When Michigan State visited Crisler Center two weeks ago, you might remember that the 60-59 ballgame was Michigan’s third straight victory in the rivalry. Or you might remember specifics.
Maybe it was Trey Burke’s dish to Stu Douglass for the game-winning layup. Maybe it was the lockdown defense in the final 31.4 seconds. Maybe it was seeing the Spartans walk off the court with their heads bowed, dejected.
But, more than likely, your lasting memory isn’t something that happened on the court.
It’s Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree bouncing up and down in the front row of the student section, donning maize shirts and dancing to the Blues Brothers. That was captivating. It’s OK to remember that.
Try to remember the guy standing, singing, jumping next to Denard. Not Roy — the guy on the other side. He had a maize No. 1 jersey painted on his body. At first, people thought it was Lloyd Brady, then it wasn’t.
It was Zac Boyd, a senior Engineering student. For one night, his face was plastered across Twitter and ESPN, as he was fortunate enough to have been Robinson’s bench buddy in a thriller against Michigan State.
But that’s not important. It’s his backstory that brought him onto this page.
Zac graduated from Grand Ledge High School a few years back. He went to school with Al Horford. He went to school with Jon Horford. He went to school with … me.
Zac played Little League baseball with me. We were in French Club together.
Still not important.
He’s from Spartan country, right smack dab in the heart of it. If you’ve never ventured near East Lansing, it’s a Utopian place, where traditions are passed down from generation to generation.
It’s the kind of place where every teacher is a Michigan State grad, where every grandpa doffs his Spartan cap at you on the sidewalk. It’s the kind of place where every child has a trademark Michigan joke.
“You’ve got a stain on your shirt!”
“That big ‘M.’ I think you spilled something on your shirt.”
Sometimes it’s a little less cryptic.
“I like you, but I hate Michigan.”
Fair enough. It’s a rivalry. It’s about taking a punch and reacting with a right of your own.
If author and professor John U. Bacon has his facts straight, the “Spartans” moniker came as a response to Ann Arbor being dubbed the Athens of the West.
In the first decade of the millennium, the Michigan college sports scene was pretty structurally sound. Fall was football season. Football season was for Michigan. Winter was basketball season. Basketball season was for the Spartans. (We could stretch back into the 1990s and the trend holds, but then we’d be trudging through my infancy.)
No need to mess with success.
Michigan has gone to 11 bowl games — five BCS games — since 2000, but has only two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Michigan State has seen eight bowl games — zero BCS — but hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1997 and has reached five Final Fours since 2000.
Rivalry games were tight, for the most part. (Raise your hand if you’re willing to forget the Spartans’ 114-63 win in 2000.) But by the end of the season, the sentiment remained: The state was painted maize in the fall, green in the winter. Football school versus basketball school. Neither knew success in the other’s realm.
I didn’t know Michigan basketball until I stepped foot on campus. I knew the Spartans. Mateen Cleaves, Mo Pete, Shannon Brown, Paul Davis, Drew Nietzel. You remember the winners.
I knew Michigan football, though. Mike Hart, John Navarre and Braylon Edwards were a little more memorable (and somewhat less criminal) than Jeff Smoker, Charles Rogers and T.J. Duckett.
That all has changed, obviously. You’d be a fool not to notice that the tide has shifted.
Michigan State has toppled Michigan four straight seasons on the gridiron. The Wolverines responded with three consecutive victories on the hardcourt for the first time since 1998 — wins that were later vacated after the Robert Traylor investigation.
The Spartans defended home court valiantly yesterday, downing Michigan 64-54 at the Breslin Center. It was a little ugly. Draymond Green tied the entire Wolverine team with 16 rebounds.
It’s OK. Really. Rivalries swing back and forth, that’s the beauty of them.
As the clock wound down at the Breslin Center yesterday, the Izzone shot one last barb toward the Michigan bench.
“Where is Shoelace?” the student section chanted.
He wasn’t there. Neither was his bench buddy Zac.
The night belonged to Sparty, but that’s not the whole season. The fall doesn’t belong to Michigan anymore, and the Spartans finally have competition in the winter.
— Nesbitt sees this and smiles. Ah, the sweet smell of rivalries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.