The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still felt strongly throughout the entire world, and the state of Michigan in particular has been hit quite hard. We’ve been without live sports for the most part for, well, who even knows how long at this point. Of course, one of the first major shutdowns caused by the virus was the 2020 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
This week at SB Nation, the discussion is focused on “What if?” For me, what immediately comes to mind in relation to the Michigan State Spartans is “What if the 2019-2020 NCAA Tournament was played?” For those of you who participated in SB Nation Reacts (formerly known as FanPulse) this week, you would have seen a similar question.
Looking back on MSU’s season, I think the cliché phrase of a “roller coaster ride” is actually most fitting here. To recap:
- The Spartans entered the preseason as the No. 1 team in Associated Press for the first time in program history.
- Joshua Langford, who missed the majority of the 2018-2019 season due to a foot injury and was expected to be healthy for the 2019-2020 season, was ruled out indefinitely after he suffered a setback with the foot. He did not end up playing a single game this past season.
- Transfer Joey Hauser was denied an NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility, which would have been fine and dandy if the NCAA were ever consistent on its decisions regarding transfer athletes.
- Michigan State dropped its opening game of the season to a very good Kentucky Wildcats team in the Champions Classic.
- A few days later, tragedy struck, and quite frankly, everything was turned upside down. Zachary Winston, brother of Michigan State’s star point guard Cassius Winston, committed suicide. While obviously this took an incredible toll on Cassius, physically, mentally and emotionally, the effects were felt by every player, coach and staffer in the program as Zachary was looked at as family by everyone involved.
- Cassius Winston decided to play the next day against Binghamton, dropping 17 points and 11 assists in 26 minutes. This would become Michigan State’s first win of the season.
- Next, MSU got a huge win on the road against Myles Powell and No. 12 Seton Hall in the Gavitt Tip-Off Games.
- A couple games later, Michigan State lost its first game of the Maui Invitational against Virginia Tech.
- After wins against Georgia and UCLA, the Spartans were embarrassed on their home court by the Duke Blue Devils by a score of 87-75.
- Michigan State found it stride and won eight games in a row. MSU began Big Ten conference play with a 5-0 record, including a victory over the rival Michigan Wolverines.
- The Spartans then get obliterated on the road by the Purdue Boilermakers by a score of 71-42. Road games were somewhat of a struggle all season long.
- MSU bounced back with a 12-point victory over the Wisconsin Badgers, as Cassius Winston broke not only the school record, by the Big Ten record for career assists.
- Michigan State then lost four of its next six games, including defeats at the hands of Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan
- The Spartans respond with a one-point road victory over Illinois, but then collapsed in the next game at home against Maryland.
- Following the loss to the Terps, MSU went on a five-game winning streak to end the season, including revenge wins on the road over both Penn State and Maryland. The Spartans defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes at home in the final regular season game.
- After defeating the Buckeyes, Michigan State earned a share of the Big Ten title. This was the third straight season the Spartans won at least a share of the conference championship.
- Later, the Big Ten announced no fans would be allowed in the stands for the conference tournament, and the NCAA also announced no fans in the stands for March Madness.
- Shortly after that, the Big Ten completely canceled its conference tournament.
- Just hours after the Big Ten’s announcement, the NCAA canceled its national tournament. The 2019-2020 season was over just like that.
Of course, there are other things to mention when reflecting on the season for this squad, such as the incredibly slow start for true freshman Rocket Watts, who we later found out was dealing with a foot injury. There was the absolutely insane amount of injuries Kyle Ahrens dealt with both this past season and throughout his career. Then there was birth of Xavier Tillman’s second child. Perhaps most importantly, MSU assistant coach Mike Garland dealt with a family emergency of his own, as his son, Ray, underwent heart surgery in January. This of course forced Garland to take some time away from the team.There was a lot going on with this program, and plenty of things behind closed doors we have no idea about.
The point of this article, though, is what do we think would have happened had the tournament been played? I can’t say for certain that head coach Tom Izzo would have brought home his second championship. I can, however, say with confidence that the Spartans were primed to make another patented deep-run in March.
Think about all of the adversity this Michigan State team faced. When I sit here and recap all of this, and I recall how frustrating it was to watch at certain points when such a talented team didn’t always come through, it’s actually pretty amazing what this team was able to accomplish — a third-straight Big Ten championship, in arguably the toughest conference in college basketball.
The team was playing its best, and most-inspired, basketball in the final five games of the season. During that winning streak, MSU outscored its opponents by a combined 60 points (plus-12 points per game) and won each game by at least eight points. Collectively, the team shot better than 50 percent form the floor during this span, while holding opponents to just 39.3 percent. The Spartans out-rebounded its foes during the win streak by a margin of plus-37, or by about 7.4 rebounds per game.
Overall on the season, statistically speaking, the Spartans ranked fairly high in just about every major category. The team was particularly strong in defensive categories:
- Plus-11.2 scoring margin (first in Big Ten, 16th in NCAA)
- .379 field goal percentage defense (first in Big Ten, fourth in NCAA)
- .287 Three-point field goal percentage defense (first in Big Ten, ninth in NCAA)
- 40.6 rebounds per game (first in Big Ten, ninth in NCAA)
- 156 blocked shots (five blocks per game) (first in Big Ten, 15th in NCAA)
- 17.7 assists per game (first in Big Ten, second in NCAA)
- 1.41 assists to turnover ratio (tied first in Big Ten, 10th in NCAA)
- Plus 7.5 rebound margin per game (tied first in Big Ten, 11th in NCAA)
- 75.9 points per game (second in Big Ten, 50th in NCAA)
- .750 free throw percentage (third in Big Ten, 50th in NCAA)
- .461 field goal percentage (second in Big Ten, 50th in NCAA)
- .348 three-point field goal percentage (third in Big Ten, 97th in NCAA)
- 64.7 points allowed (sixth in Big Ten, 51st in NCAA)
Then there’s Winston, who gave his all to this program for four years. He dealt with incredible sorrow this season, worked his way through it as best he could and led his team every single day. With Zachary in his heart, Winston was going to do everything in his power to win a national championship, and you can’t convince me otherwise. Other seniors like Ahrens and George would have put in the same kind of effort, while players like Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry — who have now declared for the NBA Draft and may to return to school — could have also looked at it as their last chance at a championship as well. The team would have rallied together and tried to win a title for Zachary and Langford, their injured leader.
I’m not Nostradamus, but with the way this team was playing at the end of the season, and Izzo’s track record in March, I would have comfortably taken the Spartans in just about any bet. Give me Michigan State versus any team in the country during the NCAA tournament. Bring on the rematches with Duke and Kentucky, or give me a matchup with Kansas, Gonzaga, San Diego State or Dayton. Any team, any time, any place.
Plus, MSU was crowned champion in several tournament simulations, so while I may be a bit of a homer, this team was most definitely a national champion favorite in the eyes of college basketball pundits throughout the country.
What if the NCAA Tournament would have been played? What do you think would have happened? Let me know in the comments section.
Update: The majority of you agree with me. Here is the SB Nation Reacts data.
- First weekend - zero percent
- Sweet Sixteen - three percent
- Elite Eight - eight percent
- Final Four - 35 percent
- National Champs - 54 percent