By: Jeffrey Newholm
It was the quintessential David vs. Goliath in the opening round of the men’s NCAA Tournament. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders needed to win three games in three days in the Conference USA Tournament just to get to the big dance, including needing to hit two free throws with three seconds left to beat Old Dominion in the finals. The Raiders had a 2-7 all time record in the Big Dance, hadn’t won a tournament game since 1989 and hadn’t played in one since 2013, when they lost in the First Four. The Michigan State Spartans, on the other hand, are historically a college hoops tower of power.
The Spartans have advanced to nine Final Fours, appeared in 19 straight tournaments and were coming off a trip to the Final Four as a #7 seed. This year, many argued State was an underseeded two and the team, lead by senior Denzel Valentine, had an easy path to the Finals with regional games being held in St. Louis and Chicago and Virginia being a suspect #1. So it’s probably no surprise the Spartans raced out to a 15-2 lead at the under 16 minute timeout.
Except that they didn’t. It was the Raiders who jumped all over the Spartans right out of the gate.
But surely the fast start was an aberration. After all, Wisconsin was in a similar 18 point hole in 2007 against #15 Texas A&M Corpus Christi and the Islanders ended up running out of gas. Sure enough, the Spartans went on a run and cut the lead to three at the six minute mark of the first half. Undeterred, the Raiders responded with back-to-back threes.
Early in the second half, State had cut the lead to two and shot two threes that would have given the Spartans their first lead of the game. They both clanked off the rim and the Raiders replied with three straight buckets. Again, the Spartans cut the lead to three. And again, the Raiders scored six straight points. Every time the Spartans tried to establish their dominance, the Raiders held them at bay.
The Spartans made one last push at the 3:30 mark of the second half, cutting the lead to one. But one last time the Raiders responded with a 6-0 run, capped by an exclamation point dunk by Reggie Upshaw. With only 40 seconds left, the rest was academic. For just the eighth time in tournament history, a #2 seed had lost in the first round. And this one may have been the biggest stunner.
The Spartans were co-favorites in Vegas to win everything and were picked in 98% of entries in ESPN’s bracket challenge contest to at least win one game. But the Raiders refused to roll over and die. The result may have been a lot of busted brackets, but more importantly there were smiles all around the country as again March proved that there is an opportunity in life for the little guy to upset the elite hierarchy.
It remains to be seen the long-term effects from this stunner on the two programs. Michigan State has been a consistent Final Four contender for years under Tom Izzo and it seems unlikely one upset will tarnish the program. The Raiders have a 28% chance to reach the Sweet 16 according to Fivethirtyeight, but even if they don’t their one shining moment has been assured. And no matter where the Raiders go from here, whether it’s to new heights or back to mediocrity, this moment will shine on forever in the pantheon of great March Madness upsets.