16 teams that could have won it all
I̶t̶’̶s̶ ̶f̶i̶n̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶h̶e̶r̶e̶.̶ ̶A̶f̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶f̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶m̶o̶n̶t̶h̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶r̶e̶g̶u̶l̶a̶r̶ ̶s̶e̶a̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶g̶a̶m̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶m̶u̶l̶t̶i̶t̶u̶d̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶f̶e̶r̶e̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶u̶r̶n̶a̶m̶e̶n̶t̶s̶,̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶N̶C̶A̶A̶ ̶T̶o̶u̶r̶n̶a̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶h̶a̶s̶ ̶a̶r̶r̶i̶v̶e̶d̶.̶
Whoops. Guess not.
Full disclosure: The original version of this “16 teams that could win it all” piece was written a week in advance of what would’ve been Selection Sunday. That, of course, was before the world went topsy-turvy and the coronavirus pandemic canceled March Madness as we know it.
Even though there won’t be an NCAA Tournament in 2020, we thought it might be entertaining — and a decent distraction — to think about the would-be field and some of the teams that could have joined Kansas in the chase for this year’s national championship.
Many people considered the Jayhawks the favorites entering this year’s Big Dance. With 7-footer Udoka Azubuike controlling the paint on both ends of the floor, Devon Dotson blowing past defenders on the perimeter and Marcus Garrett locking up the opponent’s best player, KU entered the postseason on a 16-game winning streak.
And, of course, KU has a coach who knows a thing or two about winning during March Madness. Bill Self would have taken one of the best defensive teams he’s ever had into the 68-team field carrying a 38-15 record in NCAA Tournament games as KU’s head coach.
The Jayhawks thrived by grinding to wins throughout the past few months, a style that should’ve served them well in pursuit of a national title.
Most impressive victories: BYU (N), Dayton (N), at Stanford, at West Virginia, at Baylor, at Texas Tech
Troubling losses: None
Head coach Mark Few guided the Bulldogs to at least the Elite Eight in three of the past five tournaments. And, per usual, Gonzaga was bringing one of the most effective offenses in the country with it into March Madness.
The Zags threw six double-digit scorers at opponents, so it’s easy to see why they entered the postseason as the No. 1 scoring team in the nation (87.7 points per game).
At 6-foot-11, Filip Petrusev (17.8 points) led the way this this year, powered by his 56.5% field goal success. But he had plenty of backup, with Corey Kispert (14.3 points and 44.3% 3-point shooting), Killian Tillie (13.6 points), Admon Gilder (10.7 points), Joel Ayayi (10.3 points) and Ryan Woolrdige (10.1 points). Even their seventh-best scorer, Drew Timme, averaged 9.6 points.
Most impressive victories: Oregon (N), at Arizona, St. Mary’s twice
Troubling losses: None
The team KU spent much of January and February chasing, the Bears hit a relative rough patch late in the regular season, with two setbacks in their final four games. But one came against KU, and it’s important to remember the level BU played at for the vast majority of the season when considering its March Madness chances.
Just like KU, the Bears emerged as one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country.
In the regular season, opponents only shot 39.7% versus BU, with the defense of Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie and Davion Mitchell doing much of the dirty work. And with guards like Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, the Bears could more than hold their own offensively, too.
Most impressive victories: Villanova (N), Arizona, Texas Tech twice, at Kansas, at Florida, West Virginia
Troubling losses: Washington (N), TCU
The Flyers only lost twice in the regular season and both came in overtime, on neutral courts no less.
As the Jayhawks learned back in November, at the Maui Invitational, there might not have been a more electric offensive player in the country than projected NBA lottery pick Obi Toppin.
A likely consensus first-team All-American, Toppin (20 points per game and 7.5 rebounds in the regular season), a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, is the type of talent capable of carrying a team all the way to a national title.
With the help of Toppin’s 69.8% shooting on 2-point attempts, Dayton led the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, at 61.7%.
Most impressive victories: St. Mary’s (N), at St. Louis, at Richmond, at VCU, at Rhode Island
Troubling losses: None
Even though the Blue Devils opened the season with a victory over KU at the Champions Classic, they arguably headed into the postseason as a much better team. That tends to be the case with Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils lately, with so many talented freshmen relied upon year in and year out.
