The Scene: East Lansing, Five Years Ago (nearly to the day)
The character: your humble author, somewhat recognizable despite the sideburns then adorning his face and the absence of a law school-sized dose of stress. He's a relatively carefree lad and, like much of his generation, is blissfully unaware of just how useless the Political Science degree he's about to finish will be in his pending job search. Still, there's a sense in the air that things will soon be different, and that these last few months of socially acceptable childhood should (paradoxically) be taken very seriously.
In the calendar of a major university, the NCAA tournament can be viewed as the last social marker before the total drag that is final exams and the end of the school year. This is especially so for the sports fanatic, and in particular the student at a school whose football team...had not yet arrived, let's put it that way (though I still maintain Brian Hoyer was a lot better than anyone gave him credit for).
Basketball was still the undisputed king of the Michigan State landscape, and rightfully so. It was far from clear that Mark Dantonio was going to accomplish anything other than frowning a lot in press conferences, Izzo had just locked up another regular season conference title, and his preseason #1 team had rounded into its typical peak form as the season neared its conclusion, settling for a 2-seed in the Midwest region.
The team had everything you wanted in a contender. Standout playmakers in Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Raymar Morgan. Senior leadership in Goran Suton and Travis Walton. Intriguing freshmen contributors in Delvon Roe and Draymond Green. And of course, a couple of good players who would later turn out to be
total headcases better suited as members of Iowa State's basketball team in Chris Allen and Korie Lucious. As an aside, there are few things more sobering than realizing very few current students of your alma mater know much at all about the players who you fanboyed over as a student, a fact I discovered when I talked to some MSU undergrads recently. Chilling.
Enter the tournament. MSU's first round matchup, 15-seed Robert Morris, put up something resembling a fight in the first half, but was eventually overpowered. This next part may come as a shock to some of you, but USC was actually viewed as a challenging second-round opponent at the time. Of course, it turned out they were really just a launching point for two talented players in Taj Gibson and Dwight Lewis, and not so much a stable program or anything, but those guys were still wearing the red and gold, so a career scoring day from Walton was necessary to secure the win.
On to the Sweet Sixteen. Perhaps it was just this year, but it seems like in those days, Cinderella runs were far less common, and the teams generally recognized as possessing superior talent moved on in the large majority of cases. In any case, this was the first matchup where losing would have been an understandable outcome. Kansas had its usual selection of NBA prospects, highlighted this time by the high-low combo of Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, the latter of whom had just hammerfucked (credit to MNWildcat for phrasing) Dayton with a triple double- 13 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 blocks. Yes, those numbers are real, and were gathered by a terrifying, Deliverance-looking dude missing at least 6* teeth.
*Numbers may be exaggerated by the fog of time.
At a basketball-entitled school like MSU, the Sweet Sixteen is generally when even people who don't give the slightest of cares about sports start paying attention. Or, to put it more accurately, it's the point at which basketball cannot be ignored. Every TV and computer screen (smartphones weren't really a thing yet at that point) was on CBS Sports or ESPN around the clock. Forget about the paper covering anything else that might have been going on in the world. Kansas was all anyone could talk about. It was explained that yes, his name is Goran, and he plays for us so stop giggling at his somewhat uncommon name. Debates raged about exactly how many babies Aldrich had eaten in his lifetime, and whether we might have to surrender our babies to him if we lost.
The game was nothing short of phenomenal. Kansas led for much of it, and Collins and Aldrich were every bit as good as advertised. But Lucas and Suton were better- better than the All-American combo they faced, especially in the clutch. Kalin Lucas scored seven points in the last minute to ice the game, and the rest of the night is lost on account of Sailor Jerry joining the celebration.
If the buildup to the Kansas game was tense and focused, the swing over to a new, even more formidable opponent was a concentrated shot of anxiety to the heart. This was the top overall seed, a team with an uncommon system, the players to execute it, and a coach on par with Izzo. And we only had two days to discuss it? BETTER STAY UP TILL 2 AM TALKING ABOUT IT.
Suton would continue his collegiate career's curtain call against top overall seed Louisville, a team which had just beaten Arizona by 40 points. If you were following college basketball at that time, a brief list of Louisville's standouts should bring back memories of just how terrifying Pitino's press can be when he's got the proper personnel- but on that night, Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels, and Terrance Williams couldn't match up with Suton and unheralded freshman Draymond Green.
