(Bump. I'd say this mirrors a lot of my feelings; I'm still organizing my feelings from Thursday into a blog post. I'll have something later tonight. - Pete)
One of the most difficult things about filling out a tournament bracket is getting past the little numbers next to each team’s name. The seeding, especially in this day and age, can be very misleading. We want to buy into the selection committee’s rankings (after all, they’re the supposed experts), and we end up accepting the seedings as absolutes, thinking that one team is definitively better than the other. The seedings are, obviously, an imperfect ranking system, with little bearing on any outcomes of the games. Michigan State was a #1 seed, and Louisville was a #4. In reality, there’s little difference between MSU and Louisville- at least not to the discrepancy where every single writer and analyst picked MSU to beat the Cardinals. If MSU were to play Louisville ten times, they would probably split the matchups five and five, with one team maybe winning six. Louisville would win their games by hitting 3’s, turning us over, and playing solid defense (a la Thursday night). We would win by taking care of the ball, scoring in transition, and establishing our bigs down low. The point is, it was easy to assume that MSU should have won because of a ranking, or because of prior results during the season, but that is imprudent.
What MSU ran up against was a very tenacious and athletic team. For all the heralding the Big Ten gets, it is not the most athletic conference. Teams just don’t have the athletes that some of these other conferences do. As we’ve seen time and time again, when MSU has to play an athletic team (Duke, Kentucky, UNC, and Memphis a couple years ago), it becomes a little shell-shocked because it’s not used to playing that type of competition on a consistent basis. Now Louisville doesn’t score like those teams, but they are the converse defensively. MSU has not seen an athletic defense like that in the Big Ten, which made it very difficult to prepare for.
Look, Thursday’s loss was tremendously disappointing. I don’t feel like we lost to a better team, but I don’t feel like we lost to a team that was worse than us either. Because of that, I’m not taking the loss too hard. After Thursday’s game I told my fiancée that I had this ineffable feeling about MSU and the tournament. There was something about the team that just didn’t have me confident, especially after the first game against LIU. It had nothing to do with their play, but deep down, I had a feeling State’s run would end a little like it did. I definitely wasn’t hoping it, but it was a feeling I couldn’t shake. It was the opposite of how I felt in 2009, when you could see MSU rolling through their side of the bracket on their way to Detroit. It felt like destiny then, whereas this year…again, it’s ineffable.
If I tried to explain the feeling though, it would be that even though we were a #1 seed, our team didn’t feel #1 caliber, and it got us believing (falsely) that the team was elite when it wasn’t. It’s the hard truth that we were the weakest of the #1s (no way were we the caliber of squad of a Kentucky or North Carolina). That’s why it’s really disappointing to hear some people say that we underachieved for the season. This season was a blessing (especially after last year) and Izzo got the very best out of this squad. In sports you hear the phrase, "we didn’t play to our potential" at the end of seasons, but in this case, with this team, it played to its max potential. And as fans, we got to enjoy every last minute of it.
Go back to the beginning of the year and think about all the question marks this team had. We had to reshape our entire backcourt after the departures of Lucas, Summers, Kebler, and Lucious. We had to rely on the development of Nix and Payne, as Roe and Sherman were no longer there for depth. We were desperate enough to take in a transfer to give us some much needed depth, something Izzo never does. On top of that, we needed our freshmen to step in and immediately contribute. There’s a reason this team was unranked to start the season, and it’s not surprising why.
Now fast forward to the end. We are in the Sweet Sixteen as a number one seed, starting three bench players off last year’s squad (Green, Appling, and Payne), a transfer (Wood) who was our sixth man for most of the year, and a former walk-on (Thornton). All the while our stud freshman (Dawson) is out for the year, and Trice and Kearney- our other freshmen- are hobbled with ankle and knee injuries respectively. I dare you to find me another squad, EVER, with that roster make-up who would be able to win the Big Ten, the Big Ten Tournament, snag a number one seed in the tournament, and still be Final Four favorites. I’ll save you the time- you can’t.
The truth is, as expectations got higher, they also got unrealistic. We were able to band together after the Dawson injury and win the Big Ten Tournament. In hindsight, it’s where our team peaked, sans-Dawson. We deserved our one seed based on what we accomplished, but when you peak, you only have one way to go, and that’s down. And the writing was on the wall, too- Inconsistent guard play, too much reliance on one player, and most prophetically, a lack of rebounding prowess. When you have a team that has a ceiling talent-wise, it’s very difficult to make a long run in a tournament designed for showcasing the best talent.
So let the loss on Thursday night sting for a little bit, but don’t let it cloud what this season truly was- a remarkable success. I'm proud to be a Spartan that got to be a fan of this team. In many ways, this season was just as satisfying, (at least for me) as a Final Four run. No, we don’t get to hang a banner with New Orleans written on it, but we did just get five months of memorable basketball (remember when we beat Bo three times? Yeah, that was awesome.), and I’m not going to let one loss take away from that.