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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- About a month and a half ago, the Michigan State men's basketball team hit a skid of sorts. The Spartans were on a bit of a losing streak and had quickly gone from a preseason top-five team with a school-best conference start to a Big Ten co-champion hopeful.
The Spartans lost two consecutive home games -- a rarity for a program that once won 53 straight games at the Breslin Center and is 208-26 at home in the past 15 years under head coach Tom Izzo -- and I was making a late-night trip to the grocery store after a long day of work.
Vegetables, dairy products, some baked goods and a six-pack in tow, I hit the checkout lane. Totally fazed by the grind of tediously covering one of the nation's most elite basketball programs, I expected the cashier's first question to be "Paper or plastic?"
Instead, I heard, "What's the deal with the Spartans?"
The current student population at Michigan State is about the size of Butler's alumni total from the past 10 years. It's nearly one-fifth of the population of Durham, N.C., and the Spartans have been to more Final Fours since I earned my driver's license than West Virginia has in its program history.
Does that mean passion for Michigan State basketball has waned over the years or Spartan fans have become complacent?
I wouldn't bet your Final Four tickets on it.
The trip to Indianapolis this weekend is every bit as exciting as each of the previous ones for the players, fans, students and me (and my girlfriend, believe it or not, goes to Butler).
You see, Michigan State basketball is a religion. It starts in the fall, when students spend a night in tents and sleeping bags with the team on the campus's Munn Field in preparation for the season and to get their season tickets. It ends with an always-illustrious run in March.
Magic Johnson's bright smile adorns the campus Starbucks. Professors cancel class on game days (and, if not, students will just bring their laptops and watch the game anyway). People seriously throw around the idea of having Izzo coach both basketball and football. Heck, I can't even meet a professor to make up an exam without having him talk my ear off about who should be bringing the ball up the floor or the best way to break the full-court press.
This weekend, when the Spartans returned to East Lansing with the regional championship trophy, they were met late at night by thousands of fans singing the fight song and cheering for players. Last season, same thing. I would imagine the team will receive the same treatment for each accomplishment down the line.
Last year, excitement to play in the Final Four in our home state was at an all-time high. But Indy is Big Ten country, too. Students are already making plans to make the trip down I-69, weighing the consequence of skipping work to see the game or making plans to get in line at the bar six hours before tipoff.
In St. Louis, "Go Green, Go White" chants broke out in bars and on the streets the night before the Spartans beat the Volunteers to advance to the Final Four. Consider it the MSU battle cry. You can find it emblazoned on restaurant marquees and printed on receipts when you order your lunch. And you can expect to hear it on the CBS broadcast Saturday night.
Whenever this run ends for the Spartans, MSU fans will reflect back and enjoy it. I'll wrap things up with the beat, look ahead to graduation in May and maybe cover some baseball. My mind will probably be off basketball for a while.
Until the next time I check out at the grocery store.
Joey Nowak is a senior at Michigan State University, majoring in journalism. He is the men's basketball reporter at the school newspaper, The State News.
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