Friday's loss marked just the fifth time - in 19 appearances - that a Tom Izzo coached team lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But the highest they were seeded in those other four was sixth. None of them won more than 22 games. March Madness gets its name for a reason, but Izzo's teams have so often been the ones to create the madness, not be the victim of it.
There's a reason so many people often just pencil Michigan State into the Final Four every year even though they've only been a number one seed once since 2001. The Spartans are overachievers when it comes to the month of March. Just last year they made the Final Four as a 7 seed.
Many are calling Middle Tennessee's win in the first round the biggest single-game upset of all-time in a tournament known for its upsets. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. The Blue Raiders being a 15 seed just shows the level of parity we're seeing in college basketball now. They showed on Friday that they weren't some doormat that you used to see from the 15 seeds of the '80s and '90s. But the reason it seemed like it might've been the biggest upset of all-time was due to the weight that the program they beat carries, especially during this time of year.
From a Spartan perspective, the easy reaction after what Izzo described as the toughest loss of his career, is to chalk up the season as a failure. But one game doesn't make a season. It needs context.
Heading into the year, the Spartans were 13th in each of the preseason polls and the consensus seemed to have them around a second, third, or fourth place finish in the Big Ten. While they were coming off a Final Four year, the team was just 23-11 heading into the tournament last year and they were losing senior leaders Travis Trice and Branden Dawson for this year's team. Eron Harris and Deyonta Davis figured to be newcomers who would make significant contributions, while freshman Matt McQuaid would be able to provide some shooting off the bench. Expectations were high, but the Spartans weren't viewed as a surefire national championship contender.
Two games in, the expectations changed. The Spartans beat Kansas on a neutral floor during the Champions Classic before a full week of the season had been played. Two weeks later, they won the Wooden Legacy with victories over Boston College, Boise State, and Providence. Denzel Valentine quickly became a contender for National Player of the Year, putting up two triple-doubles in the first five games of the season.
Michigan State wasn't done. They took out Louisville and Florida on their way to a perfect 13-0 non-conference record. They were now the number one team in the country with a win over the number two team - Kansas - according to the Associated Press.
But before the Spartans could finish their non-conference slate and prepare themselves to win a conference championship that they were now widely considered the favorite to win, Valentine went down with a knee injury suffered during a practice two days before their non-conference finale with Oakland.
The injury would require surgery and force Valentine to miss four games. The team won the game against Oakland, but dropped their conference opener at Iowa. They responded in the next two games by eking out a win at Minnesota and blowing out Illinois at home. All appeared to be on the up-and-up with Valentine set to return to the lineup.
Things wouldn't go so smoothly. The first game with Valentine back was a big blowout at Penn State, but then the Spartans would drop three straight games. The Big Ten regular season championship almost seemed out of reach already and it was the first time there was some doubt around the ceiling of this team and whether they could get back to their November and December level.
Strong Close to Season
That didn't last long. Michigan State broke their three-game skid with a win over Maryland. They won 10 of their last 11 games to close the regular season with their only loss being in overtime at Purdue after spotting the Boilermakers an 18-point second half lead. The Spartans weren't just winning, they were beating teams by an average margin of 21.5 points during those ten games.
They carried that strong play in to the Big Ten Tournament, rolling over Ohio State and holding on to close victories over Maryland and Purdue to take home the championship.
After winning 13 of their last 14 games and heading to the NCAA Tournament as number two seed, it sure felt like it was time for Izzo's eighth Final Four and a really good chance for his second national championship. It was almost like the first three rounds were a given. The draw set up nicely and the Spartans would just need to get past Virginia for the third straight year to go to Houston.
But as you know, it was over before it even started.
So, back to the original question: was this season a failure? I'm inclined to say "yes" because, like I said before, the expectations on this team were heightened two games into the season and they were still there the day the tournament started. The standard for the program has reached such a high level that a great regular season is no longer enough. Seasons are only judged by March.
At the same rate, It's hard to say that a 29-6 season isn't a success, no matter the program or the finish. Not to mention, they won a conference tournament championship, their fifth in program history. As Valentine said after the game, they just happened to play one of their worst games of the year at the wrong time. The NCAA tournament can be incredibly cruel that way.
It's hard to call that type of season a total failure. It's just really, really disappointing.