“I want the credit if I’m losin’ or I’m winnin’ / On my momma, that’s the realest shit / Love, let’s talk about love / Is it anything and everything you hoped for? / Or do the feeling haunt you? / I know the feeling haunt you.” — Kendrick Lamar
Three years ago, on Valentine’s Day, former MSU basketball player Denzel Valentine nailed a savage game-winning three against Ohio State to rip their fans’ hearts out in a 59-56 dramatic affair. After his dagger into OSU’s heart, the junior Valentine immediately celebrated the big W with an “ice in his veins” celebration. Luckily for the Spartan faithful, his sweet name didn’t match his killer instinct.
It would be the beginning of a fantastic run through the 2014-2015 season. After a strong junior champagne-campaign that resulted in Izzo’s seventh Final-Four run, Valentine opted to return for one more go at it—that elusive, beloved national championship last embraced by the Flintstones in 2000.
In a remarkable senior season in which he averaged 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game, Valentine would edge out Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield to win six player of the year (POY) honors—including the coveted Sports Illustrated and AP POY awards. There was no reason Michigan State couldn’t repeat its Final-Four success, or so it seemed.
A Bitter End
MSU would finish the 2015-2016 with a 29-6 record (13-5 in the Big Ten), and go on a sterling run through the Big Ten Tournament (beating Ohio State, Maryland, and Purdue)—to ultimately finish second place in the conference and be crowned as the Big Ten Tournament Champions, respectively.
Most fans and many prognosticators believed State would not only secure a No. 1 seed but that it would capture the national championship. However, MSU ended up being ranked as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. And in its own backyard of Chicago, it would be pummelled and bludgeoned in the first round by a mid-major, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who put up 90 points and delivered the statement win of the tournament.
MSU’s impressive season, with the POY and all, came to an abrupt end. It was like a breakup via text. The seed placement didn’t matter, MSU wasn’t ready for the tourney and got embarrassed opening weekend—like when your car stalls out on a date. And just like that, our ride was over. A No. 15 seed over a No. 2 seed. The game is fleeting.
As noted by ESPN, “Spartans’ Matt Costello matched a career-best with 22 points, but it wasn’t enough to offset Valentine’s miserable afternoon. The senior had 13 points and 12 assists, but he also had six turnovers, one of them coming with the Spartans trailing 79-76 and less than three minutes to go.”
On a Snowy Saturday Afternoon, Bridges Became Surgical
This season, by all accounts, there has been just as much hype as Valentine’s senior season, if not more. Sports Illustrated put Miles Bridges on its cover and ranked MSU pre-season No. 2. As usual, we lost to Duke early. But the loss wasn’t totally unexpected given Izzo’s record against Coach K and the fact that Duke was ranked No. 1 at the time we played them.
However, Bridge’s inability to take over down the stretch drew the consternation of many of the Spartan proud and faithful. Without Duke’s fabulous freshman Miles Bagley for most of the game, senior Grayson Allen still managed to tear us apart for a career-high 37 points. It seems like every few games another player is achieving a career game against us.
Bridges’ stats are nice (averaging 17.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game), but he didn’t experience his own “Valentine moment”—ripping another team’s heart out—until last Saturday. In fact, just last week, the 89% (at the time 90%) free-throw shooter went to the charity stripe to seal the game against Iowa and choked on both shots. Iowa would miss the potential game-tying three, but it reminded Spartan Nation that Bridges didn’t have Valentine’s ice in his veins… that is, until Saturday.
Last year, Bridges pounded Purdue for 33 points in a loss. On Saturday, he “only” put up 20 points, but three of these points put the dagger in Purdue’s heart. The Izzone pined for a dramatic victory. Izzo, wearing a pin paying tribute to Jud Heathcote, desperately needed this emotional W. And Bridges came back for moments like this.
