College basketball’s 10 best games of 2019-20

George Washington v DaytonPhoto by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

March 2020 will forever be remembered — among many, many other things — as the month we were all robbed of madness. The wild comebacks, the dramatic upsets, the classic buzzer-beaters replayed for decades to come; none of it happened, leaving the 2019-20 college hoops season in a forever state of purgatory.

There is little doubt that had the final month of the season been played, this list would look dramatically different than it does. It wasn’t, and it never will be, so here are the 10 best games the season had to offer.

10. Saint Mary’s 51, BYU 50 (WCC tournament semifinals) (March 9)

Everyone inside the Orleans Arena in Vegas and everyone watching on TV from home knew Jordan Ford was taking the last shot. That knowledge did nothing to help BYU.

Ford’s cold-blooded jumper with 1.4 seconds to play lifted third-seeded Saint Mary’s to a thrilling 51-50 win over second-seeded BYU in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament in the wee hours of March 10.

Making the moment even more impressive was the fact Ford had just scored 42 points and played all 50 minutes in an 89-82 double-overtime victory against Pepperdine in the quarterfinals 48 hours earlier. The shot snapped BYU’s nine-game wining streak and set the stage for yet another Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s WCC title game a night later.

It was one of those brilliant late-night moments of early March that only makes you hungrier for the madness that’s on the horizon.

Alas …

9. Penn State 89, Iowa 86 (Jan. 4)

The Palestra was the site for one of the most charged up atmospheres of the entire season as Penn State kicked off the new year with a thrilling 89-86 conference win over Iowa.

Hawkeye star and eventual First Team All-American Luka Garza scored 34 points, but he missed three key free throws in the game’s waning moments. Those misses allowed Lamar Stevens and the Nittany Lions to put the finishing touches on a monster win that sent the home crowd in Philly into a frenzy.

“My head is still spinning,” Penn Sate head coach Pat Chambers said afterward. “That was wild.”

The game marked the first time since 1996 that Penn State had played with a top-25 ranking next to its name. The win promised that the Nittany Lions were heading towards their first NCAA tournament appearance in Chambers’ nine seasons on the job.

8. Dayton 78, Saint Louis 76 (OT) (Jan. 17)

Dayton’s romp to a perfect 18-0 record in the Atlantic 10 was met with significantly little pushback from its conference brethren. The one exception was Saint Louis, which played the Flyers tight in both meetings, including this Friday night thriller at Chaifetz Arena.

The physical Billikens built a 55-42 advantage with just 7:40 to play in regulation before UD came storming back. Dayton’s efforts were aided significantly by a woeful 17-of-37 free-throw shooting performance by Saint Louis, which would ultimately finish last in the country in team free-throw percentage.

Though the season may have belonged to Obi Toppin, this particular evening belonged to teammate Jalen Crutcher. The junior guard scored a game-high 21 points and hit perhaps the most memorable shot of Dayton’s unforgettable 2019-20 campaign.

Both of Dayton’s prior losses (ultimately, their only two losses) had come in overtime, which only made this conference road win that much sweeter.

“We said, not this time,” Toppin said after the game. “We’re done with overtime losses.”

7. Butler 72, Xavier 71 (March 7)

On the final Saturday night of the college basketball regular season — and what would prove to be the final Saturday night of the season, period — Butler and Xavier delivered a classic back-and-forth affair inside the Cintas Center.

Desperately needing a win to boost its NCAA tournament resume, Xavier had trailed for most of the evening before a 9-0 run late in the second half put the Musketeers in position to steal a victory. Momentum swung between the two teams several times before Butler found itself with the ball, down two and less than 10 seconds to play.

That’s when Kamar Baldwin, who already had an established reputation for being one of the best closers in all of college basketball, called game.

Baldwin finished with a career-high 36 points, and the loss resulted in Xavier finishing with a sub-.500 conference record for the first time in 38 years. The Musketeers would lose to Dayton in the first round of the Big East tournament less than a week later. Whether or not those losses knocked them out of the NCAA tournament is something we’ll never know for sure.

