A Tribute to the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

Middle Tennessee State’s 90-81 over Michigan State needs to be recognized for what it is, one of the greatest upsets in sports history. Never mind that it came in the first round. Never mind that Michigan State was a two seed. Never mind that a “Blue Raider” brings to mind a cross of the Blue Man Group and Howie Long. No, this game was one of the most intriguing surprises in March Madness history.

Most of the time when there is a shocking upset-Diamondbacks over the Yankees, Giants over the Patriots, Miracle on Ice-there is a story line of the David and Goliath. The Evil Empire against the upstart rebellion. And usually, these type of upsets come against teams that people love to hate. Think of Duke, Kentucky, Alabama, the Yankees, the Cowboys, the Patriots, the Lakers, so on and so forth. Teams that always seem to have it all, leaving the rest not only envious but spiteful. The young, amateur American hockey team, standing for freedom and justice, against the experienced, grim-faced Soviet veterans, a powerhouse team that epitomized all that was evil about the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And the good guys won.

But Michigan State isn’t one of those teams. They’ve got a nationally well respected coach in Tom Izzo. Their leader is Denzel Valentine, one of the best players in the country and seen as a loyal son that stayed through his senior season during the age of one-and-done that many claim is ruining college basketball. The Spartans were well balanced, fundamental, and had their own chip on their shoulder after being snubbed of a one seed that many felt they deserved.

Always calm, cool, and collected during the high stress drama of March Madness, Michigan State had quietly put together a terrific run of several deep runs through the tournament over the past few years, one of the few models of consistency in the pure chaos that is the third month of the year in college basketball. They don’t play dirty. They don’t play fancy. They just go about their business and end up in the Final Four every couple years. Which is why over 60% of people had them in their Final Four. In a year where parity ruled supreme, it made sense to go with a well coached team who had occupied the No.1 spot in the rankings for the longest amount of time this season.

The other common element of momentous underdog victories is the presence of a signature play. The one that will be replayed on Sportscenter every year. The one that will be a signed picture framed on the wall in a bar. The one people will write books about. The Helmet Catch. Baron Davis dunking on Andrei Kirilenko. Bill Mazeroksi’s home run. But that was nowhere to be found this game.

Michigan State, really, didn’t play that poorly. They didn’t shoot a terrible percentage from the field or go ice cold from three. They didn’t miss bunny layups or get murdered on the glass. There were no mind boggling defensive lapses. Nobody got into a fight in the huddle. (Looking at you, Baylor.)

Middle Tennessee State, really, didn’t play that well. They didn’t catch fire from beyond the arc. No one guy exploded for 40 points. They didn’t get every foul call. No circus shots went in.

No, what transpired yesterday afternoon was one of the most incredible single sporting events in recent memory. Yet most people will never remember it because it wasn’t a prime time game. There was no Cinderella moment, and that’s what makes it so significant. End to end, from the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Final Four and NCAA Champion favorite Michigan State Spartans were outplayed by the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. Plain and simple, no luck involved, Middle Tennessee State was the best team on the court yesterday. The Blue Raiders slayed the dragon. This one ended just about as well as Thermopylae did for the Spartans.

And in ten years, nobody will remember it.

Busted Brackets Galore

The day before March Madness started, I reneged on Cal and changed my pick to Kansas beating them in the Sweet 16 and making it to the championship game. That was a good move. 

The real shocker was Michigan State. Seen as the consensus safest Final Four pick based on their recent run of success and rather tame region, the Spartans flopped as Middle Tenessee state shocked the world.

It’s March, all right. 

A Method to the March Madness

Some intriguing hoops predictions today. Picking based off the coolest jerseys would probably serve you just as well as diving into the analytics, but here’s some pointers anyways.

Who can be trusted?

Villanova Wildcats

(Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

It may be difficult to trust ‘Nova after the repeated early exits in the previous few years. However, this team is much more likely to advance than Villanova in years past. Several of the losses were fluky, but a pattern has emerged that Villanova has trouble with athletic penetrating guards. That’s what doomed them against NC State last year. This year, they are unlikely to face their Kyrptonite until they face Arizona and Allonzo Trier. That would be an Elite Eight match up and a successful run for the Wildcats. That, combined with a balanced scoring attack and an elite defense, should help Villanova to their best run since they made it to the 2009 Final Four.

Michigan State Spartans

The key to March is veteran coaching experience. Last year’s Final Four of Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Michigan State  were all teams with quality coaching in spades. Tom Izzo always knows how to push the right buttons in March and his team is led by senior captain Denzel Valentine, a do-it-all combo guard with size and a savvy basketball IQ.  The Spartans’ experience, trademark solid defense, and coaching acumen will net them a long run in the tournament once again. They’ll be playing with a chip on their shoulder after being snubbed of a No. 1 seed in favor of Oregon. This may be the safest Final Four bet out there.

