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Legacy Lost

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Tom Izzo finally succumbed to an early-round upset, perhaps the largest in NCAA Tournament history. Guess I can't avoid talking about it.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Having marinated in Michigan State basketball's own Appalachian State for almost 24 hours now, perhaps the best thing for this writer and any in the fanbase who want to bleed this toxin out of our collective system is to talk about it.

Unfortunately, because I was at work while this atrocity happened, I can only give the impressions I had while following the box score, at first with mild surprise, then much stronger surprise, then the slightest of misgivings, then serious worry, and then, around the time of the under-12 timeout in the second half, the realization that Tom Izzo's best shot at a national title since he won his last one was on track to go up in smoke.

Michigan State, a 2-seed who many considered to be underseeded, lost in the first round to 15-seed Middle Tennessee State. I won't try to sell you on MTSU being sorely underrated. They're a decent-not-great team from an utterly nondescript conference. But, what they were yesterday - and this is the only thing that matters - was a better, more determined team. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Two teams stepped onto the court, one was far more prepared to go, and the other now has a roster full of underclassmen who will fact the pressure to make this right, four seniors who will regret yesterday for the rest of their lives, and a coach who will feel those things a hundred fold. That last aspect is more of what I'm prepared to ruminate on a bit, having only seen a few minutes of the game with my eyeballs.

No Spartan fan with enough neurons to form a synapse is going to try to minimize the calamity yesterday represented. Speak platitudes about the other team playing a hell of a game if you want, because of course they did. And, as bitter and long-lived as this defeat will be for MSU, it will be the contrary for MTSU's players, coaches, and fans - a cherished memory for as long as any of them are alive to remember it. But there's no excuse for MSU losing that game.

Want to say they couldn't miss? Sure, there's some truth to that. 11 for 19 from 3 is a vital ingredient to pulling this kind of upset. But, if my rudimentary math is correct, 11 3s adds up to...33 points. MTSU scored 90. The sheer number of uncontested layups, completed and-ones, and putbacks put MSU's foundational priorities of defense and rebounding to shame. And, more than the shooting percentages, every time MSU showed signs of asserting itself, MTSU made the crucial play to fight them off, push the lead back to 6 or 7 or 8, and MSU never strung together enough plays of its own to change that.

Looking long term, this is a horrendous disappointment for a senior class that was in position to add its names to MSU's hoops pantheon. Denzel Valentine is still a legit player of the year candidate, but he played a terrible game, particularly as a ballhandler. Bryn Forbes nearly brought MSU back into the game in the second half, but his postseason swoon continued in a scoreless first. Matt Costello, I can't be critical of, as he was unstoppable all game - until he stepped to the free throw line with a chance to cut it to one in the late stages. Having put their names on a lot of record lists, this crew deserved better, but only in the abstract, because in the highest-pressure moment of their lives, each of them wilted in a different way.

And, for all the agony those seniors must now live with, Tom Izzo has to be wondering what the hell happened. This was a golden chance to raise his second championship banner. He had the team, with a balance of depth, experience, talent, and leadership that took years to construct. The field is bereft of a powerhouse you would hope to avoid. And his pedigree suggests that he was the perfect coach to guide this team, in this tournament, to the goal he's been chasing for 15 years now.

But, it wasn't to be. Instead, he loses the mantle of postseason brilliance that has defined him more than anything else.

To be sure, he's among good company. Krzyzewski, Self, Calipari, Pitino, whoever you want to list, all of them have had their postseason faceplant (or two or several). Whatever happened yesterday, though, it has to fundamentally change the manner in which people talk about Tom Izzo. He isn't diminished; there's still literally no one I would rather have on the Spartan bench. If he never wins another title, though, yesterday's game is going to have an outsize influence on his legacy.