What might have been if the 2020 women’s NCAA tournament had been played

    Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

We will never know what stories the NCAA tournament would have told this year. We won’t know what surprises it would have offered. We can’t know which heroes it would have created.

The NCAA’s decision to cancel its winter and spring championships, a necessary safeguard in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, means that for the first time, March and April won’t provide the answers to a season’s worth of work in women’s college basketball.

Yet for all the twists and turns that were to be expected, the tournament’s absence is almost more difficult to comprehend because of everything we do know we won’t see.

After four months and thousands of games, this was the payoff. For players and coaches. And for fans.

We will never know who would have won, but here is a look at what we know we missed.

Sabrina Ionescu’s ‘unfinished business’

From the moment Ionescu penned a letter last April explaining why she would return for her senior season, the Oregon guard was destined to exert as much control over this basketball season as she does running an offense. She kept checking off the boxes of all that was left unfinished — she became the all-time NCAA leader with 26 career triple-doubles and the first men’s or women’s NCAA player with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. She led the Ducks to another Pac-12 title and remains the favorite to sweep every major player of the year award. On and off the court, she honored the memory of a friend in the aftermath of the January helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna along with seven others.

All that was left was the tournament, two games in Eugene, Oregon, and two more in Portland before a trip to New Orleans and a chance to lead Oregon to its first national championship.

Dawn Staley’s championship double

It looked for all the world like Staley, who already won Olympic gold as a player and an NCAA title as a coach, might pull off the double in one year by coaching South Carolina to another title and the U.S. women to gold in Tokyo. Now she could miss out on both without losing a game in 2020. The Olympics are still on, for now at least, but Staley won’t get to lead the nation’s top-ranked college team into March Madness. That’s an even greater shame for Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the South Carolina seniors who gave their coach two steady sets of hands on the court as a talented young core led by national freshman of the year Aliyah Boston went from potential cornerstones to consistent producers.

IUPUI’s long road to March Madness

We probably don’t know the identities of all the teams that would have made NCAA tournament debuts because 19 conference tournaments were canceled or cut short. But the one we know was a heck of a story. IUPUI was no Cinderella. The Jaguars won the Horizon League regular-season title, then knocked off perennial power Green Bay to win the conference tournament. But that came after a decade-long climb from the absolute bottom of Division I. In the six seasons immediately before Austin Parkinson took over in 2010, around 40 players and staff left the program. The team went 3-26 in the last of those seasons. Building around a lot of local talent, including two-time reigning Horizon League Player of the Year Macee Williams, the Jaguars were the kind of story that makes the first weekend of March Madness so fun.

From Cinderella to hosting the ball

Gonzaga has played plenty of NCAA tournament games in Spokane, Washington — the city and its venues have long been a popular NCAA choice for predetermined sites in the women’s tournament. But the Bulldogs hadn’t ever earned the chance to play at home the way they did this season. No mid-major had since the NCAA reverted to its current format in 2014. Even after a loss in the West Coast Conference title game, Gonzaga appeared likely to earn a top-four seed, and with it the privilege of hosting games in the first and second rounds. That’s no small prize for a team that didn’t lose at home in the regular season. Gonzaga’s chance to host would have been a big deal for all mid-majors, a sign of their growing significance. But it would have been especially sweet for the Zags, who lost a key player to season-ending injury for the second season in a row but saw Jessie Loera, WCC player of the year Jill Townsend and two sets of identical twins in Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong and Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth resolutely carry on.

Baylor’s chance to repeat

Although technically it could still happen in 2021, the Lady Bears didn’t get the opportunity to try to win their second consecutive national championship. UConn, Tennessee and USC are the only programs that have won back-to-back (or more) NCAA titles. Baylor was a projected No. 1 seed, and despite an upset in the regular-season finale at Iowa State, the Lady Bears were expected to win their 11th Big 12 tourney as a springboard into the NCAA tournament. But seniors Lauren Cox and Juicy Landrum and graduate transfer Te’a Cooper — all Baylor starters — instead ended their careers with that unexpected loss to the Cyclones, as the Big 12 was the only one of the Power 5 conferences that hadn’t played its women’s tournament. It was supposed to begin Thursday, the day the news of the NCAA tournament’s cancellation came down. Baylor lost in the Sweet 16 the season after both of its previous NCAA titles, falling as a No. 3 seed to No. 2 Maryland in 2006 and as a No. 1 seed to No. 5 Louisville in 2013. This was also a second missed opportunity for coach Kim Mulkey to win an NCAA title in her home state of Louisiana, with the Final Four in New Orleans, as it was in 2013. — Mechelle Voepel

A vulnerable UConn’s imperiled streak

UConn has come away from the tournament empty-handed in recent seasons, but those Huskies were hardly underdogs in extending the program’s streak to 12 consecutive Final Fours. They just happened to lose in the national semifinals. While likely still headed for a No. 2 seed, this season’s team was downright mortal. There were moments when, instead of rolling your eyes at the perfectionism, you could almost commiserate with coach Geno Auriemma’s bewildered looks after a miscue. That hadn’t happened for more than a decade.

