Michigan State expected to be playing for a national championship this year. It was talked about before the season, during the season, and on the eve of the NCAA Tournament.
It was something the Spartans never shied away from.
Denzel Valentine guaranteed it when asked after Michigan State’s final regular-season game and coach Tom Izzo said publicly it was one of four teams he has coached that he believed had what it took to win it all.
And that’s what made Friday’s loss to Middle Tennessee — just the eighth time a 15-seed has beaten a 2-seed — all the more difficult to process for the Spartans.
Izzo and Valentine, along with Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes and the rest of the roster struggled to explain it. How could a team so many expected to make it to Houston and the Final Four at the very least be headed home from the NCAA Tournament in the first round?
The simplest answer is that Middle Tennessee played better, and that is accurate. The Blue Raiders shot 55.9 percent from the field, including 57.9 percent from 3-point range, better than any opponent had all season against the Spartans.
And every time Michigan State made a run, Middle Tennessee answered, especially in the second half.
“They outplayed us,” Izzo said. “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.
“We just kind of got beat. We could never get the momentum, and we could never get the lead and that was disappointing.”
The bigger question was whether the pressure started to mount, whether all the talk of a national championship or bust was too much?
The Spartans insist it wasn’t.
“No, I don't feel like that was pressure at all,” Forbes said. “(We) 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.”
In fact, it’s the type of expectation he has made the norm at Michigan State, taking the Spartans to 19 straight NCAA Tournaments, reaching seven Final Fours and winning a national championship.
“There was pressure,” Izzo said. “They put it on me and I put it on them (and it) isn't going to change as long as I'm here. That's why you come here. You don’t come here to win a few games. You do that at Northern Michigan. (You) 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.”
Izzo said when the tournament bracket was released that he wasn’t worried about not being a No. 1 seed, even though most expected Michigan State to be a top seed.
That feeling has likely changed when looking at the fact the No. 1 seeds won their first-round games by a total of 117 points. It could have allowed Michigan State to overcome a poor defensive game and still advance.
Instead, the Spartans suffered what the analytic website fivethirtyeight.com said was the third-biggest upset in tournament history. Only No. 15 Norfolk State over No. 2 Missouri in 2012 and No. 15 Coppin State over No. 2 South Carolina in 1997 were more unlikely.