By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
It’s late March. We should be preparing for the Sweet 16 right now. We should be preparing for an epic, four-day stretch of 12 games to decide four regional champions and ultimately determine this year’s Final Four.
Instead, we’re left to wonder what could’ve been. Which schools could’ve met in Atlanta. Which bubble teams would’ve heard their names called last weekend. Which mid-major programs that survived and advanced through their conference tournaments would have their place solidified in the tournament field.
So which schools missed out the most? Which favorites really could’ve cashed in on a chance to make a strong run and what underdogs could’ve lasted beyond the opening weekend? It seemed appropriate to acknowledge some of the schools that legitimately lost a shot at a cornerstone year for their program.
The Dukes, Kansases and Kentuckys of the college hoops world were excluded from this conversation. Those teams have chances to win titles much more frequently than the ones you’ll see on this list.
Honorable Mention: Baylor
Yes, Baylor’s a Big 12 school, but one that has always been overshadowed by Kansas. Throw in a national title game appearance for Texas Tech last season and the Bears find themselves without much opportunity within its own league, let alone on a national stage. Scott Drew got a lot out of his team this year. Baylor won a Big 12 record 23 games in a row this season before losing to the Jayhawks at home and finished No. 4 in the Coaches Poll.
While Kansas would’ve likely been the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Bears were still in good shape to receive a No. 1 seed of their own. Baylor had not been to the Final Four since 1950, the Elite Eight since 2012 and only has four Sweet 16 appearances in school history, all under Drew (the tournament only fielded eight teams until 1951).
The Bluejays were picked to finish seventh in the Big East preseason poll. Creighton responded by finishing seventh in the final AP Poll along with winning a share of the Big East regular season title. Sophomore Marcus Zegarowski was fantastic, averaging 16 points and 5 assists per game while shooting 42% from 3-point range. His knee injury at the end of the regular season might’ve hampered Creighton’s chances at a big NCAA Tournament run, but the Bluejays were set to receive a No. 2 seed last weekend.
Greg McDermott was named the Big East Coach of the Year, Zegarowski was an honorable mention on the AP All-American team, and Creighton was two tournament wins away from reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974 and only the fourth time in school history. With four players averaging double figures, Creighton finished the season ranked third in the nation in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.
In 2019 Rutgers went 14-17 and finished 78th in the KenPom rankings. This year the Scarlett Knights went 20-11, won four games against ranked opponents and finished 50 spots higher in the overall KenPom rankings and sixth in defensive efficiency. Steve Pikiell finished dead last in the Big Ten in each of his first two years in Piscataway. Now, in his fourth season, he elevated Rutgers to a top five finish and turned The RAC into one of the toughest places to play in college basketball with a 18-1 record at home.
The notable namesake on the team is Ron Harper Jr., who led Rutgers with 12.1 points per game, but the Scarlett Knights had a fairly deep rotation with nine players averaging 12 minutes per game or more. I don’t know if this team would’ve necessarily made a deep run, but it would’ve been the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1991. That drought—the longest active one among power conference schools—unfortunately continues with this year’s tournament being axed.
3. San Diego State
The Aztecs have never been to the Elite Eight. They were a No. 2 seed in 2011, but lost to UConn in the Sweet 16. They were a No. 4 seed in 2014, but were bounced by Arizona in the same round. San Diego State was likely looking at a No. 2 seed after losing to Utah State in the Mountain West Conference tournament final.
The MWC isn’t the strongest conference, but the non conference schedule showed this team could compete with anyone. Wins over BYU, Iowa and Creighton—all away from home—generated some buzz for the Aztecs before the turn of the calendar year, then the conversation flipped to whether this team could go undefeated.
It’s a tough break for San Diego State because of what it’s losing from this year’s team. K.J. Feagin and Yanni Wetzell are both gone, and leading scorer Malachi Flynn could test the NBA waters. The Aztecs finished sixth in KenPom and the final AP Poll, and fourth in the NET rankings.
2. Seton Hall
The Pirates hadn’t been to the Elite Eight since 1991. This season Seton Hall won its first conference regular season title since 1993 and was expected to be either a No. 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Led by AP All-American Myles Powell, Seton Hall had a balanced team that could score (78-70 win at then-No. 5 Butler) and grind out defensive wins (52-48 win at home over then-No. 7 Maryland without Powell in the lineup).
When Kevin Willard took over the program in 2010, the Pirates hadn’t been to the tournament since 2006. It wasn’t until Willard’s sixth season that he finally got Seton Hall to the big dance, and it went in four consecutive seasons, but never made it through the first weekend. This would’ve been Willard’s fifth straight trip to the tournament and the Pirates were primed to make it at least to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades.
What else can one say about this team? Obi Toppin was the only unanimous AP All-American named this year, the Flyers lost just two games all season, and both of those were on neutral courts in overtime to Kansas and Colorado. This team was so much more than just Toppin, however. Jalen Crutcher averaged 15 points per game and shot 42% from 3. Trey Landers averaged 10.5 points and nearly seven boards per game while shooting 56% from the field. Ibi Watson averaged double figures coming off the bench. It almost wasn’t fair to the rest of the Atlantic 10 that Dayton was this good. This team would’ve won the SEC this year.
Dayton made a run to the Elite Eight in 2014. That’s the only time in the last 35 years the Flyers have even been to the Sweet 16. That 2014 squad was an 11-seed and the Elite Eight obviously shattered expectations. The Elite Eight would’ve been the floor for Dayton this year. The Flyers finished No. 3 in the final AP Poll, No. 4 in KenPom and No. 3 in the NET.
Anthony Grant’s team had the second most efficient offense in the country, per KenPom and was ranked 38th in defensive efficiency. Since the KenPom era began in 2002, every national champion has been ranked in the top 20 in both of those categories. If there was one team that could’ve bucked the trend this year, my vote would’ve gone to this team.
Landers and forward Ryan Mikesell will graduate after this season. Toppin, who averaged 20 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season is expected to be a top-five pick in the NBA Draft this summer. Dayton won’t have a chance like this for who knows how long. A real shame for a school that’s waited more than 50 years since its last Final Four appearance.