This is the post I should've written before Sunday, so you'd know what was coming. I only managed to nod suggestively in its direction. Now it's just about making sense of what happened.
Because to make sense of what happened, you have to get Michigan State. Darion Atkins doesn't, or else he wouldn't have talked sideways about his teammates not wanting it enough. No, I don't actually blame Atkins one bit. He's frustrated, he just walked off a college basketball court for the last time, and to the uninitiated, what just happened really did look an awful lot like one team wanting it a lot more than the other. But I'd venture to say nobody in the UVA locker room really gets Michigan State, nor do 99% of UVA fans. After this, you'll know the true story of UVA's 2015 tournament exit.
See, MSU is built on a certain culture that Tom Izzo has cultivated. It's a culture of birthright, of entitlement. It makes them arrogant. There's a hint of punk in their game. Not Joey Ramone punk. Think Greivis Vasquez punk. The Spartans are cocky to an extreme, and it works extremely well for them. They've been brought up to believe two things: one, that it's their right to beat Michigan, and two, that it's their right to excel in March.
This doesn't make them complacent. On the contrary, it makes them hungry. I often say that getting college kids to believe they've been disrespected is the easiest thing in the world. They view the very existence of an opponent as disrespect. That you would think you have any claim to winning a game against their birthright is disrespect on the order of making a rival claim to the throne.
As a result, they're really sore losers. Some say that's a good thing; Vince Lombardi was the sorest loser in history. "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser," he said. Several years ago, Michigan made the U-M/MSU game a rivalry again by reeling off three straight wins; when MSU got one back, Draymond Green boasted that "The world is back into place." He wasn't kidding. Green had been recruited to MSU under the premise that beating Michigan is something you do as naturally as breathing.** Three straight losses threw off his world order. Izzo and his players have developed a pattern of saying in post-loss press conferences, "I'm not here to make excuses," and then rattling off a dozen excuses to rationalize why the world didn't turn out the way they expect.
-- After losing to Duke in the 2013 NCAA tournament, Gary Harris complained about a free throw disparity; MSU had shot 24 free throws to Duke's 16 before the first stop-the-clock foul.
-- After losing to Michigan last year, Izzo bemoaned Keith Appling's sore wrist as a reason for his poor shooting night. Appling's sore wrist had put together two straight 20-point games just a couple weeks before and would follow up the Michigan loss with a 3-for-6 performance from three against Iowa.
-- The same loss to Michigan, in the very same press conference, saw Izzo simultaneously complain that he couldn't get Appling enough rest, and that Appling was in foul trouble too early and had to sit.
MSU takes this attitude into the postseason. This is why I called them a zombie team. It played out exactly like that on Sunday. Every time the momentum looked like it might shift, something happened, and it didn't. Darion Atkins gets a huge block and starts a mini 5-0 run; MSU gets re-energized by a wide-open dunk and then immediately gets the benefit of a TV timeout to let their momentum simmer. UVA gets within two just after the half, misses the shot that would put them in the lead, and Denzel Valentine hits a three on the other end, sparking another run. UVA gets a brilliant double team and a potential turnover, only to have the refs give them a loose-ball timeout and follow it up with an all-ball foul on Darion Atkins, sending our one effective post guy back to the bench. Zombies. You shoot and shoot and shoot and they don't die. All that stuff conspired to remind MSU that March is their birthright, and they kept on playing like it.
Dollars to donuts, the pregame speech in the MSU locker room had a theme like this: "Hey. This is March. This is what we play for, and this is our time. Those guys over there - they're January warriors. They're great in the regular season. Now they think they're gonna stroll in here and take what's ours? They don't know March. They can't handle March. We know March." They don't view you as an obstacle; that would be giving you respect. You're in the Michigan State Show. You think you're ready to make your run and beat them, they simply make a play, slap the floor, strut a bit, and that's that.
Michigan finally beat them and made it a rivalry again by finally being sick of their shit. In 2011, Michigan finally swept the Spartans for the first time long enough that everyone had to look it up; the second game - at Michigan - got a little woofy, and Michigan's Darius Morris told MSU's Kalin Lucas to "Get the fuck off my court." This is not a paraphrase or a metaphor. The only response Lucas could muster was to throw the ball at Morris.
That's one way to beat them, but it took years of abuse. UVA had one loss to them, not ten years worth of losses. The other way to beat them? Develop a winning culture of your own. Our two years of being near the top of the world is nice, but it's not enough. Here are the teams that've knocked MSU out of the tournament in the last ten years:
Connecticut, Duke, Louisville, UCLA, Butler, North Carolina, Memphis, North Carolina, George Mason, North Carolina.
That list is all blue-blood teams, with three exceptions: the first of two Butler teams to reach the championship; Derrick Rose; and a George Mason team that didn't know any better and wound up in the Final Four. In fact, seven of those ten teams went to the Final Four; four went to the national championship, and two won it all. These are teams that laugh when you slap the floor, because they've earned the right to do so. Any other reaction and you're doomed.
That's what UVA was up against. Probably a Final Four team now. Oklahoma, bless their heart, is screwed. MSU will look at them like a less-talented version of UVA and walk all over them. The only team left in this region with a chance is Louisville.
To be fair to our players, there's a lot of breaks that, had they bounced the right way, we'd be scouting Oklahoma right now. Hitting two end-of-shot-clock three pointers while your opponent goes 1-for-13 is part been-there-before and part luck. But I can look at that game and find ways to win without a single one of those missed threes going down. And so damn much of it can be chalked up to a culture that we just don't have yet.
**He'd also been recruited to MSU with the promise of playing in a Final Four. Izzo literally had every single one of his recruiting classes go to the Final Four at least once, a streak that was finally broken last year. Guaranteed, though, the substance of the pitch is the same even if the exact words no longer are.