Oh, we had such high hopes this year. . . There was no over-archingly dominant team this year, and my Spartans had been on quite a roll, winning 13 of their last 14 games heading into the NCAA tournament, winning the Big Ten conference tournament, and grinding out tough wins against good teams in the final two games. So we were eagerly looking forward to the NCAAs. Honestly, this looked like our best chance in years to win the championship. Unlike most of Coach Izzo's previous teams, it would have been disappointing not to make at least the Final Four. This was Coach Izzo's best chance in years to win his second championship, and the stars seemed to be aligning perfectly.
We simply had no mental framework for losing in the first round. I still can't quite believe we did. It was all set up so perfectly for us. Oh, I was a little concerned about the possibility of meeting Virginia in the Regional Final, especially since we'd eliminated them from the last two NCAAs, and they would certainly be extra-motivated to play us the third year in a row. And I wanted no part of the possibility of seeing Purdue for a third time this season, since we'd split two grinding, gruelling games during the season. But I never imagined we'd lose in the first round. . .
But we did lose. In the first round. Hats off to Middle Tennessee. They played a tough, gritty, fearless game against us, and they simply couldn't miss, it seemed. They smacked us in the face right from the opening tip, running out to a 15-2 lead in the first five minutes of the game, and forcing us to play catch-up the whole game. We slowly clawed our way back into the game; twice, late in the game, we pulled within a single point, but each time, Middle Tennessee made the big plays, hit the key shots, made the clutch steals, and we made the crucial, excruciating turnovers. And when the final horn sounded, we had lost the game.
To put the game into context - this is the 32nd year of the 64-team format for the tournament. That means there have now been 128 games between 2-seeds and 15-seeds (and there were a lot of us who thought we 'should have' been a 1-seed; you'd be very kind not to rub that in our faces). The 15-seeds have now won eight of those 128 games. This was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament. But I have no basis for complaining; it was just our turn in the barrel, I guess. If it wasn't my Spartans on the losing end, I'd smile, and shake my head, and mutter to myself about how crazy and unpredictable the tournament is, and this is why they call it March Madness, and so forth. But wow. . . when it's our turn, it just stings. Or makes you numb. Or both at the same time.
If I step back, it almost looks like we got caught in some crazy weird vortex of fate (I don't really believe in the whole 'vortex of fate' thing, but, you know. . .). Of the 32 winners of first-round games this year, ten of them - almost a third - are double-digit seeds: two 10-seeds, three 11s, two 12s, a 13, a 14 and a 15. I don't ever recall anything remotely close to such a massively crazy convergence of upsets in the same tournament. And however it happened, my Spartans got caught in it.
Maybe next year. . .
To quote from The Bridge on the River Kwai: "Madness. . . Madness. . ."
But hey, at least our women won. . . ;)