Spartans Suffer Worst Loss In Tournament History & the Tom Izzo Era in 90-81 Middle Tennessee Upset

A heartbroken Tom Izzo post NCAA loss to MTSU.  Photo courtesy of Sofiya Stumpos.
A heartbroken Tom Izzo post NCAA loss to MTSU. Photo courtesy of Sofiya Stumpos.

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The #2 Michigan State Spartans suffered the worst loss in NCAA Tournament history. It is also the worst loss of the Tom Izzo era at MSU when they were taken down 90-81 by #15 Middle Tennessee State.

The Spartans season record fell to 29-6. The Spartans mantra coming into the post season was, “Win nine.” Simply put the Spartans wanted the Big Ten Tournament crown and a National Championship. They won three and picked up the Big Ten Tournament title, but that road ended six wins short.

A heartbroken Tom Izzo said after, “Well, I need to start out by saying I thought Middle Tennessee played awfully well. They started making threes fall down from 30, and they outplayed us. I mean, there's no way I can put it any differently. They deserved to win. They were very well coached. They ran good stuff. We just really struggled to guard the smaller guys on the perimeter and struggled to find lineups.”

He added about these young men that he loves dearly, “Zel's had an incredible, incredible career, much less year. And just wasn't in the cards today. And Bryn early -- and Matt, really happy for Matt because he played one of his best games. And I think he's put himself in a position where he'll get to play some after this. But I felt bad for my guys. They've given me, this university, this program and the city a lot of stuff. But a better team won today. They really did. And we gotta take that like men and be class about it like I think they are. So that's it.”

It was the MSU defense that cost them this game. Something they have hung their hat on all year. The MSU offensive attack shot 56% and won the battle of the boards 30-28 despite the setback. MSU even had an impressive 20 assists on 30 baskets and shot 46% from long range.

An obviously overjoyed Kermit Davis the head coach of Middle Tennessee said after the game, “It was a spectacular day for Middle Tennessee State University and the fans and our players. Our players did such a tremendous job with our coaches. I have so much respect for Tom, and I've been following Michigan State basketball from afar for a lot of years. His culture nationally is what we're all trying to aspire to get to. So you beat a team that's so well-coached and their runs were terrific. And our guys just answered every run. The way we distributed the ball and these guys right here were fantastic. So just tell you all, it was a great day. But our guys had a belief that we could win. I know it sounds maybe cliche as a coach but they did they had a great belief all week in the preparation.”

Blue Raider Perrin Buford said, “I mean, we came into the game thinking we were going to win. We put in a lot of hard work. The coaches did a good job doing the scouting, and we put it right into the game. So I think it was with three minutes left in the game, it was a huge possession. We were up three and we came up with a huge rebound. We went down and ran some good offense, and I was like, okay, we really got this. And I was like, guys, all the pressure's on them. We're just here trying to have fun and let's get it done.”

Fighting tears a dejected Denzel Valentine said after the game that, “I've got a lot of emotions running through my head right now. I mean, I'm more mad and disappointed because I know what this team could accomplish. Matt had a heck of a game. Bryn, bounced back in the second half. I'm just really disappointed right now. That's probably one of the worst games we played all year, and it happened to be in the first round. You can't have that if you want to win championships. And in high school, winning two state championships, we didn't, me and Bryn, we didn't do that in the games that mattered. And today it kind of fell apart. And just sucks right now because I know the capability our team had.”

To his credit, a brutally honest Tom Izzo said of his concern facing Middle Tennessee prior to the game was, “Well, we were concerned. But I'll be honest with you, in my wildest dreams I didn't think they'd hit some of the shots they hit. So I was more disappointed in the way we turned the ball over and did things that didn't give ourselves a chance. I mean, we were shooting 50 percent ourselves, you know? We just -- we turned it over too much and we didn't give ourselves a chance to score. And then we -- you know, we didn't guard them real good. But, man, they made some shots. Boy, really take my hat off to them on some of the shots they made.”

While the tears flowed from the three Spartan players and their head coach afterward I asked Tom Izzo about his mantra for every senior class. Izzo wants every group to, “Leave a footprint.” This team may have not won a title, but they will still leave that footprint.

Izzo told me, “Look, I can't sit here, it's just not in my nature to feel good about everything, but footprint, they left a big foot footprint. So many different ways. The work ethic, the attention to detail, the classroom, the hospital visits. Doesn't matter what it was in. They made it. They gave me everything. They gave me the ability to sleep with two eyes shut again. That disappeared for a few years.”

He continued, “When I get through today, I'll be able to tell them how I really feel about them. But I'm like them, it's just a tough day today, and I don't want to be overdramatic. But I made the comment, I put myself out there that this team had a chance to win a national championship. We just got beat. I want everybody to know this team had a chance to win a national championship. I don't feel one bit different. It's what they say about pro ball in college, one-and-done time. Anybody in your -- as I told my team wonders, why I'm crazy sometimes -- one-and-done time makes it a little different than best-of-seven.”

He finished with, “And one bad day and you're going home. And so they've done it all for us. They've done it all for our school. I mean, there was more than me that owes them, my assistant coaches, everybody owes them. I mean, the leadership they showed last summer, you know, it's legendary. And you're right, those that know me, I don't make many predictions. Those that know me I don't say this team was better than this team, was better than this team. This team was a lot like Zel. It was the most versatile team. It did things off the court, on the court and in the classroom like none I've ever had. It just didn't work out for this team, but it won't dampen my respect, love, care, it won't dampen it at all. It will be used for whatever length of time that I'm here. In other words, other teams are going to hear starting next two weeks from now when we start looking at things again, they're going to hear what this team did. That's probably the best compliment you can give them.”

So did the Spartans crack under the pressure? Was it just too much? Bryn Forbes said, “No, I don't feel like that was pressure at all. Just made some mistakes. A lot of mental errors down the stretch. Just the small things kind of turned into big things. And we couldn't win after that.”

Matt Costello addressed the pressure question with, “No, there wasn't pressure like that. We had expectations for ourselves, but we just failed defensively today. That's where we've hung our hat all year, and we couldn't stop them. And that started with me on the 3. So, man, just sucks.”

Finally a defiant Tom Izzo assumed the microphone and wanted to make one thing clear about pressure. Saying, “I'll answer that. There was pressure. They put it on me and I put it on them. Isn't going to change as long as I'm here. That's why you come here. You come here to win a few games. You do that at Northern Michigan. Come here to try to win a championship, and that's the pressure. If that's pressure, as hard as these guys worked, if it's pressure to have to come into this tournament, that's sad, because the pressure was what they did when nobody was watching. And they did it all spring, summer and fall. So I love pressure. I'm going to put it on me.”

There is no way to sugar coat this. This was the biggest loss of the Tom Izzo era and the biggest upset in NCAA history. Credit Middle Tennessee for being the better team today, but this win will sting for years. Just like Weber State beating MSU (79-72 March 17, 1996) in Jud Heathcote’s final game still stings, this one will for generations. Still tomorrow we will wake up. The sun will rise and this was a great Spartan team of fantastic young people. A bad loss, but great young people and Tom Izzo is still the head coach.

Tom Izzo said what I feel as well. With tears streaming down his eyes, “So proud, I guess the proudest you could say if my son could be like them I'd be a happy guy.” I agree Tom.