The latest one-and-done Duke star looks to be center Vernon Carey Jr. (17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 57.7% field goals), and with high-flying Cassius Stanley (12.6 points) energizing the Blue Devils they had more than one breakout freshman.
Yet it might be sophomore point guard Tre Jones (16.2 points, 6.4 assists) who tied it all together and would have helped determine how far Coach K’s latest title contenders could have gone.
Most impressive victories: Kansas (N), at Michigan State, Florida State
Troubling losses: Stephen F. Austin, at Clemson
The Spartans endured a rough stretch in February, during one of their more challenging portions of the schedule, and lost four of five games. Head coach Tom Izzo’s group seemed to come out on the other side of the experience better for it, though. MSU closed its regular season with five straight wins in the brutal Big Ten.
Izzo’s players always are associated with toughness and defense and this season was no different, with senior guard Cassius Winston (18.3 points, 5.9 assists) the feisty face of the team.
MSU held foes to 37.6% shooting from the floor and 28.7% on 3-pointers. Plus, the Spartans were one of just four teams who could claim they entered the postseason with a top-15 offense and defense, per KenPom.com. The others are KU, Duke and San Diego State.
Most impressive victories: at Seton Hall, at Illinois, at Maryland, at Penn State, at Ohio State
Troubling losses: Virginia Tech (N)
With Eudora’s own Mitchell Ballock firing away from 3-point range, the Bluejays had one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (No. 3 on KenPom.com).
A 6-5 junior guard, Ballock was the third-leading scorer for Creighton, but he was stretching defenses in ways few college players can. Ballock (11.9 points per game) attempted 6.9 3-pointers a game in his 31 starts during the regular season, and connected on 3.0 per game, giving him a robust 43.5% 3-point shooting percentage.
And he wasn’t even the most impactful offensive player in the Bluejays’ starting backcourt. Junior Ty-Shon Alexander (16.9 points) and sophomore Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 points, 5.0 assists) teamed with Ballock to form a dangerous trio.
Most impressive victories: Texas Tech (N), at Villanova, at Seton Hall, at Marquette
Troubling losses: None
San Diego State
The Aztecs dropped two of their six most recent games, but they opened the season 26-0.
SDSU achieved that phenomenal start and a spot among this season’s Final Four contenders with its stingy defense, holding foes to 38.7% shooting overall and 29.7% from 3-point range.
San Diego State also had a legit college basketball star in junior point guard Malachi Flynn, too. Flynn’s 17.6 points, 5.1 assists and 1.8 turnovers despite a high usage rate made him a very tough assignment for defenders.
And the Aztecs played at an extremely slow pace (332nd in tempo per KenPom.com), so they would have felt right at home in a defensive-minded, low possession, win-or-go-home setting.
Most impressive victories: at BYU, Creighton (N), at Utah State
Troubling losses: UNLV
Unlike a lot of contenders, the Cardinals actually had a lot of experience. Their top five scorers were all upperclassmen, with seniors Steven Enoch, Dwayne Sutton and Ryan McMahon all headed into what was set to be their last chance at the NCAA Tournament.
And on a balanced offensive team for coach Chris Mack, it was junior forward Jordan Nwora who gave opponents the most trouble. Nwora (18 points per game, 7.7 rebounds) got shot attempts at the rim with regularity but also scored from long range (76-for-189 on 3-pointers).
Most impressive victories: at Duke
Troubling losses: at Clemson
Another team that thrived on the power of its most experienced players, the Cougars’ top three scorers were all seniors and they all contributed at least 14 points per game for one of the country’s top offenses (No. 7 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom.com).
There weren’t many weaknesses in 6-8 senior forward Yoeli Childs’ game, and when he was healthy (he only played 18 games in the regular season) BYU went 16-2 and Childs produced 22.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists, while going 20-for-41 on 3-pointers.
Guards Jake Toolson (15.3 points, 4.0 assists) and TJ Haws (14.3 points, 5.8 assists) were strong playmakers, as well, giving BYU a trio that would keep opposing coaches up at night.
Most impressive victories: at Houston, Gonzaga
Troubling losses: at San Francisco, at Utah
With star senior guard Myles Powell, the Pirates had an exceptional offensive weapon. But they also had defenders inside to help them legitimize their candidacy as contenders.
