Michigan Stateis the first team in 23 years to start the season as the No. 1-ranked team in men’s college basketball but nevertheless lose at least two of its first five games.
The last time it happened was 1996, when Bob Huggins’Cincinnati Bearcatsstarted 2-2.
Now the No. 3 Spartans are spinning due to theroundhouse kick to the face they received Monday, out in magnificent Maui, from unranked-but-unrulyVirginia Tech. The Hokies, by virtue of their 71-66 victory in the first round of the Maui Invitational, gave way to dual claims: that Virginia Tech (which is yet to receive a single vote toward the AP Top 25 this season, let alone crack the rankings) might be college basketball’s most underrated team — and that the Spartanscould now be the sport’s most overrated one.
Considering that Michigan State (3-2) is still holding at No. 1 in KenPom, a cynic’s argument against Sparty would be easy to make at the moment, even with thatdramatic, impressive road victoryagainstSeton Hallstill proudly pinned to the wall.
College basketball scholars know Tom Izzo’s teams always schedule up outside of conference play. That’s an MSU staple. So: losses of varying degrees and volume follow. I spoke with Izzo on this very topic a few weeks ago, as he expressed some guarded optimism about what 2019-20 will bringeven with one of the toughest nonconference gamutsin hoops. He’s never run from a brutal November-into-December slate and never will. The losses make him ache, but they often help — he believes — in tangible ways by the time we flip our calendars to March.
Still, what we saw transpire at the Lahaina Civic Center on Monday borders on shocking. Izzo’s team was undone by a Hokies roster unceremoniously medleyed together by longtime low-major coach who finally got his big break at a big job. Izzo was outfoxed by a 56-year-old who will probably, throughout this season, have the uncomfortable pleasure of (erroneously) being referred to as a late bloomer: Mr. Mike Young.
Virginia Tech was picked second-to-last — that’s all the way down at 14th — in theACC’s official preseason poll. It lost its coach, Buzz Williams, who fled after five seasons for more money and a new start withTexas A&M. It lost not just its best potential returning player — Kerry Blackshear Jr. toFlorida — but its next four best, or at least most prominent, players as well.
Picking Virginia Tech to be close to the worst team in the ACC was a practical choice — except when you consider the guy tasked with keeping the Hokies nationally relevant.
I’m slightly paraphrasing off memory here, but the gist of what one respected head coach told me this summer was: “Mike Young will not have the worst team in the ACC in his first season, I promise you that.”
The sentiment was echoed by plenty of men in the profession,some of whom voted Young as the best hire of the offseason. And even among others who voted for someone else — Williams, Fred Hoiberg, Mick Cronin — many made sure to mention Young’s fit at Virginia Tech and what a solid hire that was by Hokies athletic director Whit Babcock.
“I’ve been telling you for years,” a high-major coach texted me Monday deep into Virginia Tech’s upset bid, “Mike Young is REAL DEAL.”
Anyone who getsWofford—Wofford!— into theNCAA Tournamentas a No. 7 seed and nearly clipsKentuckyto make a Sweet 16 is most definitely the real deal. And on Monday, Young was a surgeon. You take Michigan State’s roster at full strength and Virginia Tech’s roster at full strength and put them on a playground and ask coaches to pick the top 10 talents between the two, Virginia Tech maybe gets three guys selected.
Credit to the Hokies’ Landers Nolley (22 points, five assists, three steals, two blocks) andWabissa Bede— they’re so fun to watch. But Young out-coached Izzo on Monday with less talent and more want-to. That game was won as much in scouting and with the whiteboard as it was with the players on the floor.
Now Young’s got Virginia Tech at 6-0 for just the second time in at least 35 years. Virginia Tech will get its chance Tuesday to advance to the Maui Invitational championship game, when it battles a goodDaytonsquad for those honors.
Michigan State’s loss is the bigger story, as this Spartans team looks like a weekly contradiction. It was lackluster to start the season against Kentucky at the Champions Classic. ThenCassius Winstonwas dealt some of the worst news he’ll ever have in his life: the suicide of his younger brother. Winston’s played every game since, and when you watch Michigan State play, you can’t help but put his situation and how it factors into the team dynamic into your mind.
The Spartans were as overwhelming a preseason No. 1 choice as college basketball’s had this decade. To see them take a bumpy route through the first five games gives reason and lots of room for pause, but you’d be foolish to declare this team doomed. It’s played five teams with a combined record of 20-10, which is superior to many other teams’ aggregate opponent record through the first three weeks of the season.
Georgiahas more talent than Virginia Tech and it looked worse on Monday than Michigan State did. Now the Spartans will face the Bulldogs on Tuesday. If MSU’s elite, it will treat Georgia the way Dayton did — if not worse. The next two days should provide more answers for what’s become one of college basketball’s most vexing teams.