For MSU sports – basketball, hockey and gymnastics – a March unlike any other

For MSU sports – basketball, hockey and gymnastics – a March unlike any other

EAST LANSING – There were many years when the excitement in the state of Michigan surrounding March Madness was at its peak.

Never such a year. Never in March have so many teams created so much buzz. Never so many on campus at once.

“At least nobody has been able to show me what happened at Michigan State, ever,” MSU athletic director Alan Haller said.

While the energy surrounding Tom Izzo’s MSU men’s basketball program — which has carried the mood for many years — is somewhere between anxiety and hope, what’s also happening with women’s basketball, ice hockey and gymnastics makes this month unlike any other in MSU history.

On Sunday night, the Spartans men’s and women’s basketball programs will learn where they are headed in their respective NCAA tournaments. Both should be in the field, women safer than men. Next Saturday, the MSU gymnastics team hosts the Big Ten Women’s Championships at Jenison Field House, competing in the evening session along with the other top four teams, hoping to add a banner to two consecutive regular season conference titles.

Across the street, MSU’s Big Ten champion hockey team will play for the Big Ten Tournament championship at Munn Ice Arena against Michigan.

Meanwhile, a few yards to the west, the Michigan High School Athletic Association girls basketball state finals will be held at the Breslin Center.

Aside from the snarl and diversion of traffic from the untimely start to the US 127 construction project, the scale of the races should create a festive environment, the epicenter of athletic dreams.

“I mean, that’s how we wanted to spend our time in March,” Haller said. “I spoke to my senior team about it last week, it’s an amazing opportunity. It’s an investment in our community. And this is just a small signal that we are moving in the right direction.

“I look back on the (Jan. 1) 2014 Rose Bowl. And at the time I felt like, “This is great. But next time we come, I’ll do this or I’ll do that. And we haven’t been back since. And so the message that I gave to the staff is like, let’s embrace this opportunity because we have no idea what’s coming. … We’ve got everyone in our department working on it for the next few weeks.”

Among those immersed in the work are the coaches and athletes who have created this fervor. Four programs in various stages of construction and existence, four programs that together make up a situation as good as it’s ever been.

In gymnastics, the stars align

Let’s start here: The MSU gymnastics team has bigger goals this season than the Big Ten after an undefeated regular season. This is a team and program driven by what it has yet to accomplish and by coming agonizingly close to reaching national championships two years in a row – missing by 0.15 points last season.

“Nationals is always in the back of our minds,” junior Skyla Schulte said. “We’re taking it one meet at a time, week by week, but the ultimate goal is to get to nationals as a team. This continues to motivate us. And even when we get to nationals, we’re just going to keep wanting to strive for better.”

FROM MARCH 2023: Couch: Michigan State’s gymnastics program rises from the ashes

Head coach Mike Rowe will tell you this is the best team they’ve had in “so many different ways.”

“I think in terms of talent, commitment, dedication, courage, having each other’s backs. Academically they are doing amazingly,” he said. “Without a doubt, this is (the best). I think we’re obviously recruiting better and recruiting the whole package.”

Before the NCAA regionals in early April and, hopefully, the national championships after that, there’s next Saturday in Jenison, the program’s first time hosting the Big Ten championships since 2013. The program then was nowhere near what is now . It’s also a chance to do something new — MSU has never won this meet, finishing second 10 times since gymnastics began as a Big Ten sport in 1982, including each of the last two seasons.

It’s among their targets — and specifically because it’s in East Lansing.

“This is our home turf,” said Schulte, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year two years ago.

Part of the excitement is anticipating the crowd and atmosphere at Jenison.

“I’ve never seen a Jennison not split in half,” Schulte said. “Although (last) weekend we opened it up just to get a feel for what it would be like to have the events in the middle rather than half of the hall. But I’m definitely curious to see how full it will be. I think it will be very full.”

WANT TO GO?: Buy tickets to the Big Ten Women’s Gymnastics Championships

“The Big Ten (championships) are held on your campus once every 10 years,” Rowe said. “So, obviously, I think this experience is going to be just amazing.

“I think just the way the program has progressed the last couple of years, it’s been a banner year with what we’ve accomplished this season — going undefeated, winning back-to-back regular-season championships, hosting Big Tens , to be really stable in our ranking and everything. It’s like the stars are aligning for something really great and special to happen.”

New excitement for MSU women’s basketball

The last time the MSU women’s basketball team was in this position, the world was still mired in a pandemic.

“We were kind of isolated from the other teams and from each other,” MSU junior Tori Ozment said of the 2021 NCAA tournament. “It was really weird. So I think this year organizing the tournament will be a lot more fun.”

Getting back there was among the reasons Ozment and several of her teammates wanted to return this season under first-time coach Robin Fralick — to feel that excitement and be part of the foundation of a new era.

