by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

EASTLANSING — Less than a minute into Wednesday night’s Michigan State-North Carolina game, the shot clocks went out, and someone had to root around in the storage closets and drag out the old corner units. Prop ’em up. Plug ’em in. So already, the night was going back in time.

That was just the start. With a light snow falling in the darkness outside, the Breslin Center was so blindingly electric you expected steam to rise from the brick facade. Was it late November, or March? From the opening tip, Spartan fans held a guttural “awoohhhhhh” on every Tar Heels possession — and exploded like teens at a Britney Spears concert with each MSU lay-up or jumper.

Deafening: Andre Hutson, with a sweet inside drop shot.

Deafening: Jason Richardson ripping an offensive rebound in midair, banking it back without touching the floor.

Deafening: Freshman Zach Randolph — the face of a child, the torso of two men
— backing in for a sweeping banker.

The wild cheering, the screaming coaches, the pumping fists of the MSU players, this was no accident of enthusiasm. There were, in truth, three reasons for it: Oakland University, Cornell, Eastern Washington. Those were the teams the Spartans had beaten previously. In other words, Wednesday was the season opener.

And it was more than that. It was also America’s first real look at the team that wore the national crown last April. This was a litmus test to see if this whole thing is for real, this new MSU kingdom.

The Merry, Merry Land of Iz.

“Overall, a great win for us,” said Tom Izzo, after his No. 3 Spartans beat the No. 6 Tar Heels, 77-64. “We looked good at times and sloppy at times.”

Looked more good to me.

Spartans have plenty of horsepower

In fact, with early returns counted (there’s always room for a recount), you could say MSU won the popular vote.

The questions were obvious: Without heart-and-soul point guard Mateen Cleaves, Spartans watchers wanted to see how their horse would gallop. The verdict? They may not have the distributor they had last year, but they’ve got finishers.

Richardson, whom everyone knew was a small volcano waiting to erupt, can seemingly take any feed from anywhere and get it to the hole. Hutson, a tremendous defender, will always get his points inside. And this new kid, Randolph, could, with work, be semi-unstoppable.

Does he make mistakes? Yes. Does he need help with his defense? Yes.

Did he go 4-for-4 Wednesday with eight rebounds? Yes. Has he been a college basketball player for all of two weeks? Yes.

“He’s a great lift for us off the bench,” Hutson said.

Hey. At 6-feet-9, 270 pounds, lifting him off the bench would be a big accomplishment. But then, these Spartans will likely win from the front, not the back. And that’s some front. Hutson, Randolph, Richardson, Aloysius Anagonye.

Meanwhile, the guard play is hardly slack. Sure-handed Charlie Bell did a great job shutting down Tar Heels star Joseph Forte. And new point man Marcus Taylor was out there against one of the most storied teams in the nation — and didn’t seem to break a drop of nervous sweat. In fact, as he dove for a steal, he had the presence of mind to push the ball ahead for a fast-break basket that lit up the building. “I think he got Spartan-ized,” Izzo joked.

MSU tugs at center of hoopdom

Now, I have to say I love this whole idea. The Big Ten versus the ACC? Right out of the gate? Brilliant. You want to jump-start a sport that has to compete with the NFL, the NBA and college football, you better pull the heavy artillery.

But more than that: Every one of these things, every big, nationally televised showdown with a traditional powerhouse, makes the epicenter of college basketball more moveable. Let’s face it. To this point, when they think Shangri-la, most hoop eyes still roll toward the southeast corner of the country. Duke. North Carolina. Wake Forest. Throw in Florida.

But more nights like Wednesday can change that gravitational pull. I’m thinking East Lansing. In wet snow. You certainly can’t find fault with Breslin, which is now as loud as any arena in America. Two-thirds of the lower ringed seats are students. They are loud. They don’t sit. They are what college basketball is.

And so is this team. The Spartans, at least Wednesday night, did not play like a team resting on reputation. They hustled. They piped with energy. They attacked defensively. And they took the growls from their coach with heads down and eyes respectful.

“What’d I learn about my team?” Izzo said. “I learned the freshmen are learning to play — and we’ve got heck of players in Hutson, Bell and Richardson.

Did you know that the hardwood floor at Breslin this year was transplanted from the national championship game in the RCA Dome? So the Spartans went back in time a bit Wednesday night, with both clock and floor. And their real season opener took off in proper flight.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or He will sign copies of his books, including “Tuesdays with Morrie,” 7:30-8:30 p.m. Friday at Borders, Oakland Mall in Troy.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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