NCAA Men's Basketball Teams You Should Regret Not Having Watched in 2020
It's hard to comprehend why anyone would annually wait until the NCAA tournament to start watching men's college basketball, but you'd be surprised how many people fall into that category.
With the coronavirus canceling our beloved March Madness, those folks will never get to appreciate the most entertaining teams of the 2019-20 season.
If that's you, here's a sampling of what you missed—a list of biggest regrets, if you will.
But if you're the type to watch multiple games every day from November-March, hopefully this will still be a fun trip down memory lane for you. Or if it's a depressing one, I apologize. Not everyone is in the same stage of grief over the lack of the NCAA tournament.
Schools are listed in alphabetical order.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama suffered 15 losses and is the one team on our list that probably wasn't going to make the NCAA tournament anyway, but that doesn't take anything away from the fact that this was one of the most fun-to-watch teams of the season.
As was the case during Nate Oats' four years as the head coach of Buffalo, he got his guys to play at a breakneck pace on a nightly basis. The Crimson Tide averaged 82.0 points and allowed 79.0 points per game. They ranked third in the nation in the former and 336th in the latter, even though their per-possession numbers were fairly average on both ends of the court.
Not only did they love to run, but they loved to gun, too. Alabama took 49 percent of its field-goal attempts from three-point range, which was the highest rate among power-conference teams and the eighth-highest rate overall, according to KenPom.com. And the Tide made just under 35 percent of them, so it's not like they were just chucking up bricks.
John Petty led the way with 85 made triples. Jaden Shackelford was just barely behind him with 84. Kira Lewis Jr. (56) and Alex Reese (51) both hit more than 50, and James "Beetle" Bolden was an admirable fifth-best at 42. As a team, they averaged 10.8 makes per game. Only North Florida (11.8) and VMI (10.9) had a higher rate.
And through it all, Lewis hardly ever left the floor, averaging 37.6 minutes per game. If and when he declares for the NBA draft, scouts certainly won't be able to doubt the point guard's conditioning.
Speaking of teams that were a sight to behold from the perimeter, BYU was unconscious from the new three-point line.
Per KenPom, three-point percentage in games between two D-I teams dropped from 34.4 percent last year to 33.3 percent this year. That's the worst conversion rate in KenPom history (which dates back to 2001-02), and it may well be the worst three-point percentage since they started counting triples in 1986.
Only one out of the 353 D-I teams finished the season with a three-point percentage that started with a four. There were 18 teams at 40.0 percent or better in 2017-18.
But BYU evidently didn't receive the memo and inexplicably skyrocketed from 33.0 percent last year to 42.3 percent this year.
Heck, the Cougars didn't even have a player on last year's roster who shot 40 percent, but they had four players this year who averaged better than two attempts per game and made at least 44 percent of them. Jake Toolson (85 makes; 47.0 percent) was the biggest contributor to that cause, but he was one of just seven Cougars to make at least 22 threes while shooting better than 35 percent.
Hopefully you made it a point to watch the Cougars as often as possible because A) They were every bit as impressive this year as they were when Jimmer Fredette was a senior and B) they're not going to look anything like this in 2020-21 since five of their seven leading scorers were seniors.
OK, fine, we'll do one more team that was primarily fun because of its three-point shooting.
The deep ball has been Creighton's friend for most of Greg McDermott's decade at the helm. Not only were the Bluejays consistently better than 40 percent during the latter three years of Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge, but their 38.6 percent success rate this year was their fourth consecutive season above 37 percent.
Per Sports Reference, only Weber State (38.6 percent) has a better three-point percentage over the past 10 seasons than Creighton (38.5), and only Belmont (3,252) has made more triples during that decade than Creighton has (3,096).
Even though it has become old hat in Omaha, it was still fun to watch Mitch Ballock, Marcus Zegarowski and Ty-Shon Alexander do their thing. That trio shot a combined 249-of-594 (41.9 percent). There were 240 entire teams who didn't make 249 threes, but Creighton got there with just three players.
However, that's far from the only reason Creighton might have been a No. 1 seed if it had won the Big East tournament.
The Bluejays rarely committed turnovers or fouls, made better than 53 percent of their twos and nearly 74 percent of their free throws. They were mediocre on defense and almost never won the rebounding battle, but they didn't make poor decisions and had stints where they looked like a favorite for the national championship because of it.
Pour one out for all the young men who didn't get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, but pour a double for Dayton. The Flyers had a real chance to win a national championship for the first time in program history, could have gone to the Final Four for just the second time (first since 1967) and absolutely would have received a No. 3 seed or better for the first time in more than four decades of tournament seeding.
