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Michigan State Spartans Final Four Basketball: On Happiness

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Joe tries to quantify the unquantifiable

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

So, first an apology. I'm sorry the site went a little dark on Saturday night; I was (and probably continue to be) in denial about the end of this season. I've never written so much about a team, and to have the roller coaster end with a beat-down at the hands of Duke required me to step away for a day.

I should be happy. Two months ago, we invented and then heavily used the BUBBLECON system to track MSU's tournament chances. Now, we get to hang a banner. This turnaround is absolutely incredible. There's that denial thing kicking in again. That turnaround was absolutely incredible.

I have to quantify this in some way, so I created a chart. The chart below compares pre-tournament expectations (x-axis) to actual tournament performance (y-axis) since 2009. I picked 2009 because that's the first tournament I could honestly make a general statement about pre-tournament expectations.

The green line represents meeting expectations. That is, if a point falls on the line, that means the outcome lined up exactly with expectations. If a point is above the green line, that means expectations were exceeded. If the point is below the green line, that means that expectations were not met. The distance between the point and the line represents how happy or disappointed the fan base was or should be given the expectations and outcome.

For example, in 2010 there was no expectation of a Final Four run. Kansas was a juggernaut of a 1-seed, and I'm pretty sure everyone expected a loss in the Sweet Sixteen. The Final Four, then, exceeded expectations by a fair amount. Some of these points could probably be quibbled with; last year I would've only been happy if we'd won a National Title. I bet some people probably expected more out of the 2013 team. But overall, I think this is a pretty good (and extremely nerdy) proxy.

This 2015 run absolutely blows any other run out of the water. A team expected to lose in the round of 32 to Virginia made it all the way to the Final Four. So why does the loss still hurt so much?

I explained this to myself in various ways over the past day. Maybe the loss hurts because playing Duke means a little something more:

Maybe it hurts because Wisconsin's win over Kentucky means that we'd have had a better shot at winning the title if we'd beaten Duke. The Big Ten Tournament championship still aches, too, but it showed MSU's ability to match up with Wisconsin.

But neither of those two explanations is true. The reason it hurts is because I'm running on the fan version of the hedonic treadmill:

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

To be a fan is to be naturally greedy. Expectations can shift even within a particular game; my expectations prior to the BTT Championship were completely different than they were at the second half under-8 timeout, with MSU up 57-46. This makes my chart above a little misleading, because it takes a particular snapshot of expectations, and those expectations are shifting constantly. I don't think I ever expected a win against Duke, but that early 14-6 lead certainly got me close to that point.

I think this exchange from The Wire also sums this idea up pretty nicely:

Lester: Tell me something, Jimmy. How exactly do you think it all ends?
McNulty: What do you mean?
Lester: A parade? A gold watch? A shining Jimmy-McNulty-day moment, when you bring in a case sooooo sweet everybody gets together and says, "Aw, shit! He was right all along. Should've listened to the man." The job will not save you, Jimmy. It won't make you whole, it won't fill your ass up.
McNulty: I dunno, a good case—
Lester: Ends. They all end. The handcuffs go click and it's over. The next morning, it's just you in your room with yourself.

The point here is just that there's no end to the cycle. Even in the case of a national championship (the logical extreme) there's always next year. How do you think Alabama football fans feel? They're just as frustrated as the res of us.

This is why the 2013-14 Rose Bowl run was so satisfying. Expectations were constantly exceeded, despite wild increases in those expectations. Those (these?) are the seasons you live for as a fan. They're all fun, with virtually no downside.

In time, I'll recognize this tournament run as being one of those moments. But for now, I'll be on the treadmill, searching for that next case.