No one forgets his or her first Final Four in East Lansing. For me, it was 2005. While Michigan State had finished second in the Big Ten that year, and limped into the NCAA Tournament as a five seed. Once the tournament began though, MSU shone; first by beating Duke in the Sweet Sixteen (highlighted by Maurice Ager reducing J.J. Redick to rubble with one thunderous dunk), then by outlasting Kentucky in the Elite Eight (highlighted first by a Patrick Sparks three that danced around the rim until it dropped, then by Alan Anderson making several key free throws after missing foul shots in a loss against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament).
I remember watching the Kentucky game in my fraternity house, then immediately running out to Albert after its conclusion. The crowd quickly focused on Albert and MAC (its close proximity to liquor stores was purely coincidental, I assure you). Hundreds of other students had the same idea, and quickly began chanting "FINAL FOUR! FINAL FOUR! FINAL FOUR!" Albert between MAC and Charles was quickly blocked off by the police, and turned into a makeshift parade route. I ran into people I knew from classes, ASMSU, and Greek Life. When I look back on my fondest memories from MSU, that's one of them.
Next week I had to help run the Greek Week Relay for Life the night before MSU's game against North Carolina, and while I took a nap in the afternoon, I just remember being dog tired on game day. MSU's small lead at halftime provided hope, but UNC's lottery picks began to excel, and that was that. I remember going home to sleep, and listened as the sirens wailed and the tear gas canisters popped in the distance.
In 2009, the Final Four game would be the apex, not the conclusion. I watched the Spartans dispose of #1 overall seed Louisville in the Elite Eight. Even though we didn't have tickets, we still made the trip to downtown Detroit to take in the atmosphere and find a bar to watch the Spartans play UConn. I remember seeing a few UNC fans, the odd UConn fan here and there, and I had to look up the last team (Villanova). Eventually we found a place to eat, scrambled to get the check in time, then scrambled some more to find a place to watch the game.
The bar was packed with MSU fans, as it should've been. I don't recall the bar's name, but one of my friends knew someone who could get us cheap drinks, which was optimal. There are two things I recall about that game, both occurring in the second half. The first, Durrell Summers's dunk over Stanley Robinson, which might have caused Robinson to register for the witness protection program. The second, a very nervy finish which saw MSU almost give away a lead. The Spartans won, and the Final Four chants started again, this time on the streets of Detroit. On Monday me and one of my friends got to B-Dubs 10 hours early to make sure we had a table for the title game. After UNC's torrid start I left at halftime, walking by a policeman on a horse. He would not be needed that night.
If 2009 was a heavyweight champion knocking out contender after contender, 2010 was a contender desperately rope-a-doping to get to the bell. Kalin Lucas went out. Korie Lucious's shot got MSU to the Sweet 16. The Spartans knocked out a pesky Northern Iowa squad to get to the Elite 8, and in one of the great underrated MSU tournament games, Raymar Morgan's free throw with less than five seconds left sent the Spartans to the Final Four. This time I watched the Final Four game at Dublin Square. Frustration was the theme that day, as Butler and MSU both had trouble on offense. I remember Draymond getting fouled by Gordon Hayward towards the end, and that foul not being called. Butler wins, and MSU hasn't played in a Final Four game since.
It's always tough to watch college basketball this time of year if Michigan State isn't playing. The memories of Final Fours past leave indelible moments, and I won't be able to watch the reminder of college basketball this year without thinking what could've been for Michigan State. It's also disappointing that the current crop of Michigan State students won't get to experience a Final Four during their time on campus -- those were some of my favorite moments on campus.
However, current MSU students also experienced things I never did. They got to see a dominant MSU football defense. They get to go to HopCat. Maybe most of all, they saw something I never thought would happen this soon: an MSU football team in Pasadena on January 1st, lifting a trophy. While current MSU students may not get to experience Final Four dreams, they got to experience a Rose Bowl and a Big Ten Tournament title this season - still much, much more than many schools get to experience. While not the perfect end to a year, the season left enough good memories to sustain us until football in late August.