The Denzel Valentine Era at Michigan State ended with something you don’t see too often.
No, not the still-unbelievable upset win by Middle Tennessee State to bounce the Spartans from the NCAA tournament — though you don’t see an upset of that magnitude too often, either. Instead, it ended in the postgame press conference, with the saddest Spider-Man quote in human history.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Valentine said. “And I didn't handle it today. Just sucks that we're going home now. But I got something that I'll never forget for the rest of my life, that when you're in this position and everybody's looking at you, you've got to come through. I didn't come through today, and I'll remember that for the rest of my life.”
It was a heartbreaking combination of words from the player who might be college basketball’s best, a player who openly and confidently talked about winning a national championship this season. Those are often the expectations at Michigan State, which looked to return to the Final Four after reaching its seventh under Tom Izzo last season. But this was a special player in the history of the program and a special team that really did look like one of the two or three favorites to win it all.
Instead, the Spartans were on the wrong end of one of college basketball’s all-time upsets, and that chance to cut down the nets will never come.
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If you need any more evidence of how much Valentine and this version of the Spartans meant, look no further than Izzo, who was visibly battling tears during his postgame comments. Izzo’s won a national title, he’s coached the likes of Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green.
This year’s team was different.
“You're supposed to coach every team and every game the same way. But let's face it, there are some guys and some teams that just do more for you,” Izzo said. “They resurrected me. For whatever length I coach, whatever number of years it's going to be, I'll owe them that. They brought the fun back into it. Not a lot of bad days at practice for the 120-some we had. Never a bad trip. Never a concern.
“I can look everybody in the eye and say I'll probably never have a team like this. I'll probably never have guys like this, but we'll shoot for it. But this is a special group. And that's why there's all the emotion. And that's why it's a tough time.”
Valentine put a lot of blame on himself, and it’s true he didn’t play his best game. The national player of the year candidate matched a season high with six turnovers. The Big Ten’s leading scorer, who averaged nearly 20 points a game this season, scored just 13 points. He wasn’t carrying the team on his back in the second half, those duties instead going to fellow seniors Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello.
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While Valentine’s assessment might have been a little too harsh — almost all observers, including Izzo, agreed it was Middle Tennessee State’s exceptional play that won the game, not mistakes by Michigan State that lost it — he shouldered the blame like the leader he’s been. He was the one since the preseason that spoke of winning the national championship. He had to face the music of not doing it.
“I've got a lot of emotions running through my head right now. I mean, I'm more mad and disappointed because I know what this team could accomplish,” Valentine said. “Matt had a heck of a game. Bryn, bounced back in the second half. I'm just really disappointed right now. That's probably one of the worst games we played all year, and it happened to be in the first round. You can't have that if you want to win championships. And in high school, winning two state championships, we didn't, me and Bryn, we didn't do that in the games that mattered. And today it kind of fell apart. And just sucks right now because I know the capability our team had.”
After winning last week’s Big Ten Tournament, the Spartans looked like they had what it took to go all the way. It’s why there was near-universal shock when they didn’t get one of the four No. 1 seeds in this tournament. It’s why they were tabbed as one of the favorites to win it all. A team that spent much of the season with a top-10 ranking was one that was deserving of such high expectations, expectations they embraced themselves.
“I'm like them, it's just a tough day today, and I don't want to be overdramatic. But I made the comment, I put myself out there that this team had a chance to win a national championship,” Izzo said. “We just got beat. I want everybody to know this team had a chance to win a national championship. I don't feel one bit different.
“There was pressure. They put it on me, and I put it on them. Isn't going to change as long as I'm here. That's why you come here. You don’t come here to win a few games. You do that at Northern Michigan. You come here to try to win a championship, and that's the pressure. If that's pressure, as hard as these guys worked, if it's pressure to have to come into this tournament, that's sad, because the pressure was what they did when nobody was watching. And they did it all spring, summer and fall. So I love pressure. I'm going to put it on me.”
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Valentine will almost surely go down with Cleaves and Green and Magic Johnson and all the other great Spartans of teams past. The team he led might not share the same eternal good feelings with fans and observers. It’s just the second of the last 10 Michigan State squads to make a first-round exit from the Big Dance.
But in the memory of its legendary head coach, this team will always stay in his memory. And he said the legacy these players have left — particularly the senior trio of Valentine, Costello and Forbes — is a special one.
“They left a big foot footprint. So many different ways,” Izzo said. “The work ethic, the attention to detail, the classroom, the hospital visits. Doesn't matter what it was in. They made it. They gave me everything. They gave me the ability to sleep with two eyes shut again. That disappeared for a few years.
“They've done it all for us. They've done it all for our school. I mean, there’s more than me that owes them, my assistant coaches, everybody owes them. I mean, the leadership they showed last summer, you know, it's legendary. And you're right, those that know me, I don't make many predictions. Those that know me I don't say this team was better than this team, was better than this team. This team was a lot like Zel. It was the most versatile team. It did things off the court, on the court and in the classroom like none I've ever had. It just didn't work out for this team, but it won't dampen my respect, love, care, it won't dampen it at all. It will be used for whatever length of time that I'm here. In other words, other teams are going to hear … they're going to hear what this team did.
“That's probably the best compliment you can give them.”