B/R CBB Staff: Who Would Have Won the 2020 Men's National Championship?
Before a pandemic altered sports calendars, the first Monday of April would have brought the national championship for the 2019-20 men's college basketball season.
Forty minutes. Two teams. One Shining Moment on the line.
But as COVID-19 led to the disappointing, yet prudent, decision to call off March Madness, the cancellation also left the basketball world in a state of wonder. Which program would've celebrated a title and cut down the nets in Atlanta?
We're glad you asked.
B/R assembled its panel of experts—David Gardner, David Kenyon, Kerry Miller, Elliott Pohnl and Mike Vernon—to forecast the Big Dance. After randomizing the order, each expert identified a champion. No team could be selected twice. Gardner made the first pick, followed by Miller, Vernon, Pohnl and Kenyon.
David Gardner: Kansas Jayhawks
The NCAA men's basketball tournament is the best postseason in American sports precisely because it's so unpredictable. Most years, if you restarted the Big Dance right after "One Shining Moment," a different team would be cutting down the nets at the end.
In this college basketball season—which saw seven different No. 1 teams—plenty of programs can argue that this would have been their year. But no team has a better argument than Kansas.
The Jayhawks ranked No. 8 in adjusted offensive efficiency and second in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. Kansas was the only school in the country to finish in the top 10 in both categories.
It lost only three games all season; on a neutral court to Duke by two points, at Villanova by one and at home against Baylor by 12. The Bears, by the way, had the longest stretch as the No. 1 team in the nation—until they were knocked off by Kansas in a revenge game in late February.
The most important element in surviving March is coming in hot and staying that way. For the last two weeks of the regular season, Kansas was the unanimous No. 1 team in both polls. With the high-low combo of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks would have rolled to Atlanta and brought back a banner.
Kerry Miller: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Kansas was the best team this season. No sense in trying to deny that fact. But one important thing I always look for when trying to find a national champion in my crystal ball is quality depth, and no one can compete with Gonzaga in that category.
(Plus, how often does the best team win the NCAA tournament? Like, 30 percent of the time?)
The Zags lost all four of their leading scorers from 2018-19 yet somehow didn't skip a beat on offense, averaging 87.4 points. Six players put up better than 10 points per game, and a seventh (Drew Timme) barely missed the cut at 9.8 PPG. Their defense wasn't the best, but that offense always came to play.
And the kicker: Gonzaga was going to play its first two games of the tournament less than two miles from The Kennel. Idaho was technically hosting the Spokane pod, so the Zags were eligible to play there. While the other No. 1 seeds would've faced a legitimate test in the second round, it was practically a guarantee that Gonzaga would reach the Sweet 16.
Maybe it wouldn't have won the title, but at least I wouldn't have needed to rip up my bracket before the end of the first weekend.
Mike Vernon: Dayton Flyers
Dayton was the best team in the country. Better than Kansas. The Flyers had the Jayhawks beat in Maui earlier this season, save for a miraculous Udoka Azubuike performance buoyed with the Maui Invitational's unusually soft rims.
Dayton led Kansas by eight with under eight minutes left—and controlled much of the game. There is no reason to think that wouldn't happen again if the two teams met in Atlanta.
Argue it all you want, but this much is indisputable: Dayton had the best offense in the country this season, along with the nation's best player in Obi Toppin. Jalen Crutcher is a stud guard who would've given any team that doubled Toppin huge problems. Dayton's defense was strong enough to keep it in games, and its offense would have launched it to win after win.
There are those who think a mid-major can't win a national title. But people also thought the world was flat, alcohol should be illegal and the Wright Brothers were wasting their time.
2020 would've been different. 2020 would've been the Flyers' year. 2020 would've brought the banner to West Ohio.
Elliott Pohnl: Florida State Seminoles
Like most Leonard Hamilton-coached teams, this season's edition of Florida State had a deep roster, tons of length and the ability to lock up any opponent defensively. Also like most Leonard Hamilton-coached teams, the 'Noles sometimes looked like they were playing in a rec league game or auditioning for the And1 Mixtape Tour.
Still, you can't argue with the value of depth and defense at tournament time, a recipe that propelled FSU to its first-ever ACC regular-season title. According to KenPom, FSU had the tallest team in Division I and finished 15th in adjusted defense for the season.
You also need great guard play in March. FSU had that with three tough, versatile players in the backcourt. Devin Vassell is a potential NBA lottery pick, leading the 'Noles in scoring and rebounding. Trent Forrest had the highlight slam of the year and could lock up anyone in the country. M.J. Walker, the X-factor of the group, was capable of getting hot in a hurry.
A year of firsts for Florida State would have been capped off with the school's first berth in the Final Four since 1972—and with Hamilton smiling from ear to ear, cutting down the nets in Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a national champion.
David Kenyon: Michigan State Spartans
Cassius Winston, a two-time All-American point guard, averaged 18.6 points and 5.9 assists while shooting 43.2 percent from three. Xavier Tillman did a little of everything for Michigan State, providing 13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 3.3 combined blocks and steals per game.
They were, without question, MSU's leading players.
But for much of the season, the Spartans needed more than Winston and Tillman. They toiled through some mediocre performances and a five-game stretch with four losses in early February. To really compete for a title, MSU couldn't rely solely on them.
At the perfect moment, however, Aaron Henry and Rocket Watts began to emerge. Henry averaged 12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists over MSU's last five games—all victories—while Watts suddenly broke out and netted 17.8 points per contest in the last four.
Tom Izzo earned the nickname "Mr. March" after the program regularly started to play its best basketball at the end of the season. The 2019-20 campaign looked like a continuation of the trend.