Dayton went 29-2 with both losses coming in overtime on neutral floors against quality opponents (Kansas and Colorado). And the main reason the Flyers were so tough to beat was their elite ability to make two-point buckets.
Per KenPom, Dayton made 62.3 percent of its two-point attempts. The next-closest teams were Gonzaga and South Dakota State, tied at 57.4 percent. In KenPom history, the only other team to shoot at least 62 percent was 2015-16 Belmont (62.6 percent).
Obi Toppin's slam dunks were the primary highlights, but they had a bunch of impressive team performances throughout the season. Two of those stand out in particular.
In an 86-60 win over St. Bonaventure in late January, they made 25 of 29 two-point attempts (86.2 percent). Most teams relied on three-point attempts against the Bonnies' adaptation of Virginia's pack-line defense, but Dayton had its way inside the arc anyway.
The big one, though, was the 82-67 February win over Davidson in which the Flyers made 27 consecutive twos after Jalen Crutcher missed the team's first attempt of the night. Even for a team that shoots 62.3 percent, the odds of making 27 in a row are 1-in-353,853.
[It's quite the testament to how great Kansas was on defense that Dayton only shot 11-of-29 (37.9 percent) from inside the arc against the Jayhawks.]
While Kansas was the clear favorite to win the national championship, I almost certainly would have been picking Gonzaga to win it all. That's not because I think Gonzaga was better than Kansas, but rather because I put more stock in teams with proven depth, since it's almost inevitable that a star player will either have an off night from the field or battle foul trouble at some point during the tournament.
And, buddy, Gonzaga had proven depth.
Six different Zags averaged at least 10 points per game, and a seventh (Drew Timme) barely missed joining that club with a rate of 9.8. But Gonzaga's freshman center scored 17 in the WCC championship, which was his seventh time scoring at least 15 points this season. He just didn't get enough playing time to average double digits since Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie also needed a lot of minutes in the frontcourt.
The Zags were No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency at 121.3, and it wasn't even that close. Granted, they had a substantially higher score while placing first in that category last year (124.5), but offense at a national level was much less efficient this season—thanks to some combination of the extended three-point line and the fact that Virginia and Texas Tech rode elite defense to last year's title game.
Translation: It wasn't an all-time great offense, but it sure was the best that the nation had this season.
Gonzaga led all teams at 87.4 points per game, scoring at least 100 points as many times as it was held below 75—four of each. The defense may well have kept them from winning it all, but it would've been fun to watch the Zags try to just relentlessly outscore everyone en route to their first championship.
2019-20 Kansas couldn't hold a candle to Kentucky circa 2011-12 or 2014-15. Both 2015-16 and 2017-18 Villanova would have been able to bury the Jayhawks with threes. And the KU team that won it all in 2008 might have been favored by more than a touchdown against the most recent product on display at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
But in a year of men's college basketball devoid of elite teams, the Jayhawks were starting to feel like a juggernaut.
Devon Dotson was arguably the best point guard in the country. Factor in defense, and Udoka Azubuike was unarguably the most valuable big man of the season. And while we're on the subject of defense, Marcus Garrett is a damn superstar on that end of the floor.
Anchored by that trio, the Jayhawks ended the regular season on a 16-game winning streak. Scoring more than 70 points against that defense was almost impossible, which in turn made them almost unbeatable.
Virginia was slightly more efficient on defense, but the Cavaliers couldn't score worth a darn on offense. Kansas had a top-10 offense to go along with its spectacular defense, so its overall efficiency margin left everyone else in the dust.
However, the last time Kansas entered the tournament as the clear favorite (2010), it lost to No. 9 seed Northern Iowa in the second round. Would've been fun to watch the Jayhawks try to avoid a repeat one decade later. Alas.
San Diego State Aztecs
A close runner-up to Dayton on the hierarchy of programs most negatively impacted by the cancellation of the tournament, San Diego State was gearing up for something special and unprecedented.
The Aztecs were a No. 2 seed less than a decade ago, bowing out in the 2011 Sweet 16 against eventual national champion Connecticut. (Kemba Walker scored 36 for the Huskies.) But this team was better than that Kawhi Leonard iteration because these Aztecs could actually shoot.
They were ready to at least get to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history—and probably even further than that.
