I dare say few saw it coming. After all, weren't the Michigan State Spartans the same basketball team that.....
Were once ranked #1 in the entire country just a couple short months ago?
Had only lost 5 games all year, and most of them while their best player was out with an injury?
Were virtually unbeatable once he returned?
Blitzed through the Big 10 Conference tournament to claim that honor?
Had a storied history of going deep into the NCAA tournament, including several Final Fours and one outright national championship? (Well, OK. That was 16 years ago, but it doesn't seem like that long.)
Felt slighted by not being named a #1 seed in this year's March Madness tourney?
Was expected by many to at least reach the Final Four, and quite possibly wind up kings of the college hard courts once again?
Still had the same head coach with his long history of success in the past? The same guy that lands blue-chip preps year after year and molds them into a hard-nosed unit that's always long on defense, crashing the boards, team play, and overall toughness?
Featured Denzel Valentine, the injured/healed player mentioned above, who some thought was the best overall player in the country?
But then the lights went up for the tournament, and the #2 seeded mighty Spartans had a "cream-puff" first round opponent in lowly #15 seed Middle Tennessee. Or so they and many others thought. A cakewalk, right?
Problem was, MidTenn didn't seem to get the memo. They outplayed MSU from start to finish. The Spartans never led in the entire game. This was no fluke. MSU was out-coached, out-smarted, out-hustled, out-shot, out-toughed, and out-everything else from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Instead of folding under the pressure, MidTenn rose to the occasion and knocked off MSU fair and square 90-81. It was the Green that choked when the Big Dance started. (The very name of MidTenn -- the BLUE Raiders, probably doesn't sit well with Spartan nation. Getting trashed by anything "blue" likely reminds them of their bitter rival Michigan on some level).
Needless to say, there is little joy in East Lansing right about now. And good luck to MSU head coach Tom Izzo when they get home from St. Louis and he has to face the local press. The scribes really need only ask one pertinent question. How in the hell did THAT happen? He most definitely has some 'splainin to do.
[Idle thought. We know how Superman has an "S" emblazoned on his chest. Tom Izzo, being from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, could rightfully be dubbed Yooperman. The "Y" on his chest could also signify YEOW, regarding this game. Alas, Yooperman has no fortress of solitude to retreat to. Those pesky reporters will find him with their microphones, cameras, and barrage of mostly dumb questions.]
Thing is, this was supposedly MSU's best shot at another title in quite some time. Sure, they've always been competitive, often in the top 4-5 in the country (no small feat), but this was the team that had all the makings of being capable of running the table in the NCAA tourney. Or so it was assumed.
Instead they went ker-splat in the very first round. They were 18 point favorites going in and got drubbed by 9. A 27 point swing. Oh my. What will happen to the Spartans in the near future is an open question. They're losing their three best players to graduation and/or the NBA. Can Izzo reload and bring the greenies back to prominence once again next year and beyond? Maybe. Or might this game have signaled the start of MSU's fall back into mediocrity -- or worse? Time will tell.
And hey -- in the whole scheme of things, does it really matter if a team gets knocked out in the first round, or after having made it to the Final Four? If a team lasts for a few games, their school gets some hefty paychecks -- and maybe the coach gets a contractual bonus -- but the players don't get anything. Anything short of becoming a champion means they came up short. In the end, they were still losers.
When all is said and done, only one team gets to cut down the nets that matter. It just won't be Michigan State this year.
Maybe it's better they got knocked out early, rather than winning a few games (with the ensuing crescendo of hopes that go with it) only to be eliminated later.
But Middle Tennessee? A #15 seed?