Both Izzo and Bridges said the plan was for him to drive the ball, which would’ve shocked us all. Since this season, Bridges has been much more of a spot up shooter than anything. Instead, with 4.5 seconds left in the game, he stuck with his modus operandi and launched the ball from M.A.C. and Abbott—25 feet out—a little more center and a bit farther back than Valentine’s legendary V-Day shot, but just as surgical.
Upon his sweet release to put MSU up 68-65 with 2.7 seconds left in the game, Bridges got to celebrate his own “Valentine’s Day” a few days early—and experience the first game-winning shot he’s ever hit in his life (elementary, high school, college, or otherwise).
But Can Bridges Become a Beast under the Bright Lights of the Big Dance?
After the game, Bridges threw up an 8-1-0 in honor of his hometown of Flint and most likely as a shoutout to the Flintstones who conquered before him—Mateen Cleaves, Mo Peterson, Charlie Bell, Antonio Smith, and Kevin Mclean. At an impressive 24-3 (12-2 in the Big Ten), and after the biggest win of the season, many in the Spartan stands are thinking of another Final Four.
After all, this team is more talented than Izzo’s last two Final Four teams (2015 and 2010). And it has rattled off eight straight wins—heating up at the right time. But for the faint of heart, we know all too well that impressive seasons don’t necessarily translate to tournament success. The game is fleeting and we have all witnessed this tragedy unfold before.
Bridges won’t get player of the year; it’s likely Oklahoma’s Trae Young or Duke’s Miles Bagley will take home that honor. MSU has a good chance for first or runner-up in the regular season and a shot at the Big Ten Title, but we’ve achieved those things recently, and those victories were found to be quite hollow in the face of an opening-round exit. As this season comes to a close, the bright lights of the Big Dance will start to arrest our attention. Is this the year?
Yesterday, for the second straight year, the Division I men’s basketball committee gave a sneak peek at its top 16 teams as of mid-February. And again, after putting together a solid resume, many fans and analysts believed the Spartans would be a No. 1 seed. Instead, the committee has placed MSU as the overall No. 11 (the third No. 3) seed—despite being ranked the AP No. 3 and fresh off knocking out the AP No. 2 Purdue.
It seems that the committee hasn’t forgotten about our last hyped, high-flying season. I certainly haven’t either—a remarkable season that ended with an opening-round beat down. The much-said maxim, “one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword” seems quite relevant to our current season. It’s no secret, Bridges and the team has become beholden to outside shooting. So what will happen when Bridges’ shot isn’t falling late in games? Even the former POY Valentine went ice cold in the opening round of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Can Bridges finally become the beast in the paint we’ve all wanted him to be? Or will he continue to bank on his deep-shooting prowess? Can the rest of the team step up, or will they fall prey to the spotlight? Can Jackson, Winston, Langford, or Ward capture his own personal record like Costello did in the tournament? Or we will become victim to another player killing it (e.g., Giddy Potts (19 pts), Grayson Allen (37 points)), Keita Bates-Diop (32 points)) against us?
Spartans Should Beware the Ides of March
As sweet as Bridges’ dagger was, it will be utterly disappointing to be denied another Final-Four run. We have too much talent and experience to not meet this challenge. How much more stocked can we be? Bridges came back for moments like this. He won’t be a player of the year like Valentine, but he has the opportunity to accomplish much more in his final season than Valentine did.
Bridges has a chance to evolve from a freshmen phenom who got bounced in the Round of 32 to the sophomore stud who signed, sealed, and delivered Izzo’s eighth Final Four. It took four Flintstones to bring the ‘chip back to Beast Lansing in 2000. Now we only have one Flintstone—but like the others before him, we gotta believe he can transcend into a Rolling Stone. Needless to say, expectations are as high as Bridges’ vertical.
No matter how this season ends, at least we won’t be haunted by the “what ifs” of a jilted lover. A lottery pick like Miles Bridges rarely resists the siren song of the NBA to be a college kid for one more year. With an expected win against Minnesota today, MSU will likely enjoy another sweet Valentine’s Day. But the game is fleeting and this team shouldn’t forget about our most recent opening-round massacre. It seems like the selection committee still hasn’t.