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The NCAA Tournament and the ‘Selection Sunday Shaft’

Does Michigan State often get the short end of the stick?

Syndication: The Greenville News Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

On the second Sunday of March, the heralded selection committee determines the NCAA Tournament field and the fates of all the schools involved.

But fans are rarely allowed any insight on the justification of this grand jury’s decisions. Some schools and their respective fan bases revel at their draw or the realization they’re going dancing. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, after all. Others sulk in disappointment when they receive what I’d term as the “Selection Sunday Shaft.”

Michigan Statethe No. 7 seed in the West Region — can recall seeing the short end of the stick, as can many others, on more than one Selection Sunday. Obviously, the “good for TV” matchups facing MSU with a tilt against former Spartan point guard Foster Loyer and Davidson, and a potential tournament rematch with Duke are not merely a coincidence.

We’ve seen this before. Here are some of the recent instances in MSU’s case to jog your memory:

2014: No. 4 Michigan State, East Region, (29-9, 12-6 Big Ten)

After enduring a season in which its star-studded lineup was routinely disjoined, Michigan State returned its starting five to run through the Big Ten Tournament. The stars aligned as MSU met Michigan in the final. The Spartans submitted a strong case to the committee as one of the nation’s elite teams when fully healthy, as MSU defeated the regular season champion Michigan Wolverines 69-55. The Spartans carried what is still arguably head coach Tom Izzo’s most talented team into the NCAA Tournament, starting Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne.

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Michigan drew a No. 2 seed, and Michigan State got the No. 4 line. Ever since this bracket reveal, I have been convinced the committee blows its nose at the Big Ten Tournament results. If you don’t believe me, go ask No. 5-seeded Iowa – arguably America’s hottest team entering the 2022 tournament – and First Four competitor, No. 11-seeded Indiana.

2015: No. 7 Michigan State, East Region, (27-12,12-6 Big Ten)

The committee claims to consider geographic preference for teams beyond the No. 1 and No. 2 seed lines, as was the case in these consecutive years – a concession seemingly underserved for teams with average records, so good on the committee there.

However, this is where my second gripe with the committee was born, as its desire to force what Izzo fittingly called “good for TV” storylines graced Michigan State.

After derailing No. 1 Virginia and Justin Anderson’s hopes in the Big Dance the year prior, No. 7 MSU drew No. 2 Virginia once again after the Spartans bested No. 10 Georgia.

All of this came after the Spartans took Wisconsin — an eventual No. 1 seed and the national runner-up that year — to overtime in the Big Ten Tournament title game. At least the committee stuck to its principle and disregarded the Big Ten Tournament Results. MSU went to the Final Four itself in spite of the committee doubling down in selecting the East Region.

2016: No. 2 Michigan State, Midwest Region (29-6, 13-5 Big Ten)

Possibly the most consequential result of all. MSU almost assuredly locked up the fourth No. 1 seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament. I, and many around me, naively assumed so at least. The committee stuck to one of its habits and discarded the BTT result, sure. But the final No. 1 seed fell to Oregon, which also posted a 29-6 record. Maybe Oregon’s geography factored into the decision, resulting in the Ducks being the No. 1 seed in the West.

Michigan State, of course, went on to join unwanted company, becoming only the eighth No. 2 seed to fall to a No. 15 seed. In the years since, only Virginia has one-upped that feat, losing as a No. 1 seed to a No. 16 seed in 2018. Had MSU drawn the No. 1 seed and avoided Giddy Potts and Middle Tennessee State, what’s to say the Spartans don’t fulfill the program’s championship aspirations as many predicted the team would that year?

2019: No. 2 Michigan State, East Region (28-6, 16-4 Big Ten)

This is the year the Spartans left no stone unturned. A regular season championship, a Big Ten Tournament championship and a very respectable record surely warranted the No. 1 seed.

As it turned out, No. 2 Michigan State drew No. 1 overall Duke (29-5) in the East. The committee cited a shorter geographic distance to games as justification for MSU’s placement, claiming it was a fair draw. And in reality, it didn’t matter, as MSU defeated Zion Williamson’s Duke in an instant classic in the Elite Eight.

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However, as we saw after No. 1 Wisconsin defeated No. 1 and then undefeated Kentucky in the 2015 Final Four, it is rare for David to recover from the hangover after defeating Goliath. Wisconsin lost to Duke in the finals that year, and of course, Michigan State fell to No. 3 Texas Tech in the Final Four.

These are not intended to be apologies or excuses, but a reminder that to prevail in a win-or-go-home tournament, everything has to go right. It’s no coincidence the committee artificially draws these critical matchups, and it’s no surprise when it favors some of its tendencies and ignores others, and it’s getting old.

Enough with the planned vendetta games. They lose their value when you stage them. No wonder Michigan State got the Duke draw when Mike Kryzewski’s last tournament could possibly come to an end at the hands of the team that killed his most recent chance at a championship.

Nothing came as a surprise this Selection Sunday, yet I always allow myself to be.

The Spartans were inconsistent this season and are in no position to petition for any favorability this year, but anyone could’ve seen these matchups coming from a mile away.

The committee did it right at least once since I can remember, though. After North Carolina rolled over Michigan State in Detroit earlier that season, the selectors appropriately allowed the two teams to meet again in the title game at Ford Field in 2009.

More of that, please, even if it means a heartbreak.

It is March, after all, and that’s how it ought to be.