously, even with their rich tradition we’ll see a lot of things in college basketball before we ever see Dayton – Dayton! – in position to win a national championship like they were this season.
And its thanks to Obi Toppin, this year’s Ja Morant.
We also got ourselves some special seniors as well
Again, I know that college basketball will always be defined by the freshmen, and that it isn’t considered all that “cool” to stay until your senior year and develop into a star. That’s also what made me appreciate this year’s senior class that much more than I have any in recent history.
In no particular order, there was Cassius Winston, who overcame personal tragedy to have his team in the hunt for a national title before the end of the season. There was Myles Powell, who gave Seton Hall its most memorable season in 30 years. Markus Howard again lit up scoreboards, and Payton Pritchard brought Oregon back from one insane deficit after another for impossible wins. Udoka Azibuke proved that you can still be a title contender with a dominant, old-school, low post center. And there were other seniors who left their marks too, everyone ranging from Nate Sestina at Kentucky to Zavier Simpson at Michigan, LSU’s Skylar Mays and Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie.
More than anything, I feel bad for those kids who didn’t get to finish out their careers the way any of them wanted.
Speaking of which…
I’ll remember this as the year that with no “One Shining Moment” at the end of the NCAA Tournament, schools took it upon themselves to make their own versions.
Here are a few that hit close to home.
Our season was cut short…but there were plenty of shining moments in this championship season that we will treasure. Thank you for being part of our Voyage. #OneShiningMoment #HALLin pic.twitter.com/ARDc017dFX
— Seton Hall Basketball (@SetonHallMBB) March 18, 2020
— Scott Drew (@BUDREW) March 15, 2020
— Michigan State Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) March 16, 2020
Can’t lie, some of them… no all of them… were tough to watch.
The 2019-2020 season marked the best “coaching” of John Calipari’s time at Kentucky
I’ve already talked about this extensively on my podcast and Twitter, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. But for a guy that the outside world insists is “just a recruiter,” John Calipari proved once again in 2020 that he is pretty good in the X’s and O’s department too. If anything, this year was maybe his best pure “coaching” job since he got to Kentucky.
Now admittedly there have been better seasons overall (because frankly, the talent was better) and there were low points in the season itself (hint, Evansville). But the bottom line is that a coach’s job is to help his team get better throughout the year, and it’s hard to think of any Kentucky team that saw more across the board improvement throughout the season than this one did. Immanuel Quickley went from role player to SEC Player of the Year, Nick Richards evolved into maybe the best two-way center in college basketball, and EJ Montgomery finally became the energy/hustle big guy this team needed. Keion Brooks and Johnny Juzang essentially went from “unplayable” to “major contributors” by the end of the season.
Add all that in with the leaps that Kentucky made as a team throughout the season, and there’s no doubt the impact that Calipari and his staff had behind the scenes. If we’re being perfectly honest, the Wildcats essentially played two bad halves after Christmas (the second half against South Carolina and the second half against Tennessee) and that was really it. Not to mention that if I’d told you in the preseason that Kentucky would be undefeated in road games at Florida, LSU, Arkansas, Texas Tech and Tennessee, you would have probably told me I was crazy.
Only it happened. And it proved for the thousandth time that John Calipari is much more than just a “recruiter.”
The 2019-2020 also showed us that Mick Cronin is an elite coach
It’s funny because during his time at Cincinnati, the biggest knock on Mick Cronin wasn’t that he got the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament – but that he couldn’t do anything once they got there. His Cincinnati teams made nine straight NCAA Tournaments, but only once advanced into the Sweet 16.
In hindsight maybe we should have been less caught up with the fact that Cronin didn’t win a ton of tournament games, and instead been impressed that he got Cincinnati – a good school, but hardly a Power 5 juggernaut – to nine straight Big Dance’s.
Because if there was any doubt about Cronin’s coaching prowess, it was probably silenced this year.
In what has to be considered one of the best coaching jobs in recent college basketball history, Cronin took a dead UCLA program, one which started the season 8-9 and gave them life down the stretch. After that slow start the team won 10 of 13 games and entered the final weekend of the regular season with the chance to win the Pac-12 outright.
