The Freshman

Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story.The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Draymond Green remembers Michigan State’s road to the Final Four in his freshman season. 

When you’re the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, you don’t get many shots at being the underdog. The bracket just isn’t built that way. So when you get the chance to face a No. 1 seed, you need to use the critics as motivation and take advantage of that opportunity. Because the only thing better than being No. 1 is beating No. 1. As a freshman at Michigan State in 2009, I didn’t play much right away. But by the time we reached the postseason, I was playing around 15 minutes a game. In the NCAA tournament, I really hit my stride. That’s when I got the confidence that I could play at the collegiate level. I averaged more minutes in that tournament than I had all season, and I took advantage. I averaged 8.5 points and 5.3 blocks in 18 minutes per, but the two games that stand out the most are the Elite Eight and Final Four matchups against Louisville and Connecticut — both No. 1 seeds. Going into the Louisville game, nobody really gave us a chance, but we knew better. So did Coach Tom Izzo. I remember the walkthrough the morning of that game. We walked into the banquet room and everything was normal — it was a standard walkthrough. Out of nowhere, Coach Izzo called out to the team, “Bring it in.” He said he could see it in our focus. He could see it in our eyes. The room was completely silent and he said, “This game is already won. Let’s go.”

Louisville averaged almost 75 points per game, and they were most well-known for their fast-break speed and full-court press on defense. A lot of people said they would run us out of the gym because they were just faster and more athletic, and we wouldn’t be able to keep up.

But we turned the tables on them.

Louisville came out in their trademark press, but we passed the ball and ran the court well enough to get the ball to midcourt quickly. We just kept pushing the ball and getting buckets. When we took the halftime lead and then came out hot in the second half, they switched to a zone, and we ate that up, too.

Finally, once we built a double-digit lead, they got desperate and went man-to-man, but it was too late. We ran them out of the gym.

Down went No. 1.

My assignment that game was to guard Earl Clark, and anyone who remembers him knows that he was a beast at Louisville. It was no secret that he was leaving early for the NBA, so there I was, a freshman, thinking, I’m pretty much playing against an NBA player. And judging by some of the moves he made while I was guarding him, I could see why he was going pro.

That’s when I first realized that I had a chance to be really good. I played a season-high 24 minutes in that game, and playing in those big-time March Madness moments against NBA-caliber players, and having success, builds your confidence like nothing else.

I knew after that game that not only could I play at the collegiate level, I could thrive.

Next, we faced another No. 1 in the Final Four in UConn. It was the same story as the Louisville game: People said they were too fast and too athletic. We wouldn’t be able to keep up. They’d run us out of the gym. For the second straight game, we were the underdog.

The best part about that game didn’t come from the game itself — it came from the crowd.

The Final Four was at Ford Field in Detroit that year, just a little over an hour down the road from the Michigan State campus. After boarding the buses, we drove through downtown Lansing, and there were people lined up all through the city. It was as huge green-and-white sendoff. We had police cars drive us all the way from Lansing to Detroit, and at 19 years old, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.

When we got to Detroit, the day before the game, we had a pep rally at Somerset Mall. The whole place was filled with green and white. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

That was the moment when it registered: Wow. We’re really in the Final Four. I’m really in the Final Four.

That atmosphere carried over to the game. It was more electric than any home game we had all season. If there’s one play that illustrated how crazy it was, it’s when Durrell Summers dunked over Stanley Robinson.

It was the second half, and we were just starting to pull away when Durrell got the ball on the break and took it straight to the basket. Stanley contended, but Durrell threw it down, and the crowd exploded. The whole stadium — and Ford Field is huge — was shaking. You can actually see it on the TV broadcast.

I’ve never been in a building that loud.

Even though we led by as many as 11 late, UConn hung around. But in the end, we fed off that crowd and we were too much for the Huskies.

Down went No. 1. Again.

I wish I could tell you we made it a trifecta of No. 1 upsets when we faced North Carolina in the national championship. I wish I could tell you we made it close. But UNC had a great team and it was never really a game.

That was the closest I would get to winning a national title. We went back to the Final Four the following year, and my junior season, we barely snuck into the tourney only to get bounced in the first round.

My senior year, we made it back to the Sweet 16, where we played Louisville. We had a stud freshman, Branden Dawson, but he tore his ACL in the last game of the regular season. Against Louisville, we really needed a guy like Branden. If he didn’t get hurt, I have no doubt we would have won the national championship, but that’s not how the story goes. We lost, and my college career was over.

Every great player has that moment when he realizes, I can play at this level. The game comes more naturally, and you can play loose and play with confidence. It’s that moment when you know you belong. It’s an incredible feeling.

My moment — when I realized the pressure was never too great and I could keep up with the best in the game — came in that Elite Eight win over Louisville. Everything I’ve done since comes from the confidence I built during that run. We may have lost in the end, but that’s when I knew I had it in me to be great.

That’s a moment no player ever forgets.

For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.