EAST LANSING, Mich. – Cassius Winston remembers he was at basketball practice with his University of Detroit Jesuit High School team last March. Then he remembers stopping to watch the NCAA tournament. It wasn’t just any tournament game. Winston was tuned to Michigan State’s game in the first round against Middle Tennessee State.
Winston was watching his future team and, like a vast majority of viewers and bracket enthusiasts, couldn’t believe what was happening.
“I was in shock,” Winston said. “I was just in shock.”
Michigan State lost to Middle Tennessee State, 90-81, in the biggest bracket busting upset of the tournament. The Spartans, led by AP Player of the Year Denzel Valentine, were a second seed, but they had won 13 of 14 games entering the NCAA tournament and had the look of a team destined to make another run to the Final Four and contend for the national title.
Then MTSU started the game on a 15-2 run and never trailed. The Blue Raiders made 11 of 19 3-pointers and shot 55.9 percent (33 of 59) overall. It was the first time Michigan State had lost its NCAA opener in five years and just the third time in the last 12 seasons.
The returning players haven’t spoken much about the game. They don’t have to.
“It’s in the air,” said senior guard Eron Harris on Thursday during Michigan State’s media day at the Breslin Center.
That loss has been hovering over every offseason workout, weight room session and practice the Spartans have held the past seven months as they prepare for this season. Michigan State is ranked No. 9 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, just ahead of fellow Big Ten member Wisconsin. It is a team that doesn’t have a returning double-digit scorer, has already lost two of its best big men to knee injuries, and will be counting on major contributions from four freshmen, a concept rarely heard of during the Izzo era.
It’s a pretty safe bet that Michigan State will be playing past the first weekend of March Madness, but last season’s loss to Middle Tennessee State in the first round was an exception to that rule. Here’s a look at how the Spartans have fared in the last 12 NCAA tournament appearances.
|Year||Round reached||Final opponent|
|2016||First round||Middle Tennessee|
|2009||National championship||North Carolina|
|2007||Second round||North Carolina|
|2006||First round||George Mason|
|2005||Final Four||North Carolina|
Expectations are still high, as they always are, with a Tom Izzo team, but in the back of every player’s and coach’s mind is last March 18 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“I’ve seen one of the most aggressive and anxious teams (in the offseason) since I’ve been here,” redshirt sophomore forward Kenny Goins said. “Every workout, every lift, every drill: It seems we’ve been attacking it full-go. Maybe that game has something to do with that, maybe it doesn’t, but that’s what it kind of seems like in my mind.”
Motivation can come in many forms.
“We don’t want to see that again,” Harris said. “Our grind is turned up, and our focus has to turn up. We’ve got so much ahead of us we can’t even think about that type of thing. We are fueled, though. Definitely, that fuel is in us. That fire is there.”
Izzo said he learned a valuable lesson last March when he failed to call a timeout sooner than he did during MTSU’s early spurt. The timeout came four minutes, 31 seconds into the game but not until MTSU had a 13-point lead. Izzo took a jab at himself and his new status as a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in the process.
“The only thing I learned from that is I learned that I made a mistake. Nobody else. I made the mistake,” Izzo said. “This year if we get down 12-0, there will be a timeout called. I mean that sincerely. I had so much faith in my team that I forgot that there’s another team that is getting energy from those threes going in, the lead going to 8, to 11, to 12, to 15, and finally the Hall of Fame coach called a timeout a little late.”
Michigan State plays a pair of exhibition games against Division II teams Northwood (Oct. 27) and Saginaw Valley State (Nov. 2) before flying to Hawaii to face No. 11 Arizona in the Armed Forces Classic on Nov. 11. That starts a month that includes games against No. 4 Kentucky in New York City, No. 1 Duke in Durham, N.C., and a trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament where No. 14 Louisville is also in the field. The Spartans will be traveling 13,600 miles in 22 days.
In the back of their minds will be last March. Not as a haunting memory, but as a reminder of why they are playing such a grueling first-month schedule.
“I’m pretty sure some of you had Michigan State in the brackets,” said Winston, now a freshman point guard and not just a spectator. “So, you see what I’m saying. Nobody wants to go through that. They’ve already put into our head that coming into this year we want to win the national championship. That’s the end goal.”