They would have to press. That was the only way.
Something had to change; that much was clear. Bob Huggins' past two teams had won 13 and then 17 games. The 2013-14 group had been especially galling. Huggins had spent his entire career putting committed defensive teams on the floor. This one could score. It couldn't -- or wouldn't -- guard. This would not do.
Worse? West Virginia's three best (read: only) perimeter shooters left the program earlier than expected. Huggins scanned his roster. He balanced assets and liabilities. Juwan Staten, a pile of raw unknown guards, a couple of big men, zero shooting. How, exactly, was this going to work?
Two seasons, 51 wins, 1,275 forced turnovers and one Sweet 16 appearance later, Huggins found himself in the Barclays Center explaining how his team, born in a clear-eyed appraisal of its own limitations, had been run off the floor by No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin.
"We can’t pass," Huggins said. "But we haven’t been able to pass all year."
And there it was, laid bare. The fatal flaw.
If anything could unite the three major upsets this suddenly ridiculous tournament sprang on us Friday, well, there you have it. In all the chaos and anarchy and buzzer-beaters and tears, in upset circumstances as varied as West Virginia and Michigan State, the emergence of each team's fatal flaw -- and the regularity of these flaws, even among the nation's very best teams -- was the only recognizable pattern.
There was, after all, no bigger upset than what happened to Michigan State. The Spartans were a No. 2 seed in the bracket, but a No. 1 seed in America's heart: 22.3 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge entries picked the Spartans to win it all. Only Kansas was picked more often. (No. 3? North Carolina, at 13.3 percent.)
This was reasonable enough. Tom Izzo has a glittering tournament record with even so-so talent. The Spartans had been, on a per-possession basis, one of the four or five best teams in the country all season long. No one was more efficient offensively. Few teams rebounded both ends of the floor as well. Denzel Valentine was arguably the nation's best player. And though they weren't dominant defensively, the Spartans did more than enough there -- particularly inside the arc -- to look like Izzo's best national title contender in a decade. There was nothing not to like.
Middle Tennessee led Saturday's 90-81 win from start to finish.
How? At first glance, by unwittingly stumbling into an out-of-body experience. MSU, after all, scored 81 points in 68 trips; it made 63 percent of its 2-pointers and 46 percent of its 3-pointers. Numbers like that spell a Sparty win 999 times out of 1,000. Saturday, the Blue Raiders shot 58 percent from 3-point territory and scored 1.32 points per trip and basically had a god dream on the basketball court, and Michigan State was powerless to stop it. Tough break, right?
Sure but not entirely. Because, faced with a team that refused to miss, Michigan State didn't need more rebounds or more buckets. It needed to stop the Blue Raiders from shooting in the first place. It needed turnovers.
Only eight teams in Division I basketball forced fewer turnovers per possession than the Spartans. In 68 possessions, Middle Tennessee committed 10.
In the most important moment of its season, Michigan State found itself in need of the one skill it didn't have.
California's first-round departure was a far less drastic example. Not only were the Bears never held in near the same esteem as Michigan State (or West Virginia), they entered Friday having dismissed an assistant coach under controversial circumstances and lost starting guard Tyrone Wallace to a broken hand in practice. Also? Hawaii is good.
Yet the Bears had been playing their best basketball down the stretch -- in February, they reached efficiency heights trod only by the Jayhawks and Spartans -- and the nation's only outfit with two clear lottery picks in the fold. At the very least, a first-round win over a Big West team should have been manageable.
Still, Cal's own fatal flaw bore just as much responsibility for the loss. Cuonzo Martin's team leaned on freshman star Jaylen Brown for better and for worse. On Friday, it was for worse, as a high-usage, turnover-prone freshman submitted four points, seven turnovers and five fouls in 40 minutes -- and Cal's defense, so good for so much of the season, wasn't enough to sustain its misses.
The defining characterizations of the 2015-16 season-- the constant, record-breaking upsets; the smaller-than-ever differences between the best and 20th-best teams; the historical weakness of these No. 1 seeds -- stuck for good reason. "No great teams" may be an annoying cliche, but so is the one about the shoe fitting.
If any team is going to disprove that notion, it won't be Michigan State. And if any coach is familiar with it, it is the man whose past two years of basketball -- some of the more successful years of his career -- were a direct response to his own roster's inescapable flaws.
Huggins knew his team couldn't shoot, pass or score in a conventional way. He knew it needed more shots to win. It would force mistakes and exploit the flaws of its opponents.
Huggins was right. It worked. Until Stephen F. Austin came along, armed with a mirror, and West Virginia had nowhere to hide its own fatal flaw.
"I don’t know why anybody would waste energy pressing us," Huggins said. "We’ll throw it to you regardless. That would be a waste of energy really. We’re very charitable."