Big Ten Conference Tournament Champions were named a #2 seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The media has since addressed the disappointment in this selection, as many believed Michigan State University had earned themselves a #1 seed for this year’s March Madness. Regardless, critics and commentators had MSU going deep in the tournament, many even having them winning the entire thing.
I watched this team play every single game this year. As a die hard Michigan State fan, particularly basketball, I had no doubts they were equipped to hoist the final trophy and cut down the nets in the NCAA Championship Game on April 4.
It was clear that this Michigan State team had all it needed to reach their ultimate goal: talent, experience and veterans, and confidence. With Denzel Valentine being a candidate for Player of the Year and a Hall of Fame Coach in Tom Izzo, it appeared they had a strong platform for success leading into this tournament. Matt Costello had, also, established himself as a top caliber college basketball player, and, being a senior, was only another factor that would contribute to their inevitable success.
However, it is called March Madness for a very good reason. Today, #15 seed Middle Tennessee State University shocked the world against #2 seed Michigan State University. Admittedly, after creating my own bracket for fun, I had Michigan State winning the 2016 NCAA Championship. And, not because the greatest critics all agreed with this choice, but every year I have them winning it. I believe in them, the university, in Tom Izzo, in the culture, in history of the program, and in the present and the future of the basketball program. And, no doubt will I question it next year, as a result of what happened today.
We have to remember. These kids are 18, 19, 20, and 21 years old. They can’t help, but be regular college students, too. They saw, heard, and smelled the media, press, and ESPN rating and analyzing them, their expectations, and how far they should go. They knew that as a #2 seed, they were expected to not just win this game, but demolish them. And, on any other day, they probably would have. But, today was different. It was March Madness, and it was do or die.
We all know what it’s like to be the underdog, to have nothing to lose, and to prove ourselves on any given day. To get pumped up, excited, and anxious to face a team you are not supposed to compete with…ever. To come together, for one game, for forty minutes, and play out of your minds, to upset a team, and make some noise. It’s far easier to show up for this situation, than being the team with the target on your back. In sports, it is reality.
To their credit, Michigan State showed up, which is sometimes the hardest part. They didn’t play poorly. They stayed together, continuing to slap each other’s hands, stayed positive, and supported each other. But, Middle Tennessee State came out on fire; playing at a championship level, and hitting shot… after shot… after shot.
As athletes, facing a loss is excruciating. But, facing a loss that you are expected to win is even worse. But, facing a loss that you are expected to win, and that ends your career is the worst. Right now, Denzel Valentine is blaming himself. He is looking in the mirror saying that the result lied on his shoulders. He was the star, captain, and leader of this team; and it was his responsibility to carry his team to the end. In fact, he even just stated in the press conference that he had a responsibility that he didn’t come through on, that, “he is going to carry it with him for the rest of his life.”
How is that fair? Here, we are playing a team sport, where each player’s contributions affect the final result. But, as high level, perfectionist-type athletes, we can’t see past it being completely our own fault. Why can’t Valentine recognize that Middle Tennessee State came out and executed perfectly… on this given day? It should hurt, and it should feel disappointing, but the pressure and guilt he is putting on himself is not healthy, or fair.
He doesn’t need to see how many brackets he ruined, or busted. He doesn’t need to hear, “how did you lose that one?” And, he doesn’t need to hear, “Do you still have a chance to win ‘Player of the Year?'” He feels it. And, he is struggling, and will continue to struggle. Again, until, we as viewers and fans, have been in his shoes, we have no right to say anything, except praise him, and the efforts he put forth during his ENTIRE four-year career as a Michigan State Spartan. He exceeded all expectations.
And, for that, I, personally, thank him for demonstrating what Middle Tennessee State did today. He was an underdog as an underclassmen. He was never pegged as a future Player of the Year candidate, or Big Ten Player of the Year as a senior. Through hard work, dedication, and commitment, he exemplified excellence, and provided hope to student-athletes who aren’t rated as a five-star athlete out of high school. My hope is his guilt fades quickly, so he can look in the mirror, and see great accomplishment beyond one game — and, feel pride. Because he deserves it.