When you make the Final Four, it's hard not to look at the other surviving teams and be like, 'Pfffff, we got this, these other teams ain't SHIT.' For me, at least, 2009 was not one of those times. The other Finalists were Villanova, a 3-seed powered by the criminally underrated Scottie Reynolds, and rock-chalk powers UConn and North Carolina, both stuffed with future pro players. This meant that, to claim the title, MSU would most likely have to go through three 1-seeds in a row- Louisville, UConn, and UNC.
The one thing I've disliked about winning the Rose Bowl (I know, I'm spoiled, sorry I'm not sorry) has been that it's displaced the MSU-UConn game as my favorite MSU sports moment. I watched the national title game in 2000, but I was 11 and not much of a sports fan. Having not yet come to college in 2005, I didn't feel much of a connection to that Final Four team, either.
That game against UConn was the sum total of everything great about college athletics, and what it can mean to follow them. I watched it in my dorm, with a group of my closest friends. No one could sit still. Every time anything happened, anything at all, there was jumping out of seats, fist-bumping (as was the style at the time), anxious pacing, statements of heavy import such as 'We GOT to get this stop,' the hasty arrangement of Jager bombs after a made three. The Huskies were an immensely talented team- A.J. Price, Kemba Walker, Stanley Robinson, Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet (yes, he's an NBA bust, but man, was he a terrorbeast in college). Back and forth. Back and forth. Neither team could get more than five points ahead of the other. Every possession was a war, and every cheer you screamed felt like sending munitions to the troops on the front line.
And then, like an arm-wrestling deadlock that slowly begins to press in one direction, MSU began shoving the Huskies away. Draymond's coming-out party continued, as did Suton's flourish to end his career. Morgan and Lucas continued their brilliant play. And though UConn would cut it down to three points briefly, the game felt over when Durrell Summers posterized Robinson on a dunk that remained the wallpaper for my computer until that hunk of junk heaved its last gasp about three years later.
I won't mince words- the final against UNC was not pretty. I honestly don't know how North Carolina had a single game where they won by less than 20 that year, let alone how they lost four games. Hansbrough, for whom my visceral hatred is only now starting to fade, belongs in the college basketball GOAT conversation. Wayne Ellington could have shot blindfolded all game and at least drawn iron. And Ty Lawson is clearly some kind of transdimensional wraith, not bound by normal physical laws about how quick human muscles and tendons are capable of moving. It was a blowout from tip-off, and it should have been. UNC had already crushed MSU in the B1G-ACC challenge, and then proved it was no fluke.
And yet, despite coming up short in embarrassing fashion, that tournament run remains at the center of my personal sports pantheon (though, again, it now shares that position with the 2013 football team). This, despite having seen the same team actually win a title, despite the Pistons winning a title back when I still cared about the NBA, despite the Red Wings being the best franchise in all of sports during my lifetime (feel free to debate this point, but know from the start how very wrong you are).
I don't think there's any way to top the memories and sentimentality of being there. Of course, I wasn't there literally; although the Final Four was in nearby Detroit, a broke undergrad like myself couldn't exactly spring for tickets. By being there, I mean being present on the campus, a part of it. I still live in Lansing, but only go on campus occasionally. College is a distinct part of my life that's over. And it was a good part, mostly, a part that I look back on fondly.
I continue to follow MSU athletics, more closely than is probably sensible, and I'm sure I know much, much more about the teams, the sports themselves, and collegiate athletics in general than when I was a student. But even if MSU goes on a magical run to the Final Four or beyond in the coming weeks, I sincerely doubt I'll remember it as fondly as the year we came up just short. I adore Adreian Payne. I have intense respect for Keith Appling's game. They just aren't my contemporaries.
If you're fortunate enough to be in college right now, especially if you're on your way out, I hope that's what this tournament is to you. I hope your team is in a place where you can look at them and feel the connection that can only be made by commonality of time and place and something special happening while millions of people watch. Don't miss a second of it. Skip class if you were unlucky enough to get a midday tip-off, and tell them ol' Green Akers gave you the O-K. And if your team eventually runs into the Spartans, I hope we run you off the court. Because I've found that that won't necessarily ruin the experience for you.