Everyone knew this wasn’t an ordinary season. From the players to the coaches, they could feel it throughout the summer, they could see it in their schedule and they watched it come into fruition as they were ranked preseason No. 1 for the first time in school history.
When the Spartans tip off on Tuesday night, it will add to the unordinary season as they open up against No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic at “The Mecca of Basketball”: Madison Square Garden.
Madison Square Garden has been home to some of the biggest games in basketball history. Because it’s in New York, it has sat centerstage since it has opened. All of the greats have played at The Garden at one point or another, and now the 2019 Spartans will get a chance to leave their mark.
The game has been on everyone’s mind. Playing at Madison Square Garden is something that even Head Coach Tom Izzo doesn’t take lightly. He believes it will be good for the team and for the experience.
“There’s just something about getting ready for this, where you can talk about it all summer. Everybody knows that, not only are you playing Kentucky, not only is it one against two, whether either one of us are there right now. But maybe more importantly for the kids, go to New York, play in Madison Square Garden where everybody says is the Mecca of Basketball,” Izzo said.
Even Michigan State’s leaders can’t help but have a nervous excitement to take the same court that so many players before them have shined on.
“When you think of basketball, the history of basketball and all the greats, they’ve all played there at one point. No matter if it’s Carmelo, LeBron, you name it, they’ve played at The Garden,” senior guard Cassius Winston said.
“To play in a place like that, at such a high level, a lot of people don’t get that opportunity. So you try to embrace it, you try to enjoy every moment of it.”
For some Spartans, this will be their first game ever. For others, like junior forward Xavier Tillman, they have experienced it before. Even looking back on it, the Spartans’ stars still can’t believe they have gotten the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden.
“Playing at the Mecca of Basketball, you don’t really realize it when you're in it, but when you get to say that you played there, it’s unbelievable. The arena, it feels smaller when you're on the court, but when you just look at the stadium and seats, it’s a lot bigger,” Tillman said.
Tillman believes his team is ready to get after it, even the younger guys, regardless of where they play. He doesn’t think the nerves will overcome them while they get an opportunity to play at The Garden.
“I think they will be fine, only because we’ve been practicing against each other for so long that I think they're just ready to see somebody else. … I think they will all just be excited to see somebody new,” Tillman said.
While Tillman may think the team will hold up fine, part of Izzo hopes they are nervous. He hopes they don’t take the moment for granted and appreciate the opportunity they are getting.
“You know what, I hope I get in there and their eyes pop. I really do. … I had to tell them yesterday, this is a privilege, this is an experience, this is a memory of a lifetime,” Izzo said.
“I hope they are nervous. I really do, and I hope they are excited. That’s the privilege you get of playing a schedule like this.”
Regardless of the outcome on basketball’s biggest stage, win or loss, the players still know to keep perspective. They have their entire season ahead of them. While they are going to embrace the moment, they want to continue to get better and play their best basketball in March.
“We just got to embrace the moment. This is a huge opportunity to play against the best team in the country, to play on the biggest stage. Those are the moments that you dream of when you think about playing college basketball. That’s what you watch on TV, those games on ESPN,” Winston said.
“At the same time you gotta remember that you want to play your best basketball at the end of the year. That’s what you’re working towards, that’s the whole goal. So, no matter what happens, you want to play great, you want to do those things and if not, then you gotta figure out what you can learn from it and how you can carry that over into the next game.”