March Madness is upon us, and it's already a little madder than usual. In the first week alone, eight teams hit buzzer-beaters. Poor Purdue lost a 13-point lead with three minutes left, and ultimately lost in overtime to a school called Arkansas-Little Rock.
In such cases, you might find it useful to refer to Bacon Theory No. 327, I believe, which states that the more words in a school's name, the less impressive. Hyphens multiply this effect. But it didn't seem to matter last weekend, so hats off, Trojans! You earned your place in tournament history.
But the real shocker, the one that sent piles of torn up brackets to office trashcans across the country, wasn't even close.
Michigan State had been a top ten team most of the season. The Spartans were even No. 1 for six weeks in the middle, and ranked second down the stretch. They won the Big Ten tournament with their trademark passing wizardry and sharp-shooting. They might even have been the most unselfish team Tom Izzo has ever coached -- and that's saying something.
So most pundits were surprised when the Spartans didn't get one of the four No. 1 seeds. They did get the top second seed, however, and were considered the unofficial "fifth one-seed" -- which is kind of like being the Fifth Beatle. It's cool, but it doesn't get you royalties. Still, nationwide, the Spartans were the second most popular pick to win it all, behind only top-ranked Kansas.
In the first round, the Spartans faced a school called Middle Tennessee State -- which isn't even a state. (I looked it up.) This is a team that originally called itself the "Normalites," the "Teachers," and the "Pedagogues," in honor of its teacher-college roots, before settling on the Blue Raiders, for no reason anyone can discern.
Well, what's in a name? Last week, not much. The 15th-seeded Blue Raiders took the lead early, and the Spartans could never catch them, finally going down, 90-81.
It was a stunner of historic proportions. While no No. 1 seed has never lost to a 16th seed, this was the next closest thing, thereby converting "Fifth Beatle" status into a curse. Many are already calling it the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history, and they're probably right.
To Izzo's credit, he handled the loss with characteristic class. "They really deserved to beat us," he said. "The better team won today."
If there's a silver lining, it might be this: The loss could potentially reduce a raging feud that started in the 1850s, before Michigan State was even a university. Contrary to popular belief, the University of Michigan badly wanted the state to put its new agricultural school in Ann Arbor, too. When Ann Arbor lost out to East Lansing, one Michigan professor sniffed that the new school "cannot be more than a fifth-rate affair." Thus, the insults between these two schools started before the second one was even born.
After John Hannah became Michigan State's president in 1941, he leveraged the GI Bill, the unequaled power of the Big Three automakers, and the football team's tremendous success -- winning six national titles in the fifties and sixties -- to grow from 6,000 students to 40,000 in less than three decades. Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler tried to keep the Spartans out of the Big Ten, but the Spartans' achievements made any resistance futile.
In 1953, the Spartans' first season playing in the Big Ten, Michigan governor G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams marked the occasion by creating the Paul Bunyan Trophy, to go to the winner of the in-state rivalry. Crisler promised if Michigan won, the Wolverines would leave the trophy on the field. The Spartans solved the problem by winning that game, 14-6 -- and 13 others in those two decades.
The Spartans exacted another measure of revenge when Michigan tied Ohio State for the Big Ten title in 1973. Amazingly, the league decided to break the tie with a vote of the league's athletic directors. Michigan State A.D. Bert Smith, who had played hockey for the Wolverines as an undergraduate, voted for the Buckeyes.
This surprised just about everyone, but no one more so than Michigan's Bo Schembechler, who never forgot. In his 21 games coaching against the Spartans, Schembechler beat them 17 times, reminding his players of Smith's sin before each contest, even in his later years, when most of his players had no idea what tie-breaker vote he was talking about.
True, many fans of both teams wish their rival well when they're not playing each other, and the coaches have occasionally established close relationships. Schembechler and George Perles become good friends, and Izzo and Michigan's John Beilein clearly respect each other. But it's the exception, not the rule. More typical was former Spartan football coach Darryl Rogers' comment at the team's 1978 banquet, following the Spartans' second win over Schembechler, when Rogers declared that AA does not stand for Ann Arbor, but "Arrogant Asses." It received a warm reception.
The pendulum swung back again in 2007, when Michigan's fifth-ranked football team took on Appalachian State -- which, like Middle Tennessee, is not a state. (I looked that up, too.) Its fight song didn't make a very strong argument, either: "Hi-Hi-yike-us. Nobody like us. We are the Mountaineers! Always a-winning. Always a-grinning. Always a-feeling fine. You bet, hey! Go Apps!"
"The Victors," it was not.
No ranked I-A team had ever lost to a I-AA team, which helps explain why the point-spread was set at 27. Some Las Vegas sports books would not even take that bet, which looked pretty smart when Michigan lost, 34-32.
When a reporter told Spartan football coach Mark Dantonio the news, he sarcastically replied, "Should we have a moment of silence?"
Later that fall, the Wolverines beat the Spartans, prompting Michigan's Michael Hart to respond in kind, calling the Spartans "Little Brother." Since Hart's comment, Michigan has lost seven of eight to Dantonio's teams.
But now that Michigan State's basketball team has absorbed arguably the worst defeat in NCAA tournament history, is it all even now?
After the game, Michigan state senator David Knezek tweeted: "Can we agree as a state to never speak of these two events ever again?"
Ah, if only. The odds of both sides laying down their arms are lower than either team losing to, say, Middle Appalachian State.
But then, stranger things have happened.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.