I got to my courtside press row seat inside Cameron Indoor Stadium just before 8 p.m. last Tuesday. Tip-off for Michigan State’s game against Duke in Durham, N.C., wasn’t scheduled until 9:30 but the seating situation at Cameron is unlike any other in college sports.
It’s a good thing I took care of my personal business beforehand because I didn’t move out of that space until a few minutes after Duke had finished off a 78-69 win against the Spartans. It’s not that I wanted to stay seated for a 3½-hour stretch, but venerable 9,314-seat Cameron is the skinny jeans of college basketball arenas with the famed Cameron Crazies student section encircling the lower bleachers around Coach K Court.
Michigan State’s Breslin Center is looser fitting with its capacity of 14,797, but its lower bowl is also home to the student section, the Izzone. It doesn’t have quite the same raucous, sometimes over-the-top, reputation as its Duke counterpart, but its potential effect on a game is the same.
The two sections create the kind of atmosphere that college basketball thrives upon, and they are part of what have made their respective programs among the nation’s best year in and year out.
The Cameron Crazies are a tradition with roots going back to the 1960s, although their rise to national recognition coincides with Duke’s rise to national power under coach Mike Krzyzewski in the mid-1980s. The Izzone morphed from a group called the Spartan Spirits that was formed when Jud Heathcote was the head coach. When Tom Izzo took over the Michigan State program for the 1995-96 season, a contest was held to rename the student section. Izzone was selected and it stuck.
“We can’t win games without them,” Michigan State junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr. said. “We love our fans. They’re so energetic and a lot of fun. We’re going to need them to rock.”
Denzel Valentine, last season’s national player of the year and a first-round pick of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, called the Izzone “the heart and soul of this university” in a column for The Player’s Tribune last June.
The Breslin Center was sold out for Saturday’s 80-76 win against Oral Roberts, including the 1,400 Izzone members in the lower bowl plus more in the upper level of the arena. There are 4,000 students who have paid a $55 membership fee to be a part of the Izzone. That membership gets them an Izzone shirt, an invitation to a preseason camp out where they can meet Izzo and the team, and decide which games they wish to purchase tickets for. Student tickets are $10 per game..
Michigan State does not charge a general student fee for athletics as part of its tuition. The Izzone was previously run by the Student Alumni Foundation, but it now under the direction of the athletic department.
“We don’t exactly prepare chants, but last year the “Nigel” chant when Wisconsin was here was an organic thing,” said Ben Limb, a senior from Rochester, Mich., referring to Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes. “A couple of guys in a section came up with it and it caught, and we were able to spread it because at halftime we realized how effective it was. We were able to communicate that every time he got the ball we were going to do this.”
Michigan State won that game, avenging an earlier loss at Wisconsin.
Limb has been a part of the Izzone since his freshman year — “I just loved coming to basketball games,” — and is now a supervisor who coordinates the set-up and runs the Izzone on game days. Duke has a similar coordination with its Line Monitors, who work with the Duke Student Government, to ensure safety and integrity when the tents start going up to form lines ahead of game days at Cameron.
The tent city for the first-come, first-serve student ticketing system has become known as Krzyzewskiville. Students began camping out in Krzyzewskiville more than two days before tip-off against Michigan State. It can be a six-week process to get in for the game against rival North Carolina. Duke students don’t have to purchase tickets. They pay a student activity fee $129.50 as part of their tuition.
“I got the tent for my freshman year and by the end of it, it was completely destroyed because of the amount of snow that was sitting on top of it,” said Edward, a junior who asked not to give his last name. “It’s hard to balance tenting and school. Just in these two days, I’ve skipped three classes.”
Edward said his professors are “not very forgiving” when it comes to missing class. Rules for Krzyzewskiville include a rule stating at least one-third of a tent group must be present at all time to maintain its place in line. That allows students to rotate in/out from their group so they may go to class or elsewhere, although no system is ever perfect.
“It’s a take-it-at-your-own-risk kind of thing,” Edward said. “You’re not supposed to be comfortable. It’s not supposed to be ‘Oh, come wait in line.’ It’s always about juggling things.”
Michigan State and Duke were tied 48-48 with 14:01 left in the second half when the Blue Devils went on an 11-0 run to take control of the game. The Cameron Crazies did their part.
“Playing at home, whenever we go on a run like that in Cameron, you get the crowd behind you and that’s a huge boost,” Duke junior guard Grayson Allen said. “It’s great for us to hear that, it gives us energy, the whole place is full of energy, and our crowd was tremendous tonight. They were so loud during that run. In the huddle, we’re having to get one inch from coach just to hear him. Our crowd was tremendous.”
— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) November 30, 2016
Not all home games are created equally. Michigan State vs. Duke is a prime matchup wherever it is played. It reaches a higher level when the game is played on campus. Duke had the advantage of the Cameron Crazies this past week. Michigan State had the advantage of the Izzone last season when it hosted Louisville and Florida during the nonconference schedule and won tight games.
“The Izzone has a crazy history, that I didn’t even know until I came here,” Spartans senior guard Eron Harris said. “I was like, ‘Wow, mind blown.’ They’ve obviously got that connection with the players and they react with the game. Without the Izzone, the Breslin wouldn’t be what it is.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo