The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, dubbed “March Madness,” is one of the staples of the sports calendar and is also one of the major sporting events that COVID-19 wiped away.
Unlike other sports, such as the NBA and NHL (seasons that will presumably resume at some point in 2020), March Madness was canceled with no chance of being played at a later date. However, this hasn’t stopped speculation on how the tournament would have played out. The big question is, who would have won the NCAA Championship in 2020? Anyone who follows this tournament knows that this can be one of the most unpredictable sporting events there is, and without even having an official bracket, picking a winner becomes even more difficult. Nonetheless, given some patterns from the past and the information we had about this year’s field, I would like to make the case for one team above all others that I believe had the best chance to win the championship in 2020.
Before analyzing each team, I wanted to look back at the past five years to see what kind of patterns emerged. Of the 20 Final Four teams, 15 were top-three seeds. Of the 10 teams to make the national championship, seven were one-seeds and none were below a three-seed. Of the last five champions, four were one-seeds, with the exception coming in 2016, when second-seeded Villanova took down first-seeded North Carolina on a buzzer-beater in a wild game.
Looking just at these teams, it becomes clear that despite the unpredictability, top-three seeds are extremely well represented in the later days of the tournament. There are exceptions, notably in 2014 (the year prior to my research), when seventh-seeded Connecticut took down eighth-seeded Kentucky in one of the most unlikely national championship matchups of all time. Because of this, I wanted to focus on all the top-three seeds, as well as a few dark horse teams that I believe had a chance to shock the world and have a deep run. Based on the latest version of Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, the one-seeds would have been Kansas, Baylor, Dayton, and Gonzaga. The two-seeds would have been Kentucky, San Diego State, Florida State, and Creighton. The three-seeds would have been Duke, Seton Hall, Michigan State, and Villanova. The sleeper teams I would also like to focus on are projected four-seed Maryland, projected four-seed Wisconsin, projected five-seed Ohio State, and projected six-seed BYU.
The next threshold a true contender must reach is having an identity as a great offensive or defensive team. There were many balanced teams that made the Final Four in the past five years, but the ten teams that reached the championship game all had one thing in common: they were top 15 in the nation in either points scored or points allowed per game. Of the ten teams to lose in the Final Four, only 2 were top 15 in one of these categories. It is pretty incredible that all ten finalists shared this feature, while only two of those to fall just short had it. A team that is above average at both can have a great tournament run, such as Michigan State in 2019. The Spartans were 59th in offense, 33rd in defense, but the lack of being elite on one end may have been their downfall in the Final Four. Thus, I would like to delete from my list any team that was not top 15 in either category. That removes Kentucky, Florida State, Creighton, Seton Hall, Michigan State, Villanova, Ohio State, and Maryland from contention.
Now begins the hardest part, using subjective reasoning to choose a winner from my elite eight of Kansas, Baylor, Dayton, Gonzaga, San Diego State, Duke, Wisconsin, and BYU.
San Diego State had the third-best defense in the nation this year, Malachi Flynn was their offensive star, but there are some red flags with them. They lacked size, didn’t have a good strength of schedule, and lost two of their last six games; their only losses of the year.
Baylor also had a top 10 defense, but this team was undersized and has become a team notorious for faltering in the tournament. They had a great year, but were absolutely on upset alert heading into March.
Duke had tons of star power, but they weren’t consistent enough throughout the year to make a deep run. They were only 7-4 in 10-point games. They finished the season going 3-3. They had bad losses to Stephen F. Austin, Clemson and Wake Forest. To win a championship, you have to win six games against all kinds of opponents. This team had the talent to do it, but I don’t believe they were consistent enough throughout the year to put together the six wins necessary to win the championship.
Wisconsin is the hardest team for me to eliminate here. They were hot heading into the tournament, winning their last eight games. They were an older team, had great balance on offense, but ultimately, they lacked a star to carry them into the Final Four. Their lead scorer Nate Reuvers is 6’11 but shot only 45% from the field. In crunch time, I don’t know who could have gotten the tough buckets needed to win a tight game. Thus, bracket allowing, my Final Four this year would have been Dayton, Gonzaga, Kansas, and BYU.
Kansas was the number one team in the nation, and likely the most popular pick to win it all. However, I do not believe that they had what it takes to win six games in the tournament. They had a top 100 offense and the 10th ranked defense anchored by Udoka Azubuike, and are a perennially great team due to huge influxes of talent and a great coaching staff. However, they have made only one Final Four in the last five years, despite consistently being a top two seed. Their backcourt is heralded as one of the best in the nation, but lead scorer Devon Dotson shot only 31% from deep and the whole offense struggled to be efficient. In many games, Azubuike was enough of a raw talent to carry them to victory, but in a tight game in March, I believe that this team would’ve fallen prey to their offensive woes.
BYU was the best shooting team in the nation, were one of the older teams in the nation, and had star power in the form of Jake Toolson and Yoeli Childs. The Cougars accounted for one of Gonzaga’s two losses, and had “Cinderella” written all over them. With three players shooting over 45% from beyond the arc, BYU had the offensive firepower to take down any opponent. However, as is practically always the case with the darling upset team of the tournament, their run was likely to come to an end short of raising the trophy.
Dayton had an incredible year, losing only two games. They have Obi Toppin, who very well could have been the best player in the 2020 tournament. They also had an extremely easy strength of schedule and went 20-0 to close the season. Sometimes, losing games and playing in tough games really benefits a team down the stretch in March. It is hard to point to flaws in this team, but ultimately, I think that Dayton was doomed to repeat the woes that Gonzaga has suffered as a weak-scheduled 1 seed the previous three seasons.
This leads me to the very same team in Gonzaga. Over the last four seasons, Gonzaga has lost a total of 13 games. This would have been the fourth straight year the Zags were first seeds, falling each of the previous years with 2017 being their only trip to the Final Four, a year in which they lost in the championship game. I believe that this year was finally the year Gonzaga would break through and get Coach Mark Few a title. They had the number one offense in the nation, experienced players that knew what it felt like to be a tournament team with huge expectations and the size and versatility to deal with any team in front of them. I firmly believe that the 2019 version of this team had more talent, the 2017 version had more expectations, but that this 2020 Gonzaga team would be the one to finally win the whole thing.
Anything can happen in March, including a complete cancellation due to a global pandemic, but this March, I believe it was the Gonzaga Bulldogs who would have been crowned NCAA champions.