East Lansing already has gone green
And the center of the verdant Michigan State basketball universe is the Izzone
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Flakes swirl around in the 20-mph wind gusts before gently settling on top of the few inches of snow already on the ground. It's a typical Michigan winter, so a blanket of white covers the entire town of East Lansing; in places it's hard to tell where the ground ends and the sky begins.
It's a few hours before the anthem, "Go Green, Go White," permeates the area, but a quick glance around shows the second half of the popular Spartans chant is already well represented.
Bundled up in green winter coats and many in woolen hats with flaps to protect their ears from that blistering wind, Michigan State students form lines outside gates A and C of the Jack Breslin Student Events Center.
On this frigid Saturday morning of Jan. 15, students arrive merely 2½ hours before the noon tipoff, signaling that Michigan State-Northwestern isn't a "big" game. Undoubtedly, arrival time will come considerably earlier for upcoming games against teams like hated Michigan or Purdue, traditional Big Ten powerhouses.
The Breslin Center has seen impressive results in recent years, namely the Spartans' 193 victories against 18 defeats since the 1998-99 season.
And there's no doubting that the Izzone -- the obsessively dedicated and impressively coordinated student section named for MSU coach Tom Izzo -- creates one of the most hostile environments in the country. And the rest of the arena is going to be loud based on numbers alone; Breslin has enjoyed 202 straight sellouts.
Texas is the lone team to defeat Michigan State at home this season. In fact, the Longhorns were the first nonconference team to win at the Breslin Center since Duke did it Dec. 3, 2003, snapping a 52-game home nonconference winning streak. This season, eight other opponents have come into the Breslin Center, and they've all left as losers.
(The Spartans suffered a different setback Tuesday evening, when the team announced junior guard Korie Lucious had been dismiissed for the remainder of the season after he "displayed conduct detrimental to the program," Izzo said in a statement.)
Located on the southeast corner of Harrison Road and Kalamazoo Street, the Breslin Center stands next to the other pillars of Michigan State athletics: Munn Ice Arena and Spartan Stadium. Despite being in the heart of Big Ten country, within a conference atmosphere synonymous with gritty, football-first athletic programs, East Lansing is a place where basketball has been king for at least a decade.
"You can jump on the bandwagon for football, but with basketball, it's like, 'Oh, State, they're going to be good,'" says Brett Konkle, a Spartans freshman student.
A large video screen tells passersby there's a game today, but it's not like they need reminding.
"Going through the long, long Midwest winter, this is the major social event. I'm not kidding," says Helen Pollard, a Michigan State professor of anthropology. "It covers a critical part of the year. Football is over before the weather gets totally horrible."
Pollard is at the game with Lou Snow, a season-ticket holder and former Michigan State faculty member. Snow says she retired in the area so she could keep going to Spartans basketball and football games. She's been going to games for quite some time with Pollard, who once taught former Spartans star Mateen Cleaves, a key part of the 2000 national championship team.
That title won't soon be forgotten in East Lansing -- or in the Breslin Center, for that matter. A small plaque that's been stepped on countless times sits on the baseline, close to the opponents' bench. It tells the national championship tale through the scores of the Final Four games, including arguably the school's most important outcome of the past decade: Michigan State 89, Florida 76 in the title tilt.
The plaque isn't the only heirloom from the Spartans' last title run. The floor itself is from Indianapolis -- the hardwood played upon at the RCA Dome, to be exact. The Spartans literally play on the relic of past success. It's a constant reminder of greatness.
The building that surrounds the sacred court was built in the late 1980s for $43 million, according to the MSU media guide, and the venue officially opened in November 1989.
The arena's namesake, Jack Breslin, a former Spartans student leader, athlete and administrator, passed away 11 months before it opened. Mr. MSU, as reporters and school administrators dubbed Breslin, had been pushing for a multipurpose student facility for decades.
The 14,797-capacity Breslin Center replaced Jenison Fieldhouse, which was home to Spartans basketball from 1940-1989. The Fieldhouse was a bit outdated and small (capacity had been reduced to about 10,000), so although the cozy setting made it fun for fans, its facilities fell behind when other big-time basketball schools began building new arenas.
"They brought in bleachers from the outside, so when it wasn't filled for a game it looked like a barn and it really hurt recruiting," former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote said by phone. "We used to apologize for Jenison. We didn't have to do that for Breslin; we could brag about Breslin."
These days, Jenison remains nearby, now accommodating the Michigan State women's volleyball, gymnastics, wrestling and track and field teams.
In fall of 2001, a Breslin Center expansion project added two additional 8,000-square-foot auxiliary gyms and new office spaces for the men's and women's teams. A 12-foot bronze statue of Ervin "Magic" Johnson is positioned at the main entrance to the arena so fans won't ever forget his role in Michigan State's first national championship in 1979, when Heathcote was at the helm.
Thanks to the seating arrangements and configuration of the student section, fans experience a similar feeling to what the Jenison Fieldhouse provided: intimacy.
"They built this to try to not lose what Jenison had -- the proximity of the students, and that sort of thing," former Spartans head coach and longtime radio analyst Gus Ganakas for the team told ESPN SportsTravel. "They emulated that."
"It is a tough place to play, probably more difficult to play here than in the bigger arenas like Ohio State," Ganakas says.
On this cold Saturday morning, fans file into the Breslin Center to witness some Big Ten basketball against Northwestern, and, boy, do the Spartans need some conference success. By most measures, Michigan State is having an off season -- or at least a very slow start. The Spartans lost four games before Big Ten play even started, and they dropped an early conference contest to Penn State, a team expected to finish near the bottom of the conference standings.
It's the first time since the end of the 2006-07 season that Michigan State isn't ranked in the AP Top 25. At least the coaches give Izzo and his squad the benefit of the doubt; the Spartans sit at No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
But everyone knows it's all about the Big Ten season, which is about to kick into high gear. And Michigan State is coming off an 64-61 overtime victory over a very physical Wisconsin team four days earlier.
The Breslin Center morphs into something special during tight tilts and overtime thrillers. The Izzone cranks up the dial on the decibel level, and the rest of the arena joins in on the act. Young and old clap and holler when opponents have the ball.
That's why Izzo e-mailed all of the students in the Izzone after the win over Wisconsin, emphasizing that their support is in part responsible for at least a victory or two every season. He knew the students gave Michigan State an advantage during the tough game with the Badgers.
After all, that's what makes the Breslin Center so unique. It's all about the Izzone.