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story.lead_photo.caption Darrell Walker led UALR to the Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship in his second season after the Trojans were picked to finish 11th of 12 teams in the preseason. But looking over predictions for the NCAA Tournament bracket was all Walker and the Trojans could do after the tournament was canceled because of coronavirus concerns. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe) ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Thomas Metthe)

Count University of Arkansas at Little Rock Coach Darrell Walker as one of many in the college basketball world who wishes the NCAA would have released a bracket.

Even with the coronavirus pandemic forcing an unprecedented tournament cancellation, many had still hoped for some semblance of a Selection Sunday 1 1/2 weeks ago and a makeshift bracket to be released by the sport's governing institution -- a final gasp of air for the 2019-20 college basketball season that was no more.

But the NCAA ultimately decided against it.

"It would've been fun for all the student-athletes who put a lot of blood and sweat into the season that were having the chance to go to the NCAA [Tournament], but that's the NCAA, so you never know what they're going to do," Walker told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "It would've been nice, but they didn't do it, so it's nothing we can do about it."

But that still didn't prevent ESPN's Joe Lunardi, among many others, from releasing a projected bracket for a tournament that won't be played.

If there was any closure to be had about a lost season, this was the best you could find -- bracketologists, who spend all season dissecting this sport, delivering their final predictions for the gut-wrenched masses.

UALR hadn't yet officially earned a spot in the Big Dance. On the morning of March 12, the Trojans were on a bus bound for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in New Orleans, with two more victories standing between them and a potential sixth NCAA Tournament berth -- and third since 2011 -- in program history. The Sun Belt Tournament was soon canceled, and the team had to turn around.

UALR, which was picked 11th of 12 teams in the Sun Belt preseason poll, finished the season 21-10 overall and 15-5 in the league.

NCAA berth No. 6 would have to wait, but Lunardi and others went ahead and gave UALR credit.

Since the Trojans won the league regular-season title, securing them of the top seed in the conference tournament, by default the national pundits factored them in as the Sun Belt's automatic bid.

Lunardi had the Trojans penned as a 15-seed facing two-seeded Creighton -- the nation's No. 7-ranked team in the final Associated Press poll that finished 24-7 and won a share of the Big East regular season title -- in St. Louis in the first round of the South Region. Had UALR staged an upset, it would have faced the winner of seventh-seeded Illinois and 10th-seeded USC.

The New York Post's bracket pitted 14th-seeded UALR against Coach Mike Krzyzewski and third-seeded Duke, one of the sport's elite, in Greensboro, N.C. So, too, did CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm. Andy Katz, another notable college basketball analyst, had 15th-seeded UALR facing two-seeded Florida State in Tampa, Fla., in his final projections.

But Lunardi's prediction caught the attention of Walker, who responded to it March 15 by tweeting, "Would have been interesting."

That prompted Walker to make a trip into the office last week and turn on some tape of an opponent his team would never get the chance to play. Walker said he watched "two or three" of Creighton's games. He wanted to see for himself how his team would have stacked up.

"It was fun to sit there that day and just sit there and take some notes," Walker said. "I was just being a coach. I didn't have anything to do but thought this would be a great exercise to really take a look at a team ... they had us supposedly matched up with, just to see how we matched up with that team.

"It would've been a good matchup. They did a lot of things well, like shoot the three ball, and I thought we could attack them from the inside."

For good measure, Lunardi tweeted his prediction last Thursday for the game's outcome -- a 77-62 victory for the Bluejays.

UALR assistant coach Alfred Jordan chimed in.

"Appreciate the love... not sure about your outcome tho," Jordan tweeted.

Two days later, on Saturday, UALR's director of basketball operations, AJ Montanaro, also tweeted a subtle remark.

"Should be in the Round of 32 today," his tweet said.

No one will ever know what would have transpired. No one will know for sure if UALR would have won two games at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans to even make it into the NCAA tournament field.

Walker, who was named Sun Belt coach of the year, just holds one regret from this season.

On Feb. 29, the day they clinched the Sun Belt regular season title outright with a 91-69 home victory over Louisiana-Lafayette, the Trojans passed on cutting down the nets inside the Jack Stephens Center. Walker wanted to save that moment for New Orleans.

He wishes he hadn't now.

"Only thing I would ever probably do different now is -- if I knew this virus was out here -- we would've cut the nets [down] that afternoon," Walker said. "But that's all hindsight. You can always talk in hindsight."

Sports on 03/25/2020

Print Headline: The what-if game: Trojans ponder NCAA aftermath

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