March Madness in the Mountain West

by Ralena Phillips

The Corona Virus gave March Madness a whole new meaning this year for the world of basketball. But before the madness spread, the Mountain West Tournament tipped off in Viva Las Vegas.

The Aggies took home the Mountain West tournament title for the second year in a row after defeating the Aztecs 59-56. Utah State senior guard Sam Merrill hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left to do away with top-seeded San Diego State in the title game. The game-winner secured Merrill the 2020 Air Force Reserve Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship MVP. Merrill is the first back-to-back tournament MVP in Mountain West history.

“It means everything. This is what you dream for, this is what you work for all summer. It didn’t exactly go our way throughout the regular season but to be able to come win these three games in three days is incredible,” Merrill said.

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But that wouldn’t have been the last we saw of the Aztecs this season. The Aztecs would be on their way to the big dance alongside the Aggies for their record-breaking 30-2 performance this season. The Aggies were on their way to a perfect season before falling the UNLV Rebels in February in a nationwide upset and then the Utah State Aggies in the Championship game. The buzzer-beater win was a tremendous way to end the Mountain West Tournament and kick-off March Madness Basketball, or so we thought. Corona had other plans…

While the Mountain West Tournament was able to declare a Conference Tournament Champion, many schools and other conferences didn’t even make it that far before NCAA basketball came to a halt. Never in all of NCAA history has a season ever been canceled but that was about to change.

On March 11, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that upcoming NCAA Championship events will be closed to the public. This decision was based on the advice of public health officials and the advisory panel following the current uncertainty of COVID-19. The games would still go on as planned but would only include the teams, essential staff, and limited family in attendance. Fans were beyond upset and no one really understood the seriousness of the situation or what was to come in such short notice.

The thought of an empty arena seemed bizarre and a bit dramatic, until the NCAA announced just a day later, March 12, the cancellation of the Division I Men’s and Women’s 2020 Basketball Tournaments due to the unfolding public health crisis, COVID-19. This decision followed the standards set by the NBA, who was the first major league to suspend their season until further notice. Everyone from players to fans was shocked and had a harsh reality check at that moment. A total of 132 men’s games and 81 women’s games were never played, and ultimately not even a tournament bracket was released. The world of basketball had come to a complete standstill.

“We all feel that sadness and empathize with the players… We’re heartbroken — the committee is heartbroken,” said NCAA vice president of men’s basketball Dan Gavitt following the unprecedented decision to ultimately cancel the tournament. 

Following the hiatus, top Mountain West players began raking in awards for the cut short 2020 season. Malachi Flynn quickly became a fan favorite with a list of accolades this season that could stretch down an entire page. The junior guard earned countless All-American honors, including the program’s first Division I first-team All-American. This makes Flynn one of the most decorated players in Aztec basketball history.

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“It feels good. I think it’s a reflection of all of the hard work I’ve put in. I think it’s a reminder of the team’s success that we’ve had this year. If we weren’t as good as we were, I don’t think I would receive those awards,” Flynn said.

San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher was even named USA Today Sports’ National Coach of the Year. This came as no surprise after their nearly perfect and record-breaking season.

So what does this mean for 2020 seniors who were not able to finish their season finale in full? While Seniors of Spring sports who weren’t able to compete at all have been given another year of eligibility, there has been no decision made regarding basketball. Will the NCAA deem this season as an irregular redshirt season and allow seniors to return for another go at the title next season?

So what will next season look like in the Mountain West? Expect to see the Aztecs return with a vengeance but without junior guard Malachi Flynn who has declared for the NBA draft, and is currently projected as the No. 44 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Other Mountain West stars like Jalen Harris, Justinian Jessup, and Derrick Alston has also declared for the 2020 NBA Draft. 

But more importantly, will they even be able to play, and with an audience? The NCAA has decided to not resume this season for completion, unlike the NBA who is still optimistic for the rest of the season. But will everything be back to normal before next season? There are so many questions up in the air that simply no one knows the answers too yet and won’t know until we get a bit closer to the start date. 

 

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