While opponents had to worry about Powell (21 points per game, 2.9 assists, on one end of the floor, they couldn’t afford to forget about Seton Hall’s pair of shot blockers on the other end.
And it’s hard not to think about 7-2 senior center Romaro Gill if you’re a player about to enter the paint. The big man from Jamaica averaged 3.2 blocked shots per game. And if he wasn’t on the floor, odds are 7-2 sophomore Ike Obiagu would be. Obiagu averaged 1.2 blocks in only 10.5 minutes per game.
Most impressive victories: at Butler, at Villanova, at Marquette
Troubling losses: at Iowa State
Former KU guard and now Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon had an inside-outside duo that would leave most in his profession envious.
With a solid supporting cast around them, it was senior guard Anthony Cowen (16.2 points, 4.6 assists) and 6-10 sophomore forward Jalen Smith (15.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 54% shooting) carrying the Terrapins all season.
Maryland played a difficult schedule, and with a couple of stars who can produce, Turgeon had the pieces to make a run.
Most impressive victories: Ohio State, at Illinois, at Michigan State
Troubling losses: None
This wasn’t John Calipari’s deepest or most talented roster, but it’s hard to discount the Wildcats in March, especially when the field looked so open outside of a select few favorites.
UK, yet again, had a likely top-10 NBA Draft pick who is a one-and-done prospect in its starting lineup. This season that freshman was 6-3 guard Tyrese Maxey (14 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists).
But it was sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley (16.1 points, 4.2 rebounds) and junior forward Nick Richards (14 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 64.2% shooting) who looked a little more consistent for Kentucky.
Most impressive victories: Michigan State (N), Louisville, at Texas Tech, at LSU, at Florida
Troubling losses: Evansville, Utah (N), Tennessee
Under the radar as always in the ACC, the Seminoles became the type of defensive team Leonard Hamilton loves to coach.
Their 273 steals in the regular season ranked 15th in the country and they finished even higher — ninth — with their 162 blocks.
Trent Forrest (team-best 1.9 steals per game), Devin Vassell, Anthony Polite, Raiquan Gray and Patrick Williams all averaged at least one swipe per contest. Meanwhile, both Vassell and Williams averaged 1.0 blocks per outing, as FSU took a democratic approach to swatting shots.
A 6-8 freshman, Williams might be a first-round draft pick, and he didn’t even start for the Seminoles. A 6-6 guard, Vassell (12.7 points, 49% shooting) led a balanced scoring attack on this defense-first squad.
Most impressive victories: at Florida, Louisville twice
Troubling losses: at Pittsburgh, at Clemson
It never hurts in March Madness to have a versatile guard on your side. And the Ducks had one of the best around in 6-2 senior Payton Pritchard.
The veteran rarely left the floor, which meant the Ducks were almost always playing near an elite level offensively. A complete player, Pritchard averaged 20.5 points and 5.5 assists in the regular season, while shooting 41.5% on 3-pointers and 82.1% at the foul line.
Oregon was especially lethal offensively when its 3-point shooters were in a rhythm. And most of the time they were. The Ducks entered the postseason shooting 39.6% from deep. Chris Durate (12.9 points, 5.6 rebounds), Will Richardson (11 points, 46.9% on 3-pointers) and Anthony Mathis (8.5 points, 45.4% on 3’s) helped Pritchard keep the floor spread and the offense flowing.
Most impressive victories: Seton Hall (N), at Michigan, Arizona twice
Troubling losses: at Washington State, North Carolina (N)
Don’t let the Buckeyes’ 10 regular-season losses throw you off their scent. The Big Ten was loaded with would-be NCAA Tournament teams this season, so OSU, like so many of its fellow conference members, would have entered the madness with the benefit of being battle tested.
Advanced metrics like Ohio State more than your eyes might, as both KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com had the Buckeyes in the top 10 at the conclusion of the regular season.
OSU may not wow you, but coach Chris Holtmann’s team was just steady enough in a variety of areas to compete with any team it faced. And 6-9 junior Kaleb Wesson (14.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 43.3% 3-point shooting) gave OSU a versatile veteran to carry the team.
Most impressive victories: Villanova, Kentucky (N), at Michigan
Troubling losses: Minnesota