The NCAA Tournament was one of the first sporting event casualties of COVID-19 and its cancellation seemed to be a domino that set many others in motion. And while many of us have come to grips with the disrupted reality of the moment -- and immediate future, it still stings a whole lot to lose March Madness -- one of the most exciting, unpredictable and electric events on the annual sports calendar.
Even though it might feel like the tournament was scrapped ages ago at this point, there's a little extra pain in knowing the first round would have officially kicked off Thursday, bringing an incredible few weeks of basketball to our mundane lives.
One of the best parts of the tournament every year is the emergence of teams that not only win games, but also our hearts. There were a number of teams that had the potential to capture our rooting interest this year, so let's recognize some of the great stories that might've been.
Considering they were projected to be a No. 1 seed and didn't lose a game in regulation all season, it's hard to call Dayton an underdog. But they were as unlikely a powerhouse as we've seen in a while, coming out of the Atlantic 10 and looking real dangerous in a wide-open field. The Flyers would have been a great story as they attempted to capture their first national title in program history, and they would have had a great shot at doing so. In fact, our SportsLine simulation
But even if they didn't go all the way, they would have inspired many to root for them thanks to their high-flying, electric and efficient offense. They also carried national player of the year candidate Obi Toppin, who became a superstar and a human highlight reel this season. He led the nation in dunks and some of them looked like this.
You gonna root against that in the NCAA Tournament? I didn't think so.
Seton Hall had a tough finish to the regular season with back-to-back losses that cost them the outright Big East title, but the Pirates were still a very good story and very likable squad heading into the Big Dance. It was the best season for Seton Hall in three decades and they had one of the best players in the nation in senior Myles Powell, a legit NBA prospect and one of the premier bucket-getters in college basketball.
Myles Powell was an offensive nightmare at Seton Hall !!! Powell averaged 21 points and 5 rebounds and was named Big East player of the year. His ability to create shots and drive in traffic was elite. He would’ve been special during March Madness Pros next 🔥 @Myles_MBP_23 pic.twitter.com/X4DJMKOjOX— Swish Cultures (@swishcultures_) March 14, 2020
It would have been hard to root against Powell as he led the Pirates in his last hurrah with Seton Hall but, like so many other seniors, his college hoops career may have abruptly come to an end with the cancellation.
Unlike the other teams already mentioned, Michigan State isn't exactly a stranger to strong NCAA Tournament performances under Tom Izzo. The Spartans were projected to be a No. 3 seed and had a great chance to make a deep run in this year's tournament (our SportsLine simulation had them losing to Dayton in the Elite Eight) and they would have had one of the best human interest stories of March Madness.
Cassius Winston -- the Spartans' best player and Big Ten all-time leader in assists -- lost his younger brother to suicide in November and has been utilizing basketball as a coping mechanism throughout the year. Had MSU made a strong run, we likely would have heard stories about Winston's journey and how he's been able to handle the emotional weight of this season, as well as how the team has rallied around him and his family in wake of the tragedy. It would have been impossible not to root for that guy given everything he's been through.
Rutgers certainly wasn't considered a powerhouse heading into Selection Sunday and they hadn't gone dancing in nearly 30 years, last making the tournament in 1991. But the Scarlet Knights had a great season, setting a new program record with 18 home wins (18-1) and brought major upset potential, having beaten four ranked teams over the course of the year -- including a major upset over Maryland in the final week of the regular season.
The Nittany Lions were due to make a rare appearance in the tournament and would have been a team to keep an eye out for. Penn State last made the tournament in 2011 and last won a game in 2001, when they advanced to the Sweet 16 for their second-best finish ever. They may have had an opportunity to match, or perhaps top, that run this year while being led by senior forward Lamar Stevens, arguably the best player in program history.
Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin is no stranger to Cinderella status in March and they could have stepped into that role once again this year. They went 28-3 this year -- including a 15-game winning streak to close the season -- and proved they could run with the big dogs when they beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November. Upsetting the Blue Devils is an easy way to get the attention of the nation, and it seems like SFA was certainly capable of winning our hearts over once again this March.