The passion and ingenuity of sports fans know no bounds, even amidst a national crisis.
With little to do except tend to housebound family members and fret about the coronavirus, college basketball fans can’t let the 2020 season go. What they really can’t do is let the potential heroics of their favorite teams in the NCAA Tournament disappear into history.
Consider what Brian Rauf did with a few hours of his time last week. On the eve of what should have been the tip-off of the NCAAs, the Raleigh, N.C., man dusted off his College Hoops 2K8 video game (Greg Oden on the cover) and decided to simulate the 2020 March Madness tournament. Don’t ask how this is done. That’s way above my geek level.
But the results of Rauf’s simulation will excite many hoop fans glued to their couches in Rhode Island. His Final Four: Kansas, Oregon, Michigan and Providence.
“Their defense carried them,” said Rauf, who writes for BustingBrackets.com. “The way their season ended, they were hot and playing really, really well. Especially on defense.”
That Providence defense locked up Colorado in an eight vs. nine seed game and then led the way in a major upset, an 80-67 win over one-seeded Baylor. Blowout wins over BYU and Illinois punched the Friars’ ticket to the Final Four. National title hopes ended in a tight, 73-71 heart-breaker against the Ducks.
Ah, PC fans can only dream.
On the eve of what would have been the Sweet 16 this weekend, let’s stay on that what-might-have-been path. A reader emailed this week and asked what teams in the Big East, if not the country, had the most to lose by the sudden end to the college hoop season. Well, the easy answer to top that list is clearly the Dayton Flyers. No program, no fandom will rue the effects of the coronavirus more than UD. With a once-in-a-generation player in Obi Toppin leading the way and Jalen Crutcher and Trey Landers riding shotgun, the Flyers (29-2) were legitimate national championship contenders.
Around the country top-seeded Kansas was the favorite to cut the nets down in Atlanta. Among the top six basketball conferences, Kansas (16), Wisconsin (8) and Virginia (8) were the only teams with longer winning streaks than the Friars’ six-game run.
But while the Jayhawks and Cavaliers don’t need another Final Four or national title to burnish their national cache, programs like Wisconsin and Providence certainly do. Wise Friar fans will sit back and give plenty of deserved credit to Ed Cooley and his staff for the job they did this season. Some will even insist that this was Cooley’s best job, rescuing a 6-6 shipwreck and finding a path to a school record 12 Big East victories and what would have been a sixth NCAA bid in seven seasons.
“I go back to being down 30 (to Florida) in Brooklyn. Those were some long, sleepless nights. That was rough,” Cooley said late in the season. “Divine Providence, you have to believe a little bit.”
Cooley has accomplished much in his nine seasons. He likes to credit the entire Providence College “team” for the big crowds at The Dunk, the building of the Ruane Center on campus and the other financial advancements that have pushed the program into the national picture.
That’s all legitimate, but it all starts with winning. He and his staff are recruiting at a level that gives them a chance in the Big East, but it’s hard. So is scratching out road wins against other NCAA-bound teams like Butler and Marquette and Villanova.
But the chink in Cooley’s resumé is a glaring lack of NCAA tourney success. One win in five trips is a mixed message. Five trips (six counting this season) means the Friars are consistently in the mix and that’s such a welcome development for a program that was lost at sea before the reconfiguration of the Big East. No one should ever take getting to the NCAA’s for granted. Just ask DePaul. Or Georgetown, for that matter.
Even so, the blockade to pushing the program to that next level, the one where top-flight recruits feel it’s OK to say yes to Cooley and Providence’s “brand,” is the next step. That’s what damaged recruiting efforts last fall.
An NCAA tourney run, a Sweet 16, would help puncture that ceiling. This March could have offered that opening but now Friar fans are left to wonder when the next chance will come along.
On Twitter: @KevinMcNamara33