6. Oregon 73, Arizona 72 (OT) (Feb. 22)

Both meetings between Oregon and Arizona this season resulted in one-point overtime wins for the Ducks. It’s the second of those two meetings, the one played in Tucson, that was so phenomenal that it demanded a spot on this list.

Eventual All-American Payton Pritchard played one of the best games of his career, pouring in a career-high 38 points. He made all eight of his free-throw attempts, drilled six three-pointers, and was the only player for either side to play all 45 minutes. Perhaps that last number is the reason why, in the game’s extra period, Pritchard’s shots suddenly stopped falling.

Thankfully for Oregon, Shakur Juiston was there to save the day. The senior forward scored 14 points on the evening, but produced all nine of the Ducks’ points in overtime. His layup with 1.4 seconds to play proved to be the game’s decisive bucket, but only after Arizona’s Christian Koloko missed a pair of free throws that could have extended the contest or won it for the Wildcats.

“Might as well go play the lottery now,” Juiston joked after the game.

The win marked Oregon’s fifth-straight overtime win of the season.

5. Belmont 76, Murray State 75 (OVC tournament championship) (March 7)

Only 12 of college basketball’s 32 conference tournaments were played in full before the coronavirus brought the season to an abrupt end. Of those 12 tournaments, none had a higher-quality finish than the Ohio Valley, which gave us top-seeded Belmont taking on second-seeded Murray State in the title game for a third-straight year.

After falling to the Racers in the OVC championship game in both 2018 and 2019, Belmont (presumably) punched its ticket to the Big Dance on Tyler Scanlon’s layup with just three seconds to play.

Just because Rick Byrd isn’t calling the shots for the Bruins anymore doesn’t mean we should have expected anything other than a beautiful backdoor cut on the season’s most crucial possession.

“It was a play we practice all the time. With all that preparation in the final moment there were no nerves. It was second nature and just execution,” Scanlon said after the game.

This was the fifth time Murray State and Belmont have played for the OVC tournament championship since the Bruins joined the conference in 2012-13. Belmont has won three of the five meetings in what has become one of the best mid/low major rivalries in college basketball.

4. Stephen F. Austin 85, Duke 83 (OT) (Nov. 27)

Heading into this game on the Tuesday night of Thanksgiving Week, top-ranked Duke had won a nation’s-best 150 consecutive home games against non-conference opponents. The Blue Devils also hadn’t lost a home game against a non-ACC opponent since a loss to St. John’s all the way back on Feb. 26, 2000.

Stephen F. Austin senior forward Nathan Bain changed all that with a coast-to-coast buzzer-beater that might have provided the best finish of the entire season.

Stephen F. Austin would go on to finish the season 28-3 and appeared primed to be a trendy NCAA tournament upset pick, but no one knew the Lumberjacks were that strong at the time. They were coming off a 14-16 campaign in 2018-19 and had just been beaten handily by a Rutgers team that, once again at the time, was not highly thought of. The result of all this is that SFA was a 27.5-point underdog for this game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, which made this college basketball’s largest point spread upset in 15 years.

Perhaps best of all, word quickly spread after the game that Bain, a freshly-crowned American sports hero, was a native of the Bahamas whose family had lost nearly everything when Hurricane Dorian ravaged their home and Bain’s father’s church. A GoFundMe that SFA had launched to help Bain’s family and the rest of the Bahamas went from receiving little attention to raising more than $150,000 to help with the hurricane relief efforts.

3. Kansas 64, Baylor 61 (Feb. 22)

In front of a juiced up crowd in Waco, third-ranked Kansas exacted some sweet revenge over a then-No. 1 Baylor squad that had beaten the Jayhawks by 12 in Lawrence a month earlier. The KU victory in round two ultimately set the stage for Bill Self’s team to claim the Big 12 regular-season title and establish themselves as the front-runner to be the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday.

