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2020 is the first year since 1938 that didn’t end with a definitive college basketball men’s national champ. The game introduced a tournament in 1939, and it didn’t skip a beat for 81 years, until the coronavirus pandemic canceled or postponed all major college and pro seasons.
Plenty of college sports fans will be content to not crown a champion at all, given the seriousness of the situation that led to March Madness’ cancelation in the first place.
But this is still the college sports internet, and many people (who are wisely avoiding as many crowded spaces as possible) currently have nothing better to do than discuss sports that have already happened. Lots of the fans that have argued for generations over football’s real national champions are passionate about basketball, too.*
*OK, maybe not you, Nebraska fans.
So let this be a guide from me – a person who’s spent far too much time in the recesses of the college football internet – to any hoops fan trying to figure out how to award a national title at the end of a season cut short. Choose whichever of these adventures you like.
The #1 ranking claim
Kansas finished the season, such as it was, ranked #1 in both the AP and Coaches Polls. This is the most straightforward option, and it’s the basis for decades’ worth of football claims.
The retention claim
In wrestling (and in 1880s college football), you keep the belt until someone takes it from you. Given that nobody has won the national title since Virginia, the Hoos could just say it’s still theirs.
The computer claim
For teams that finish #1 in some advanced analytics system, like Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, BPI, or Sagarin. Also lots of football precedent here, even decades after the fact. Kansas is #1 in all the most popular of these.
The “lost the fewest games” claim
This was the basis for UCF claiming football’s title in 2017, despite football having a playoff and that playoff not including UCF. Did UCF’s claim make the playoff winner furious? Sure did! Did UCF care? Sure didn’t! Do you know something else UCF didn’t do in 2017? Lose any games.
In 2019-20, Gonzaga, Dayton, and San Diego State each lost two games, tied for the fewest in Division I. If they want to holler about how they were the least prolific losers and claim the title based on that, can anyone really tell them no? Avoiding losses is, after all, usually the key.
The winning-percentage claim
A little tricky given the different numbers of games played against varying competition levels, but sensible. Gonzaga went 31-2 (.939). All it took for the Zags to finally get over the championship hump was for nobody else to play.
The head-to-head argument
Games between the #1 and #2 teams used to be a key factor in hashing out football national champs. Football’s last century has had a handful of GAMES OF THE CENTURY, and some of the winners rode the wave all the way to title claims before the sport had a playoff.
2020’s basketball season didn’t have a 1 vs. 2 game at the end, but it had something close. When the season was canceled, Kansas was #1, and Baylor was #5. Those teams played twice, and those were the highest-ranked matchups of the season. They split the series 1-1, but Baylor won the combined point differential, 128-119.
These Baylor-Kansas games were the closest thing to the kind of best-on-best matchup a national championship game would provide. By coming out marginally ahead, Baylor has a case.
The “won the hardest conference” claim
Imagine if COVID-19 had come during the football season, and the many yellow blazer-clad bowl execs who run the sport agreed to nix the postseason.
You know legions of SEC fans would anoint whoever won (or was leading) that conference at the time, because It Just Means More to be 7-1 in the SEC than to be 8-0 in the ACC.
Given this alternative reality, Big Ten co-champs Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Maryland could each claim shares. The B1G was going to put 10 or even 11 teams in the Dance and had an incredible 11 of the top 30 in Pomeroy’s ratings. It turns out that the most impressive championships any team won in 2020 were those in the Big Ten.
Did I just make this up because I went to Maryland? So what if I did?
The “won the last game of the year” claim
Generally, the team that wins the last game wins the championship. In 2020, that was Washington State, which beat Colorado 82-68 late on March 11, the last day of completed games. Congrats to the Pac-12’s #11 seed, which went 16-16, on its national title.
The “was winning the last game of the year” claim
St. John’s was leading Creighton at halftime in the Big East Tournament on March 12. The conference thought better of things and canceled the tournament at that point. Winning the last game (as opposed to having won the last game) presents its own championship case. (Note: In the email version of this post, I mixed these up and said Creighton was winning. The only solution is to award both teams the title.)
The “we personally ended the season” claim
The pandemic was going to stop the tournament eventually, but the first domino that made it feel inevitable was Duke announcing shortly before 2 p.m. ET on March 12 that it wouldn’t participate in any athletic events indefinitely. The NCAA was never going to end up actually going through with March Madness, but the Blue Devils were more decisive than anyone in the final outcome. Two and a half hours later, the NCAA announced championship cancelations.
The “awarded some certificate by a government with way bigger things to worry about at the time” claim, which is the most college sports claim of all
The Florida senate awarded Florida State the title. Time well spent!
The “won 30 games and was not a front for a university president who uses the veneer of religion to enrich himself and his friends” claim
Congrats to East Tennessee State, San Diego State, and Gonzaga. This is such a broad set of criteria that I can’t imagine any particular schools would have beef about it.
The Alabama claim
Bama has no actual case, but that hasn’t stopped the Tide before.