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'It was a gut punch': Sports community reacts to cancellation of NCAA tournament

March 19, 2020
<p>Members of the Izzone toss newspapers into the air before a game against Iowa. The Spartans defeated the Hawkeyes, 78-70, at the Breslin Student Events Center on Feb. 25, 2020. </p>

Members of the Izzone toss newspapers into the air before a game against Iowa. The Spartans defeated the Hawkeyes, 78-70, at the Breslin Student Events Center on Feb. 25, 2020.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

The typical Michigan State men’s basketball game day for supply chain management senior Conner Wyckoff went differently than most. He’d normally show up to the Breslin Center early, along with his fellow Izzone student section leaders, to line the seats with paper bags to be thrown at the first basket and newspapers to be read as the opposing team’s lineup gets announced.

When it came to a free throw, all eyes were on him as he led the notorious Izzone distractions while swinging a big cutout of a Spartan player’s head through the air.

So when March Madness was called off due to the COVID-19 outbreak, all Wyckoff could feel was grief.

“I’m pretty sure I speak for all of the Izzone when I say — just sadness,” Wyckoff said. “Just knowing that we felt really good about the team and really wanted them to be able to go out and show more than just East Lansing and the surrounding communities how good we really are in terms of going on in the tournament.”

The Izzone is a staple at MSU men’s basketball games. The energy and passion of the student section plays a large role in what makes competing in the Breslin Center so difficult for traveling teams.

Advertising management junior Alan Weeks said the Izzone section leaders are the most passionate people about MSU men’s basketball, going as far as to say that watching the games has become his “own reality.”

“For me, it was a gut punch,” Weeks said. “I knew that needed to happen, I knew that for sure this was going to start escalating, but it still sucks. You don’t want it to happen, we watch sports to try to get away from stuff.”

It’s certainly a feeling sports fans across the country are experiencing, desperately trying to fill a void in the absence of what is usually the most entertaining month in college sports. For chemical engineering senior and Izzone leader Nick Ignatoski, trying to find other hobbies has become essential.

“I’ve spent some time re-watching some old games and going back and appreciating some of the stuff that’s happened in the past couple years,” Ignatoski said. “It’s certainly disappointing, especially for my senior year. I would’ve loved to experience it, but at the same time, the safety and health of the general public and the players as well is obviously the most important thing.”

The leaders all had a similar understanding of the decision made by both the Big Ten and the NCAA. Weeks said the most difficult part about the cancellation was that it cut the season short for the athletes, especially the seniors.

“They provided us with tons of entertainment just throughout the four years — (Kyle) Ahrens, (Cassius) Winston, even (Conner) George,” Weeks said. “So if you’re not thinking about them, that should probably be the main priority.”

The NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility for spring sport athletes on March 13. This additional eligibility is a privilege some feel should be granted to winter sport athletes as well, since their post-season play was eliminated. Ignatoski said he doesn’t see winter sports getting the same exception.

“Obviously it would be super nice for that to happen, but I think a lot of guys would probably still leave anyway,” Ignatoski said. “Maybe not, but for the majority of them, if you asked them if they wanted to be at school for another year if they had the opportunity to go to something else, they would probably go.”

Many Spartan players took to social media to express their feelings following the announcement. Winston took to Instagram while George took a lighter approach on Twitter, questioning if the Spartans' preseason No. 1 status grants them the National Championship by default.

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Despite the disappointment, Wyckoff said there's also a sense of gratitude that goes hand in hand. Gratitude for the safety of the athletes and fans, and gratitude for exactly what Winston told SportsCenter on Friday — that he "went out a champion."

“You always live to want to play the next game, but at the same time, going out on such a high note is a really good feeling,” Wyckoff said. “After doing further research, I definitely think that it was a very smart move.”

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