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.