Dayton’s lost March Madness dream among all-time heartbreaks

There are a lot of college basketball fans who probably will never shake the melancholy of the canceled 2020 NCAA Tournament. Hofstra and Rutgers badly wanted to end long droughts. Seton Hall harbored legitimate Final Four hopes. A batch of traditional powers had enough to believe this would be a year ending in cut-down nets.

Dayton, of course, is different. Dayton is a special case. Dayton had the look, and the feel, of a special team graced by all the elements that can land a team on the Final Monday of the year: great talent, great teamwork, a terrific coach (Anthony Grant) and a superlative player (Obi Toppin).

Now, we’ll never know. The list they join is a melancholy list, teams who could have won but didn’t, all for reasons beyond their control. Maybe there are others, and if there are please feel free to reach out and let me know. These are my five Heartbreak Kids of March.

1. Dayton, 2020: They blitzed through the Atlantic 10, but beyond that, from Day 1 of the season, they were competitive with everyone. They finished the season 29-2, their only losses by six points in overtime to top-ranked Kansas (in Hawaii) and by two points in overtime to Colorado (in Chicago). Nobody was better this year than Toppin, and part of the reason for that was how unselfish he — and every one of the Flyers — was. This was a joyful team to watch, and the overriding sadness is this: As good a program as Dayton is, and it’s one of the best existing outside the Power 6, it is entirely possible the Flyers can go another hundred years and never have the perfect storm of talent and mojo this team had, and so will never, ever have another crack at these heights. Duke and Kansas and Kentucky live to see another season. Dayton? This may have been it.

2. Providence, 1973: It wasn’t just that the Friars had a powerhouse team under Dave Gavitt — led by Ernie DiGregorio, Holy Cross High’s Kevin Stacom and Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. They were playing at an elite level in the ’73 tournament, blitzing St. Joe’s, Penn and a terrific Maryland team on the way to St. Louis and the Final Four. And they were double digits up on Memphis State in the national semifinals — highlighted by what may be the Greatest Pass in Basketball History (Google “Ernie D” and “amazing pass” and judge for yourself). And then Barnes hurt his knee, had to come out of the game, and everything changed for the Friars. Maybe they didn’t have enough for the Walton Gang UCLA team that won its eighth straight title two nights later — the Bruins had beaten the Friars soundly, 101-77, in January in Pauley Pavilion. But nobody will ever know. That’s the kick in the pants for Friars fans.

3. St. Bonaventure, 1970: Like Providence, the Bonnies were playing their best ball of the year by NCAA time, and they were up 20 on Villanova in the East Region final — avenging their only loss of the year — when Nova’s Chris Ford tripped and fell into the side of Bob Lanier’s leg. That tore up the knee of Lanier, the Bonnies’ do-everything All-America, and it doomed them once they had to face Artis Gilmore and Jacksonville the next week in the national semis. The torture for St. Bonaventure is that UCLA (lurking in the title game) was between the Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton eras and had Steve Patterson in the middle, who would’ve been little match for Lanier. I once asked John Wooden about that matchup that never was (full disclosure — as if anyone doesn’t know this — I’m a St. Bonaventure alum) and he said, “I believe if we played 10 times, the Bonnies would’ve beaten us twice. But you never know when those two times might be.” I once asked a student of that time how long it took him to get over the Lanier injury. “I’ll let you know when that happens,” he said.

4. Cincinnati, 2000: Kenyon Martin was a terrific pro. We saw the very best of him as a Net, and teamed with Jason Kidd he was as fun a basketball show as we’ve had around here in a couple of decades. But he was a force of nature in college. And when he got hurt in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament, everything changed for the Bearcats. They lost that game, to St. Louis, after going 16-0 in the regular conference year. They were dropped from the 1 line to the 2, meaning they had to survive a tough second-round test from a Bill Self-coached Tulsa team. And they couldn’t do that.

5. (tie) N.C. State, 1973 and Indiana, 1975: The disappointments here aren’t as glaring and are fairly mitigated by the fact both teams came back the very next year to win titles. But the ’73 Wolfpack were probably better than the ’74 team that ended UCLA’s reign, going 27-0 but landing on probation for recruiting violations and earning a tournament ban. And as good as Bobby Knight’s ’76 Hoosiers were — the last college team to go undefeated, at 32-0 — almost everyone believes the ’75 team was even better, except it was tripped up by a hand injury to Indiana’s best player, Scott May, and never survived Kentucky in the Midwest Region final.

Vac’s Whacks

All due respect to Gov. Cuomo, who said on Friday, “You can’t play basketball and stay 6 feet away from each other”: The ’70 Knicks were awfully good at spacing. And as some have pointed out, so were the ’20 Knicks — on defense.


I have to level: I’m not sure I’m at all comfortable with where “This is Us” seems headed for Tuesday’s season finale.


Some wondered why I didn’t include the “Miracle on Ice” game in my list of YouTube games to watch last week. I guess I assumed every good American has already seen the game so many times it runs on a permanent loop in your memory just by closing your eyes.


It will always be important to remember that no matter how many games Rick Pitino wins at Iona — and I have no doubt he is going to win an awful lot of games at Iona — he is inheriting an already-great program from Tim Cluess, he is not rebuilding one.

Whack Back At Vac

Dennis Daly: Norwegian Thomas Waerner won the Iditarod in 9 days, 10 hours, 37 minutes. Your guy, Mr. Petit, was off the board.
Vac: Not unusual. Some of the horses I bet on at Saratoga two Augusts ago are still running. Wait till next year, Nicolas Petit!


Marc Aronin: Injuries? In-fighting? Just bad luck? Did you happen to see if the Iditarod’s Nicolas Petit’s sleigh and dogs were wearing orange and blue?
Vac: I’ve always thought Iditarod humor is the best kind of humor during a global pandemic.


@OTBaseballPhoto: I might never get over not watching Rutgers play in the NCAAs, and Seton Hall too, it could have been an historic year for Jersey basketball. Gone.
@MikeVacc: If 1989 was the apex of Jersey hoops in the NCAA (Hall title game, Princeton-Georgetown, Rutgers in as Atlantic 10 champs) this would’ve surely given it a run for the money.


Francis Rutherford: I am around 10 years older than you, and sad endings probably started with Y.A. Tittle and continued to a washed up Mickey Mantle to a flyball-missing Willie Mays to Joe Willie in L.A., but the saddest image was Johnny U in San Diego, nothing comes close. You didn’t have to be a Colts fan to be completely saddened. Brady may replicate Manning or Unitas, we shall see which one.
Vac: And let’s not forget, Peyton’s final steps weren’t all covered in glory even as he tagged along for a championship.

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