“Coming into the season, it was obviously something that the team had talked about as a goal, something that they felt really passionate about and driven by,” said Fralick, who has reached the Division II NCAA Tournament at Ashland three times, including winning a national title , but has never been to a Division I tournament. “So to earn this opportunity and not feel like we’re sitting on pins and needles (on Selection Sunday), it’s exciting. I mean, this time of year you still have the opportunity to play meaningful basketball, still be able to come to practice and have a big purpose behind it, man, I think it’s the best time of the year.

MSU, which finished the regular season 22-8 and 12-6 in the Big Ten before losing in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, is projected to be a No. 8 or 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning it will likely play on the home floor of one of the four No. 1 seeds, likely to play them in the second round.

“I think it’s just going to be fun to play somebody different,” Ozment said. “We know we can play anyone in the Big Ten. We took the best teams literally down to the last second. So playing somebody different from another conference and another top team, I think it’s just a challenge that we’re ready to take on.”

Bruised But ‘Battle-Tested’ Men’s Basketball Team

The Spartans men’s basketball program could receive an NCAA tournament seed and a path somewhat similar to the women’s. But while Fralik’s team feels like a group that has come as close to who they can be, the MSU men’s team is hoping the postseason brings more joy and satisfaction than the regular season.

Their performance in the Big Ten tournament — a solid performance in a win over Minnesota and a gutsy effort in a narrow loss to top-seeded Purdue — brought with it some hope. If the Spartans want to make a run, they’ll have to do it the hard way, possibly a 9 or 10 seed or, after Saturday’s upsets elsewhere in the conference tournaments, even a playoff spot and an 11 seed. Both will require a win over one of the top teams in the country to get out of the opening weekend.

“Now we played Arizona. We played Tennessee (in an exhibition). We played Purdue twice,” Izzo said Friday in Minneapolis. “These are potentially all 1 seeds. We’ve played Illinois, Baylor and Duke. So we were battle tested.

“And we did something else – we had to rise from some difficulties and some difficult times. I think this is the key to the team’s success. Can he handle it and can he handle it? That’s sort of work for this week.

There is still work to be done amid an exciting year in hockey

Just like old times, the MSU hockey program lifted the spirits of Spartan fans this winter. That was the hope after a promising first season under coach Adam Nightingale. No one expected this from the Spartans in Year 2 — an outright Big Ten championship and contending for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, as they have hosted all of their Big Ten tournament games, including a 2-1 win in the semifinals on Saturday night over the Ohio State Championship next Saturday against Michigan.

This Munn vibe is going to be bananas. Saturday was electric. Beyond anything Nightingale or even his most program-bound employee could remember. Certainly a lot different from the Nightingale’s first home games at the start of last season, when there were maybe 2,000 people in the stands, he said.

“I give credit to our guys because I think they’ve earned some respect in town here,” Slaveya said Saturday night. “That was one of our goals two years ago is to try to win it and not expect people to just come and watch it because you’re Michigan State hockey. You have to play hard – and we’re not perfect – but you have to play team hockey and I think our fans respect that for our guys.”

They also respect victory. And the thrill that Spartans provide.

Even Haller, who hired Nightingale, didn’t expect him so quickly. The only person who doesn’t seem all that impressed: Nightingale.

When the two hugged on the ice in Madison, Wis., after MSU won the Big Ten title earlier this month, Nightingale whispered to Haller, “Allen, there’s still a lot of work to do.”

“I’ve been in the locker room for a lot of celebrations over the last few years,” Haller said. “He literally held that trophy very quickly, took a picture and walked out. And I’m sitting there like, “Where’s Adam? I want to take a picture?’ He was on to the next thing. He said: “We have so many other things we want to achieve this year. Let’s not celebrate, let’s not overdo it now guys. “

Haller recently signed a new five-year contract with Nightingale starting at $700,000 per year, nearly doubling his original deal.

“I’ve been working on this with Adam for over a month,” Haller said. “And when I hired Adam two years ago, he didn’t have an agent. He had no one but himself to represent him, and he said, “Alan, let’s just make a deal. We’re going to build this thing. And when we do, you and I will get together again and talk about some things. But he didn’t really even worry about the numbers at the time.

“He may not have anticipated it coming so quickly, but his confidence that he could do this was there. I saw him two years ago.”

All that happening on campus at once, hockey and beyond, is something to enjoy, Haller said, especially on the rise of programs.

“These first times are things to be celebrated,” he said.

MSU athletes can feel the buzz and, Ozment said, share a kinship.

“I think we share a common pride in just the university,” she said. “And everything the university has been through in the last few years, we’ve been very supportive of each other. We go to matches. They come to our matches, we see them in the stands. There’s just a lot of pride.”

Contact Graham Couch at Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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