Dominant as ever in its final season in the American Athletic Conference, UConn lost to Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina — and was really only competitive against the Lady Bears. Maybe an already short-handed team losing Kyla Irwin to season-ending injury would have been the final straw, but watching a wounded UConn chase a 13th consecutive Final Four promised drama. And with the news Saturday that leading scorer Megan Walker, a draft-eligible junior, is leaving for the WNBA, we also lost the chance to see if she could take over for the Huskies and lead an NCAA tournament run the way many of her predecessors did.

Chennedy Carter’s potential swan song

Oregon junior Satou Sabally already said she will enter the WNBA draft. Carter hasn’t been quite that definitive about her plans, but most people expect the Texas A&M junior to follow that same path in the weeks ahead. This was an up-and-down season for Carter, who missed seven games, saw her scoring average dip to a career-low 21.3 points per game and couldn’t prevent a three-game losing streak that concluded with a quarterfinal loss in the SEC tournament. But Carter, who scored 30 points in a second-round victory against Marquette in last season’s NCAA tournament and 35 points in a Sweet 16 loss against Notre Dame, was always likely to make a memorable last stand — shooting the Aggies into the later rounds or out of the tournament.

Rhyne Howard’s ascension

The NCAA tournament often sets up seasons to come. Remember Ionescu leading 10th-seeded Oregon to an unlikely regional final as a freshman? Or A’ja Wilson experiencing the disappointment of a Sweet 16 upset loss as a sophomore? That was the space Kentucky’s Howard occupied this month. The nation’s second-leading scorer this season, and the salve for all the turmoil that surrounded the Wildcats not so long ago, Howard might have done something special with a team that Charlie Creme projected as a No. 6 seed — a sweet spot for surprises that allows an underdog to avoid a No. 1 seed for a long time. But long run or early exit, whatever Howard did would have set up one of the sport’s biggest stories next season.

Maryland among its peers

We thought the Big Ten was pretty good this season, deep enough to send more teams to the NCAA tournament than any other league. We knew Maryland was again the class of the conference. After sharing the regular-season title with Northwestern, the Terrapins won all three of their games in the conference tournament by double digits. But let’s be fair, beyond Maryland, the Big Ten doesn’t have the best March track record in recent years. And this Terps team lost its tests out of conference, at NC State and home against South Carolina. Yet after a season of meshing young talent such as freshman Ashley Owusu and sophomore Shakira Austin with Kaila Charles and her senior class, Maryland might have been hitting its stride at the perfect time to carry the Big Ten all the way to New Orleans.

Adia Barnes raising Arizona

Arizona’s most recent NCAA tournament appearance was in 2005. Most of the players on the current team weren’t even alive when the Wildcats made their only Sweet 16 appearance, in 1998. So there isn’t exactly a long legacy of glory in Tucson. But under Barnes, who was the star of that Sweet 16 team and returned as coach in 2016, the Wildcats were not only poised to return to the tournament but host the first two rounds after a fourth-place finish in the rugged Pac-12. With the Wildcats’ surge in attendance this season — they averaged nearly 6,000 fans per home game — the atmosphere for NCAA tournament games at McKale Center would have been special. And not one of Arizona’s big three — Aari McDonald, Cate Reese and Sam Thomas — is a senior (although McDonald is a WNBA draft-eligible junior). Oregon and Oregon State have exhibited staying power as Pac-12 rivals for Stanford. Cal and Washington, on the other hand, couldn’t maintain recent forays into elite status. March would have offered a better look at the path Arizona is most likely to follow.

Chicago renaissance

If only this had happened a year ago, when there was a regional in Chicago. DePaul and Northwestern both appeared poised to earn top-four seeds and the chance to host the first two rounds. That would have been a big deal for DePaul in the final Big East season without UConn and a year after getting upset in the first round by Missouri State. It would have been monumental news for Northwestern, which has been vastly better under Joe McKeown but still had just one NCAA tournament appearance this century to show for it. The Bulls and Blackhawks were awful even before the NBA and NHL hit pause. The Cubs and White Sox don’t start for at least a couple of weeks. March in the Windy City could have belonged to Chante Stonewall and Lindsey Pulliam.

Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer

Imagine the moment if VanDerveer had matched Summitt’s record of 1,098 career wins by knocking off a No. 1 seed for a trip to the Final Four. That would have been pretty cool, right? The Stanford coach will likely still beat Auriemma to Summit’s mark — VanDerveer is four away, while Auriemma is seven away. And it will still be an occasion to celebrate both one of the greatest coaches in the sport’s history and the legend she will surpass. But it won’t come with quite the drama if it’s in the fourth game next season against the likes of Northern Colorado or Eastern Washington, two of Stanford’s opponents early this season.

