If not for the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation, this past weekend likely would have featured the most surprising and balanced opening weekend in recent NCAA tournament history.
A quick look at Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology shows what could have been: Dayton as a one seed, San Diego State on the two line, a surging BYU team rising to a six seed, all while NCAA tournament mainstays North Carolina and Purdue would have missed the tournament altogether.
This parity was pervasive since the season tipped off in November. Top-15 teams Duke and Kentucky lost to Stephen F. Austin and Evansville respectively, former No. 1 Ohio State lost six of its first eight in the Big Ten, and UCLA finished second in the Pac-12 after a dismal 7-6 start.
And even after cancellations cascaded across the basketball landscape, fans still held out hope that a bracket would be released, allowing for months of theorizing and postulating before the season begins anew in the fall.
These hopes were dashed by an announcement from NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt, who declared after days of deliberation, that the committee would not construct a bracket.
“There is not an authentic way to produce tournament fields and brackets at this point without speculating, and that isn’t fair to the teams that would be positively or negatively impacted by manufacturing March Madness,” Gavitt said.
Given that nearly the entire college basketball season had been played and a majority of the one-bid conferences had completed its tournaments, the notion that releasing a bracket would be too speculative seems ridiculous to me.
If the NCAA ultimately rules that seniors are ineligible for another season of play, which will likely be the case, it feels doubly cruel to deprive these players of the recognition they have earned this year
Gavitt’s decision ignores the importance of an NCAA tournament appearance to many schools across the nation. Gators Twitter was nearing DEFCON-1 at the prospect of a yearlong NCAA drought, but many schools around the nation were on the cusp of reaching the tournament for the first time in decades.
Rutgers was considered a virtual lock for the tournament, which would have marked its first tournament appearance since 1991. Penn State was comfortably projected toward its first selection since 2011, and Richmond likely would have ended a drought of the same length.
Recognition of success is particularly important to programs of this nature. With the threat of losing players to graduation and the NBA Draft, schools without consistently elite recruiting struggle to maintain continued prosperity.
Dayton will likely be without three of its top five scorers next season after its sensational 29-3 campaign — two are graduating seniors and high-flyer Obi Toppin is currently projected to be a lottery pick.
Penn State will lose its two senior leaders, Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens, and will likely struggle to return to the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
For these programs and many more, where a tournament selection means so much and success is so rare, and for the fans who are starved of any college basketball content, they are right to take exception to the NCAA’s decision.
Follow Declan Walsh on Twitter @dawalsh_UF. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Official March Madness 2020 tournament basketballs are seen in a store room at the CHI Health Center Arena, in Omaha, Neb., Monday, March 16, 2020. Omaha was to host a first and second round in the NCAA college basketball Division I tournament, which was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.