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Spartans' season, Denzel Valentine's career end in unbelievable fashion

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Spartans' season, Denzel Valentine's career end in unbelievable fashion

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans bounced by Middle Tennessee State in stunning upset]

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes blow second-half lead but get buzzer-beating win in OT]

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.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]

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.”

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.