Sunday, December 4, 2016

Oral Roberts Golden Eagles 76 at Michigan State Spartans 80 (NCAA Basketball) - December 3, 2016

The final day of this trip took me to East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, where the Spartans basketball team was hosting Oral Roberts. Power conference teams often schedule mid-major patsies to pad their record; I don't particularly care for the practice but it is good exposure for the smaller school and does occasionally lead to interesting games.

The Spartans play in the Jack Breslin Student Events Center, which is generally referred to as Breslin Center. Located at the corner of Harrison Road and Kalamazoo Street, the arena is close to Harrison Roadhouse, a Spartan (not spartan) bar that is definitely worth a stop before or after the game. It was recommended by the good people at Stadium Journey as the best place in the area and it certainly lived up to its billing, with great food and service. On game days, you can park here for $20 and receive a $20 credit towards food, but by the time I arrived, the parking lot was full, Fortunately, the surrounding neighbourhood allows two-hour parking until 4 pm; since I arrived at 2:30 for the 4:30 tip, I just left the car on the street without worry.

After a short respite at the Roadhouse, I walked the half mile to the arena, stopping to pick up a lower level ticket for slightly less than face from a friendly neighbourhood scalper (view from my seat above). It was a season ticket, which means a nice design and worth a bit extra as a collectible when compared to the plain Ticketmaster stubs (or even worse, paper tickets).

Inside, the arena has a single concourse that goes all the way around the building. There are a few trophy cases that are worth examining, as they include awards belonging to Magic Johnson, who starred here for two seasons in the late 1970s. He was actually given the nickname ‘Magic’ when he was still in high school, though it doesn't appear on the trophy below. The arena is undergoing a renovation that will result in a Hall of History to open in 2018 so I expect there to me a lot more cool stuff like this next time I visit.

The seating bowl has three levels. The lowest is a set of retractable benches and mostly reserved for students and known as the Izzone after coach Tom Izzo. You need a student ID to sit here, so be careful if you are buying on the secondary market. Three sections at this level are open to the general public from what I could tell, you can see them in the foreground below wearing something other than the white t-shirts that adorned the Izzone members.

Above here is the 100 level, where all seats come with chairbacks. Face value is $32 for all seats at this level.

Upstairs, you have about ten rows of chairback seats ($24) and then six rows of benches ($15). The arena holds over 16,000 but it is still quite compact and there are no bad seats.

The Spartans have enjoyed two national championships, including Johnson's 1979 team that beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the final.

Their final four banners are above one end of the court, which gives you a good overview of the entire building.

The Spartans also won the 2000 title in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and now use the court where that championship was clinched, as the school purchased the floor from the NCAA after the title game, adding their own oversized logo to personalize it.

There's not a lot of bells and whistles here, but I appreciated the ribbon boards here that updated stats in real time, making it a bit easier to follow the game.

Overall, Breslin Center is considered one of the best venues in college basketball, and I'd have to agree. The place was not sold out for this lesser-known opponent, but students were still out in force and active throughout the game. If you are a college hoops fan, make a point to get out to East Lansing during the season to see Tom Izzo and the Izzone.

The Game

Oral Roberts, based in Tulsa and playing in the Summit League, might have appeared to be a patsy with their 1-6 record, but they had lost to other power teams Baylor and Mississippi, so they couldn’t be underestimated. I’m sure Izzo reminded his team that Oral Roberts defeated #3 Kansas ten years before.

Both teams had key starters out to injury, with leading scorer Miles Bridges missing for the Spartans, while two seniors were absent for the Golden Eagles. Early on, the visitors showed no signs of being intimidated by the crowd or their illustrious hosts, taking a 7-point lead midway through the first half. The Spartans fought back however for a 34-33 edge at the break in a fast-paced half with 15 fouls.

I’ve noticed that when the first half is relatively foul-free, the refs often make up for it in the second half, and that was no different today as they called seven infractions in the first three minutes and didn’t let up the rest of the way. I didn’t see any difference in the style of play and am sure that it is the three officials who changed their approach rather than 10 players. Anyway, the teams continued to trade the lead over the first few minutes of the half and no doubt the home fans were getting very antsy as their team was down 56-53 with 10:51 to go. But an 11-2 run gave the Spartans a 6-point lead which held up the rest of the way. A late 4-point play by Kris Martin got the Eagles within a pair, but Michigan State sank their last two free throws to win 80-76, sending the fans home muttering in disgust at the close score.

This was a decent game but again, the officiating was ridiculous. In the 20-minute second half, a total of 29 fouls were called. Nobody wants to watch games like this and something has to be done so that the teams are allowed to play.


When this trip was originally planned, the game time was TBD. I wanted an early afternoon tip so I could make Western Michigan hockey in Kalamazoo, about 90 minutes away. At one point, the game was set to start at noon, which was ideal, but a week before, it was suddenly changed to 4:30, eliminating the hockey game as a possible nightcap. Thankfully, the Spartans women’s volleyball team had made the NCAA tournament as the #9 seed and was hosting a second-round game at nearby Jenison Field House, starting at 7:30.

When the basketball game ended around 6:40, I walked across the street and paid $8 for a GA seat. I did not know it at the time, but Jenison was opened in 1940 and housed the school’s basketball teams until Breslin debuted in 1989. The Field House is a classic arena with an arched roof that you don’t see very often anymore and seats along all four sides flush against the wall. In 1963, Jenison hosted the Mideast Regionals in which a segregated team from Mississippi State, defying a court order, played against integrated Loyola, who eventually won the championship. This was the beginning of the end of segregation at the college level and there is a plaque outside commemorating this “Game of Change”, though I did not see it in the darkness.

The Spartans were hosting Arizona and took the first set 25-17, but the Wildcats rebounded to take the next two at 19 and 16. The fourth set went to Michigan State 26-24, setting up a final set to 15 for the match. The Wildcats stormed to a quick 8-3 lead and cruised to a 15-10 win for the upset. It was a really gutsy display by both teams and by far the most entertaining volleyball game I have seen, made even more memorable by being held in such a historic venue. Sometimes things work out after all.

Update: Arizona lost to Washington who lost to Nebraska who lost to Texas who lost the National Championship to Stanford.

Next Up

I have one last trip this year to Washington, where I will see GWU basketball on Saturday. Check back next week for a recap of that and my 2016 year in review.



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