The appropriate reaction included a hanging jaw, a rubbing of the eyes, a checking of the fitness of your television screen.
Michigan State lost. Michigan State lost?
Michigan State lost.
If the first five months of the college basketball had convinced you anything is possible this year, the 21st and most inconceivable game of the NCAA tournament must have. Michigan State, more reliable in March than John McClane on Christmas, never even led against Middle Tennessee State in a shocking, 90-81 loss Friday afternoon in St. Louis. The Spartans became the eighth No. 2 seed to lose in the first round since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and certainly the most unpredictable.
The Spartans entered as the event’s undisputed recent standard. They might not cut the nets, but certainly they would avoid catastrophe. Michigan State has reached seven Final Fours since 1999, including last year, when it crashed the final weekend as a No. 7 seed. The Spartans had not lost to a lower seed since 2006, when George Mason upset them in the first round on the way to its own Final Four. They were a team to believe in. In ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, 97.8 percent of entrants picked Michigan State to advance, 61.8 percent picked Michigan State to advance to the Final Four and 22.3 percent predicted the Spartans would win the whole thing.
“This team had a chance to win a national championship,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “We just got beat. I want everybody to know this team had a chance to win a national championship.”
Friday afternoon in St. Louis, they ran into the champions of Conference-USA, the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro. They had a guard named Giddy (Potts) and a coach named Kermit (Davis). They had three seniors. Their school had last won an NCAA tournament game in 1989. They opened in Las Vegas a 17-point underdog. And they overwhelmed the Spartans.
Nothing about the victory, one of the five biggest upsets in tournament history, felt like a fluke. Even more amazing that that they won was how they won. The Blue Raiders stormed to a 15-2 lead. They matched Michigan State’s athleticism. All five MTSU starters scored in double figures, led by 21 from 6-foot-7 forward Reggie Upshaw. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo used 11 players in the first half, a testament to the Spartans depth but also his desperation. The Blue Raiders bricked seven of their first 17 free throws – it could have been a blowout, but only if they were the ones romping.
Michigan State is rarely the most talented team in the country, but they have built a well-earned reputation as the toughest. They recover a disproportionate number of loose balls, suffocate offenses and batter opponents in rebounding totals. “I’ve admired their culture for many, many years,” Davis said, and a lot of other coaches would have said the same thing.
But Middle Tennessee State matched Michigan State at the Spartans’ strengths. Michigan State only grabbed two more rebounds. The Spartans had no defense for the Blue Raiders’s 11-of-19 three-point shooting or muscular big men. Middle Tennessee committed only 10 turnovers and grabbed 10 offensive rebounds, two more than Michigan State on its end. Michigan State had not allowed 90 points in a regulation game since Dec. 3, 2008. It happened against a slightly larger school: North Carolina.
“We were concerned,” Izzo said. “But I’ll be honest with you: In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think they’d hit some of the shots they hit.”
Nobody saw Middle Tennessee State coming, even with its 24-9 record. The statistician Ken Pomeroy ranked it the 106th team in the country even after their stunning victory. The Blue Raiders opened their season with a loss at Murray State. They finished second in C-USA, three games behind UAB, which qualified for the NIT and promptly lost its first National Invitational Tournament game in Provo on Wednesday.
If Friday offered a preview, though, MTSU will be handful for second-round opponent Syracuse, the 10th seed. In this tournament, the terms “favorite” and “underdog” have lost any meaning. Already, 11 lower-seeded teams have won. Chaos reigned during the regular season, too, when no superpowers emerged and the No. 1 ranking was passed around constantly.
No team is safe, not even reliable Michigan State. When it ended, senior point guard Denzel Valentine, perhaps the national player of the year, bent at the waist in front of Michigan State’s bench and dabbed his face with his jersey. He returned for his final season on a senior-laden team in order to win a title. And, in 40 minutes, the opportunity evaporated.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Valentine said afterward, sitting on a dais next to his coach and two teammates. “And I didn’t handle it today. Just [stinks] that we’re going home now. But I got something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life — that when you’re in this position and everybody’s looking at you, you’ve got to come through. I didn’t come through today, and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
A reporter asked Izzo, moments after the wrenching loss, what he could use from the game to motivate players next season.
“Not to insult you, just a ridiculous question,” Izzo said. “I don’t care about next year. I don’t care about tomorrow. That’s the problem. You know, it’s always, what’s next? There’s three guys here that gave me every single thing they had, and I don’t care about next year. I don’t even care about tomorrow right now. I just care about the present and what they did for me, for us. And somehow I’ve got to make sure that in all this disappointment that does not get lost, because that’s the problem with sports: It does get lost. And somebody’s not happy unless they win it all. It just was disappointing that we didn’t move farther than we did. But I learned nothing, zero, for next year. I got 200 days to worry about next year, and I ain’t going to worry about it one bit today. Sorry, too, by the way.”
The Blue Raiders unfurled a muted celebration, like they knew they could win. They realized before anybody that nothing, at least not this year, should be considered a surprise.