Led by Malachi Flynn, San Diego State started out 26-0, and it was no fluke. The Aztecs annihilated Creighton 83-52 in November and beat Iowa by double digits one night later. They also had an early true road win over BYU that just kept looking better and better as the season progressed. All but three of those 26 wins were by a margin of at least nine points, as they were barely even challenged until late February.
Similar to Gonzaga's run to the national championship game in 2017, San Diego State's journey was propelled by three former transfers. Flynn came from Washington State, KJ Feagin started at Santa Clara and Yanni Wetzell losing his final 20 games at Vanderbilt before winning his first 26 at San Diego State might have been the most incredible subplot of the season.
They left teams that had no hope of reaching the NCAA tournament, banded together and created a squad that could've won the whole shebang.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
After a bit of a run on teams that might have been No. 1 seeds, we conclude the team portion of our discussion with one team that could have been one heck of a Cinderella story.
Stephen F. Austin already did get its huge moment in the spotlight, upsetting Duke in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November. Aside from Chaminade beating Virginia in 1982, that may have been the most shocking upset in regular-season history. (And, no, I haven't forgotten about Kentucky losing at home to an Evansville team that ended up losing its final 19 games of the season.)
But the Lumberjacks weren't finished. They had won their last 15 games and they were ready to throw a wrench into a lot of brackets with their extremely aggressive style of play.
Per KenPom, SFA ranked top three in the nation in steal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebound percentage and free-throw rate. They also ranked bottom three in offensive turnover percentage and were in the bottom five percent in defensive free-throw rate.
It's pretty similar to what "Press Virginia" did from 2015 to '18 with Jevon Carter running the show, except Stephen F. Austin might have been a better shooting team. Its percentages were certainly better, though it's hard to know how much of that was a product of playing a laughably weak schedule overall. But there's no question the Lumberjacks could hit open jumpers, and they were going to put up one heck of a fight to get back their misses.
Maybe they would have lost in the first round, but this was the one team in the projected Nos. 12-15 seed range that legitimately could've made a run to the Elite Eight. And all of the "Stone Cold" Steve Austin memes along the way would've been amazing.
A Few Individuals
In addition to those eight teams, here are eight players from other squads who could have led legendary runs in the NCAA tournament.
Vernon Carey Jr., Duke: Carey's per-game numbers never jumped off the page, but he only played 24.5 minutes on average. At a per-40 rate, he was putting up 28.6 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. Ten years ago, he would've been a potential No. 1 pick. Hard to believe he might not even go in the first round, but such is life with threes all the rage.
Anthony Edwards, Georgia: The Bulldogs certainly weren't going to get into the Big Dance without winning the SEC tournament, but the potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft might have been able to carry them to that type of miracle. While you're starved for live sports, do yourself a favor and spend 10 minutes watching Edwards try to single-handedly bring Georgia back from a 28-point second-half deficit against Michigan State.
Luka Garza, Iowa: Defense likely would have kept Iowa from even reaching the second weekend of the tournament, but Garza would have done his darnedest to help the offense keep pace. He scored at least 20 points in 25 of 31 games, averaging 23.9 and 9.8 rebounds. He's the only player on this list we can realistically say this about, but don't be surprised if Garza comes back and does more of the same next year.
Markus Howard, Marquette: Howard led the nation in scoring at 27.8 points per game, and that number was still going up when the regular season ended. He put up at least 30 points in each of his final five games, and you can rest assured that he was going to take at least 20 shots per game for however long Marquette's tournament run lasted.
Myles Powell, Seton Hall: Powell's efficiency left much to be desired, but there aren't many players in recent memory who could take over a game at the drop of the hat quite like this guy. His 37-point performance against Michigan State may have been the best individual performance of the season—particularly because we didn't even think he was going to play due to an ankle injury.
Payton Pritchard, Oregon: Pritchard was roughly four games away from reaching 5,000 minutes and 2,000 points in his college career. Factoring in the Pac-12 tournament, that means he would have gotten there in the first weekend of what likely would have been a multiple-weekend tournament run. Experienced guards are key in March, and no one had more experience than this Duck.
Jalen Smith, Maryland: Got to love a double-double machine who blocks shots and makes threes. "Stick" Smith is the total package, and everyone had been expecting good things from Maryland since the moment we learned he was returning for a sophomore season. He and senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. could have led the Terps to the Final Four.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State: The consensus preseason national player of the year didn't have quite the season we were anticipating, though that was largely because he didn't have much help aside from Xavier Tillman for the first two-thirds of the season. But the Spartans were hitting their peak at the right time and Winston was ready to get back to the Final Four for the second consecutive year.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.