North Carolina Tar Heels

(Chuck Burton/AP Photo)

In a year where Villanova was the only team in the entire country who had not lost to an unranked team until they fell to Seton Hall in the Big East Championship Game, there is no way to predict what madness will happen next. Sometimes, the craziest thing is that the expected fiasco gives way to predictable order. That’s why UNC is my pick to win the NCAA Championship. The Tar Heels experienced a few bumps along the way, but most of their losses came with key contributors injured. They are perhaps the best road team in the country, taking out Duke in Durham and beating fellow No. 1 seed Virginia on a neutral court to win the ACC. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are perhaps the best 1-2 punch in basketball, (sorry Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil) and unlike Providence, Paige and Johnson are backed up with an entire squad of seven footers and NBA players. Take the most talented team in the country and multiply that with a Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams, and you’ve got a recipe for success in March.

Proceed with Caution

Maryland Terrapins

(Evan Habeeb/USA Today)

Much of the tournament is about momentum. Some teams have shown steel in their spine and responded well from losses. Other teams are prone to extended stretches of inconsistent play. Maryland falls in the latter group. Sure, Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, and Diamond Stone are talented, but this group has shown that they are vulnerable to over-reliance on Trimble and playing down to their competition. It’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where the Terps play like they did when they lost to an abysmal Minnesota team and first round opponent South Dakota State shoots the lights out from three point land (that’s their specialty), pulling of the 12-5 upset. Maryland is trending downwards, and it doesn’t appear that the ship will be righted anytime soon.

Oklahoma Sooners

(USA Today)

Anyone who watched Oklahoma play Villanova at Pearl Harbor this season knows what this group is capable of. Anyone who watched OU play Kansas in Lawrence knows that Buddy Hield can channel Steph Curry and carry his teammates in a essentially a 1-vs-5 scenario. But  to those who have watched Oklahoma recently, and paid close attention to their style of play, a pattern becomes clear. This OU team almost entirely reliant on Hield and the three-point shot. When Buddy is off or the shots aren’t falling, this team is simply mediocre. The experience and chemistry of the starting five for Oklahoma is vastly overstated as they have little tournament experience and have no semblance of a bench whatsoever. That will come back to haunt them as the games wear on and legs get tired. The Sooners are a solid Sweet 16 pick and maybe even Elite Eight. But they are just as likely to flame out as they are to cut down the nets in Houston.

Oregon Ducks

(Casey Sapio/USA Today)

Oregon surprised many as a No. 1 seed, and in the end it may do more harm than good. This comes off as a team that could make some noise as a mild underdog. But Oregon is not used to being the hunted rather than the hunter. This could lead an inexperienced team to play tight and be their own worst enemy against an underdog with nothing to lose. A good, athletic team to be sure, but an average road team. The PAC-12 was not as strong this year as in years past, and Oregon doesn’t have experience under the pressure of the national spotlight. A potential matchup with St. Joe’s or Cincinnati in the Round of 32 looms ominous as a potential upset.

An Exercise in Oxymorons-Solid Sleeper Picks

California Golden Bears

(Timothy Gonzalez/AP)

Can a 4 seed really be a sleeper pick? The answer is yes, if one picks them to knock off Kansas and end up in the Final Four. The Golden Bears have the talent to play with anybody. It goes beyond stud freshman Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. The team is led by All PAC-12 Point Guard Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird is finally finding his stroke and living up to the hype, and they have a true 7 footer in Kameron Rooks. This team may be the best in the country on their home court, but they are still learning how to play on the road. Cuonzo Martin is a good coach who has seen tremendous growth from this team under his steady hand, and Cal has more pure talent than anyone on their side of the bracket. If they keep a cool head, this is a team that could make some noise.

Seton Hall Pirates

(Photographer not listed)

The tournament is all about momentum, and perhaps nobody has more than Seton Hall right now. Isiah Whitehead is turning the corner on becoming a mature enough player to take advantage of his natural talent, and the rest of his team is coming together behind him. Seton Hall plays with a mean streak and an intensity that leaves no lost love between them and their opponents. They’ve beaten quality opponents such as Xavier and Villanova. Seton Hall is peaking at the right time, has a star player hitting his groove, and a tactically intellectual coach. What else does one need to make a surprise run?

Wisconsin Badgers

(Photographer not listed)

The start of the season couldn’t have gone much worse for the Badgers following their run to the NCAA title in 2015. They were unable to adjust for the losses of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker and legendary Head Coach Bo Ryan quit in the middle of the season. The Badgers looked doomed for the NIT or worse. Instead of crumpling,Wisconsin stepped and showed their midwestern mettle, righting the ship under Greg Gard. Gard did such a fine job that the interim label was removed and he was named Wisconsin’s full time head coach. Being seeded as a 7 seed had much to do with their 9-9 record in B1G conference play and their early season struggles. If they played the whole year like they did in the second half of the season, they would have netted themselves a shiny 3 seed. They will a tough out in the tournament.

My Final Four:

Cal, Duke, North Carolina, and Michigan State.