This was Udoka Azubuike’s game from start to finish. Double-teams made no difference, and neither did Baylor’s attempts to attack the big man on the other end of the floor and get him in foul trouble. When the dust had settled, Azubuike had scored 23 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, and (probably) done irreparable damage to both of the rims inside the Ferrell Center. Of his 11 made field goals, nine were dunks.

In the first game between the two, Baylor limited Azubuike to six points on just six shots by fronting the post and always having a second defender within arm’s length of the big man. Kansas combated that in the second game by creating opportunities for Azubuike not through traditional post ups, but off of high ball screens and feeds from driving guards.

How would Scott Drew have countered in a much-hyped Big 12 title game rubber match in Kansas City? We’ll never know.

2. Duke 98, North Carolina 96 (OT) (Feb. 8)

Ten years from now, people are going to remember two things about the 2019-20 North Carolina Tar Heels. The first, obviously, is they went 14-19 and finished tied for last in the ACC, making them easily the worst UNC team of the Roy Williams era. The second, I think, is going to be the way in which they took their first of two losses to arch-rival Duke, a triumph for the Blue Devils that featured one buzzer-beater at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime, and another at the end of the extra period to lock up the W.

For most of the evening in early February, it seemed as though North Carolina would be able to salvage a satisfying win over their arch-rival without all that much drama. Then, as tended to be the case with this UNC team, the theatrics appeared out of nowhere. A series of Tar Heel turnovers and missed free throws allowed Duke to claw back to within striking distance, which then set the stage for Tre Jones to do this at the end of regulation:

Understandably, the air went out inside the Dean Dome in the moments between the end of regulation and the beginning of overtime. Duke scored six of the extra period’s first seven points, and appeared poised to ride that momentum to a comfortable victory.

North Carolina super freshman Cole Anthony responded, hitting back-to-back jumpers and sparking a rally that put the Tar Heels ahead, 96-91, with a little under 20 seconds to play. Jones responded with an and-one, and when he missed the free throw that would have completed the three-point play, Wendell Moore Jr. was there with a putback that cut the Carolina lead to one.

That set the stage for a no-call/call that will be discussed on Tobacco Road and beyond for years to come.

No foul was called on Duke, and after a lengthy review, Ted Valentine’s on-court call to give the Blue Devils the ball was upheld.

A driving Jones was fouled by North Carolina’s Christian Keeling, sending the Blue Devils’ sophomore point guard to the line with an opportunity to put his team ahead by one. The only saving grace for UNC fans at the time seemed to be safety from having their hearts broken at the horn for the second time in less than 15 minutes.

You know what happened next …

The first UNC-Duke game always seems to deliver the goods. Even in a season where North Carolina was historically subpar, that was still the case in 2019-20.

1. Kansas 90, Dayton 84 (OT) (Maui Invitational Championship) (Nov. 29)

A lot of times, we’ll look back at the highest-profile games of November through a different lens once the season has played out and those early season rankings look a little silly. This game was the opposite in that it only grew more impressive with time.

We were pretty sure during Thanksgiving Week that both Kansas and Dayton were very good. We didn’t know the Jayhawks were No. 1 overall seed good, and we really didn’t know that the Flyers were ultimately going to be poised to join KU on the top line come Selection Sunday.

Among other things, this game served as Toppin’s introduction to the front lines of the national player of the year conversation. Despite a somewhat slow start, Toppin finished this game with 18 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, and one of the most disrespectful three-point celebrations of the entire year.

As brilliant as Toppin was, Kansas big man Azubuike was better. The eventual All-American finished with 29 points on 12-of-15 shooting from the field, as well as four blocks. Seven of those 29 points came in overtime, where his dominance inside proved to be the difference maker for the Jayhawks as they put the finishing touches on a Maui classic.

The only thing that could have made this game better? If it had been played in the traditional late-night Thanksgiving Eve time slot.

I’m not going to let this go. Do the right thing, Maui. Don’t let the fact you’ve had two classic championship games in the last two years distract you from the truth. The world hates the new title game tip time.