- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Thursday should mark one of the busiest, most delightful days of the sports calendar, where hardcore and casual hoops fans alike hastily flip between watching games and checking bracket pools to see if they got that 12-5 upset correct.

Instead of the NCAA Tournament’s round of 64 tipping off, the last remnant of the coronavirus-shortened college basketball season was Wednesday’s final Associated Press men’s basketball poll, in which the Maryland Terrapins remained ranked No. 12 and the Virginia Cavaliers moved up one spot to No. 16.

The NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s tournaments last week in response to COVID-19 spreading across the U.S. No 68-team tournament will crown a national champion and no mid-major will get a chance to make a Cinderella run.

The NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball said hypothetical brackets would not be released for fans’ enjoyment because he felt they would be incomplete without the final results of canceled conference tournaments. So Wednesday’s rankings served as the last indication of how the best teams in the country stacked up.

Kansas finished ranked No. 1, followed by mid-majors Gonzaga and Dayton, who each had excellent seasons cut short. Florida State and Baylor rounded out the top five.

On Monday, Kansas coach Bill Self said the Jayhawks would be glad to be considered de facto national champions in the absence of a tournament. The NCAA has made no such announcement as of Wednesday.

“I would think, from our standpoint, that would be great,” Self said on a conference call. “But even if that occurred, and I don’t think it would, there’d be a huge asterisk on our side and I’d be the first one to admit it.”

The canceled postseason stings for the two biggest programs in the region.

The Terrapins’ best season in five years — and guard Anthony Cowan’s senior campaign — ended prematurely.

Maryland ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation at one point this season and won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time.

The Terrapins held the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and likely would have been seeded as a No. 3 or No. 4 for March Madness depending on how things went at the conference tournament.

“We know we had a really good team, we know that we could’ve maybe done something — could’ve lost in the first round, could’ve advanced to the Final Four, who knows,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said on a conference call. “We’ll never know.”

It’s especially hard on Cowan, who withdrew from last year’s NBA draft to return as a senior and try to lead Maryland to postseason glory.

“I don’t know if, (for) Anthony, if it’s really hit him yet that it’s over,” Turgeon said. “I think he was kind of numb the first couple days. He doesn’t really say a lot anyway.”

But the coach added that the regular-season trophy made for “a great storybook ending for (Cowan) and his career.”

With no true national champion in 2020, you might consider Virginia the defending champs for another year.

After winning the 2019 title, the Cavaliers started the season off going in the wrong direction without key starters De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, who’d left for the NBA.

But Virginia bounced back with an eight-game winning streak to end the regular season, including upsets of highly-ranked Duke and Louisville, and wound up tied for second in a weak ACC. Senior forward Mamadi Diakite led the Cavaliers with 13.7 points per game and made second-team All-ACC.

“No one wanted it to end this way, but in light of all the uncertainty and people who would be put at risk, I support and understand the NCAA canceling (the tournament),” Tony Bennett said in a statement last week. “I feel for all the young men and women who had their college careers cut short and the experiences they will miss.”

ESPN’s analytics department on Wednesday published the results of a single simulation of March Madness it conducted using its Basketball Power Index algorithm. Top teams dropped like flies and, believe it or not, both the No. 4 seed Terrapins and No. 6 seed Cavaliers managed to reach the Final Four. Maryland upset the No. 1 seed in its region, Dayton, to do so.

Could that have been possible for real? Unfortunately for the players, especially seniors like Cowan and Diakite, we won’t get to find out.

Below is the final Top 25 until the preseason poll for 2020-21 is revealed next fall:

1. Kansas
2. Gonzaga
3. Dayton
4. Florida State
5. Baylor
6. San Diego State
7. Creighton
8. Kentucky
9. Michigan State
10. Villanova
11. Duke
12. Maryland
13. Oregon
14. Louisville
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Wisconsin
18. BYU
19. Ohio State
20. Auburn
21. Illinois
22. Houston
23. Butler
24. West Virginia
25. Iowa

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