Tennessee’s NCAA tournament streak

The Lady Vols are the only team to make every field since the women’s NCAA tournament began in 1982, but this year they were on the bubble in coach Kellie Harper’s first season at the helm of her alma mater. Bracketology had Tennessee projected as a No. 11 seed. Could the Lady Vols — led by junior guard/forward Rennia Davis, who was first-team All-SEC — have put things together for a win or two at the NCAA tournament? Last season, Harper led No. 11 seed Missouri State to the Sweet 16 berth, a run that likely helped her get the Tennessee job. It would have been interesting to see what the Lady Vols, as underdogs, might have done this year. — Mechelle Voepel

March of the mid-major

The forecast was extremely promising for mid-majors this season. Creme’s most recent Bracketology had seven teams that qualify for our mid-major rankings earning single-digit seeds. That’s almost as many as did so the past two seasons combined. Gonzaga hosting would have been the headliner, but only slightly ahead of Missouri State as a No. 5 seed or Princeton and South Dakota as No. 6 seeds — the Tigers with Bella Alarie and the Coyotes with mid-major player of the year Ciara Duffy. Princeton didn’t even get a No. 6 seed when it entered the tournament undefeated in 2015. Those teams would have been under pressure to live up to those seeds, but it was a well-deserved opportunity after years of having to settle for double-digit seeds and uphill climbs to the tournament’s second week.

Year of the Bears or Bulldogs?

Missouri State, under new coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, won the Missouri Valley regular-season title. Drake, which had claimed that crown the past three years, finished second. Both of their regular-season meetings were barnburners, with Missouri State prevailing by single digits, and they were slated for a third showdown at the MVC tournament this past weekend. Both also were projected to make the NCAA field. For Drake, under coach Jennie Baranczyk, four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances would have been a program first. And it would have given Bulldogs senior Becca Hittner, who won her third MVC player of the year honor, a chance to erase the bad taste she had from the 2019 NCAA tournament. Hittner was called for a foul with 1.1 seconds left in overtime in the first round against Missouri, and the Tigers went up 77-76 on a free throw. Hittner still managed to get a good look on a 3-pointer that would have been the winner, but it bounced off the back of the rim. She played with redemption in mind all this season, but then didn’t get to play in the conference or NCAA tournaments. — Mechelle Voepel

The last Ogwumike

Rice wasn’t guaranteed to make the NCAA tournament field. But the Owls had just finished the regular season as the Conference USA champion by two games and would have been the favorite to capture the tournament title and automatic NCAA bid. That could have given many fans a first look at Rice senior guard Erica Ogwumike. The youngest sister of Stanford All-Americans Nneka and Chiney, Erica has had a great career herself, albeit more under the radar. At just 5-foot-9, Ogwumike averaged a double-double (19.3 PPG, 10.3 rebounds per game) this season and led C-USA in scoring. Last season she was the conference’s player of the year, but the Owls’ first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2005 as a No. 12 seed ended in an overtime loss to Marquette. Ogwumike had 22 points and eight rebounds in that game as Rice fell just short of an upset. This could have been one last look at perhaps the best inch-for-inch rebounder in the country and a goodbye to one of women’s college basketball’s great families. — Charlie Creme

ACC redemption campaign

This wasn’t a banner year for the ACC. Even if cancellation of the NCAA tournament technically means Notre Dame’s streak of 24 consecutive appearances remains intact, the sub-.500 Fighting Irish were the clearest example of a league at low ebb almost across the board. Two exceptions were Louisville, which beat Oregon on a neutral court and successfully navigated life after Asia Durr, and NC State, which continues on the ascent under Wes Moore. Both teams were No. 2 seeds in Creme’s most recent bracket. Both teams had players who took giant strides toward stardom this season, Louisville’s Dana Evans and NC State’s Elissa Cunane. Either team could have saved the ACC’s season.

Freshman force at Mississippi State

The Bulldogs had been to the Sweet 16 just once before coach Vic Schaefer took over in 2012. They’ve made it at least that far the past four seasons, including national championship game appearances in 2017 and ’18. This season, after losing star center Teaira McCowan to the WNBA, Mississippi State was led by freshman forward Rickea Jackson, who averaged 15.1 PPG. The Bulldogs finished second in the SEC and runner-up in the league tournament to South Carolina, but we’ll never know if they could have made another run to the Sweet 16 this March. — Mechelle Voepel

Haley Gorecki’s long-awaited debut

Gorecki was finally going to the Big Dance. A prized recruit in 2015, Gorecki never had an easy go of it at Duke. She missed much of her first season and all of her second season on campus with injuries. She started out strong as a redshirt sophomore, her third season, then suffered another injury that cost her the stretch run of that campaign. Finally able to complete the schedule a season ago, she was a first-team all-ACC pick — but Duke missed the NCAA tournament for just the second time this century. Now finally, after almost single-handedly spearheading a late surge for the Blue Devils this season, the versatile, do-everything 6-foot guard was poised to take the court in the big tournament.

Pac-12’s closing argument

The Big Ten and SEC actually had more total teams in Creme’s projected bracket, but Pac-12 teams were hosting almost a third of the games in the first two rounds in that same projection. Oregon made sure we knew it was the class of the conference in the Pac-12 tournament, beating Stanford by 33 points in the title game. But Pac-12 quality was such that there was still at least a chance that some combination of Arizona, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA (or even sleeper Arizona State) might help Oregon in making the league the first to put three teams in the Final Four. That would have been quite the turnaround for a league that had just one non-Stanford entry in the Final Four between 1986 and 2016.

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