The Bruins weren’t able to get there, but the simple fact that Cronin had them on the doorstep shows just how good this guy truly is.
Other coaches emerge
I gave a shout out to some of the star players this season above, so it only seems right to give credit to some coaches young and old who also emerged this season as well.
RUIN THAT SUIT!! pic.twitter.com/w2QMVtvA2F
— BYU Basketball (@BYUbasketball) February 23, 2020
Mark Pope proved to be one of the better young coaches in the game, taking a BYU program which had missed five straight NCAA Tournaments, and getting them into the Top 15 of the polls by the end of the season. Had there been a tournament, the Cougars would have been a threat to make a deep run. How about the work of Baylor coach Scott Drew. It’s easy to forget how bad that program was when he took over, but incase you did forget, go to the Wikipedia page. To go from that, to No. 1 in the country for six straight weeks is nothing to scoff at. Same with Leonard Hamilton, who took a Florida State team which lost six of its top eight scorers to an ACC regular season title. Kevin Willard had Seton Hall playing its best basketball in three decades, and Greg McDermott at Creighton led the school to its first Big East title since joining the league in 2013. East Tennessee’s Steve Forbes had his team at 30-4 and capable of pulling an upset or two in the NCAA Tournament. And how about San Diego State going from “unranked” in the preseason to 30-2 overall by the end?
I’m sure I’m missing someone, but those are the guys I’ll remember in college basketball this season.
We were set up for one of the craziest “Champ Weeks” ever
I know it’s easy to say in hindsight that we were set for the best “Champ Week” ever, but I really do truly believe it.
Think about everything that was at stake.
Really, only two No. 1 seeds were locked in (Kansas, Gonzaga), so you had Baylor and Dayton battling for the top line. You had schools like Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, Villanova, Seton Hall, Creighton etc. battling to get as high on the seed line as possible. You had maybe the most wide open bubble that we’ve ever seen, with everyone from last year’s Final Four squad Texas Tech battling for a spot, to Memphis, Cincinnati, Texas, NC State, Richmond, you name it. Oh, and there were plenty of teams that were completely outside the NCAA Tournament picture that really thought they could make a run and steal a bid. You don’t think Arkansas believed that after finally getting fully healthy they could win the SEC Tournament? Or that Texas A&M, which somehow won 10 SEC games could cut down the nets in Nashville?
The answer to all of the above is yes, and I truly believe we were headed for an all-time champ week.
There were so many completely off the grid teams that were good enough to win it all
Beyond the players, you know who I feel worst for in all this? Fans at places like Dayton, San Diego State, Seton Hall and Creighton. While each has different lineage and level of success through the years, this was the best opportunity most of these schools will have for a long time to win a title.
Before you get started, yes, Dayton and San Diego State were good enough to win it all. The Flyers would have had the best player in the tournament, and had won 20 straight games dating back to December. They hadn’t lost a single game in regulation, and had Kansas beaten in Maui before falling apart late. San Diego State, while banged up, had a shot if they got healthy in time for the tournament. Seton Hall obviously had a shot, as did Creighton (which might be the only of the four who has a shot next year as well, if they don’t get hit too hard by the draft process).
For schools like Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas and Duke they’ll have other opportunities to win it all, maybe as early as next year.
But for Dayton and San Diego State and even Seton Hall? A chance like this might not come around again for a long, long time. If ever.
Finally, we were headed for the most wide open NCAA Tournament in recent history as well
While I do still think the number of teams that was actually good enough to win it all was pretty small (maybe 8-10 teams), this was still shaping up to be one of the wildest tournaments on record.
Just think about it.
Would it have surprised you to see a UCLA or Texas Tech go from a play-in game to the Sweet 16? For an 8-9 seed like LSU, Marquette or Colorado to knock out a No. 1 seed over the first weekend of this tournament? For someone like Auburn (who already did it last year), Penn State, BYU or Providence to go from a No. 5, 6 or 7 seed to the Final Four? For Kentucky, Duke or Seton Hall to go from three seed to national champion?
More than anything that’s what I’ll remember about this season.
It was wide open from start to finish, and was setting up for an NCAA Tournament we’d never forget.
Unfortunately it’s one that we’ll never forget – for a completely different reason.