A rare full house at Crisler Arena gives Michigan basketball a boost
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
The lights dimmed and the electricity inside Crisler Arena surged.
As spotlights circled during pre-game introductions, they revealed something missing from a typical Michigan basketball game: There were few empty blue seats sprinkled among the lower bowl, and no expanses of yellow upstairs.
Michigan coach John Beilein noticed the atmosphere earlier, saying “I love the feeling I had when I walked onto the floor.”
Back in February, Hunter Lochmann, the new chief marketing officer for the Michigan athletic department, told Crain’s Detroit Business that one of his first tasks is to figure out why the seats aren’t always full at Crisler Arena and to fix the problem.
Comments on the story from Michigan fans were exactly what you might expect: “He has to get the data to figure out why they aren't selling? Two data points are all that matter when it comes to attendance, wins and losses.” And, “first and foremost the product on the floor must improve.”
Michigan has been winning - 8 of its last 11, in fact, after the 70-63 victory over the Spartans - and the product on the floor has improved as young players like Darius Morris, Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan evolved into solid Big Ten players.
The reward was a lively sellout crowd Saturday inside the 13,751-seat Crisler Arena. Officially, it goes into the record books as the third sellout of the season - along with games against Purdue and Indiana - but the actual butts-in-seats number isn’t close.
The energy level ranked in a different stratosphere, and Michigan junior Zack Novak fed off it.
“The energy they were giving us was incredible. (Michigan State) is a physical team, so especially for me being a smaller guy banging in there and using a lot more energy the crowd just willed me to keep on fighting,” said Novak, who said the atmosphere was as good as he could remember since a 2008 win over Duke.
Michigan fans were leaping - actually leaping - when Smotrycz’s breakaway layup gave the Wolverines a 33-19 lead with 2:23 left in the first half. That’s something that’s typically reserved for a touchdown play of 40 yards or more in Ann Arbor.
With 3:14 left to play, the Spartans rallying and Michigan hunkered down in a long defensive possession, Hardaway waved his arms to incite the crowd to get louder. The packed house responded. Both the call to action and the reaction were atypical in a building that’s averaged 10,639 relatively timid fans (and that’s tickets sold) over its 19-game home schedule.
Plus, Michigan students -- who you’d expect to be a little more rowdy -- were on spring break this week, which made for a slightly smaller Maize Rage student section.
The fans were into the game right until the end, waving a hearty goodbye to Michigan State’s Draymond Green and Delvon Roe as they took their seats after fouling out in the game’s last minutes.
There was a bit of irony involved there, since Green and Roe combined to score 31 points when the Spartans handed Michigan losses on their home court each of the past two seasons -- and did so in front of large and loud pockets of Michigan State fans.
“The last two years, we’ve seen a lot of green and I didn’t see a lot of green at all,” Michigan junior Stu Douglass said Saturday. “I saw a lot of yellow. Those pom-pons might have helped. It felt good. The energy was great and we fed off it.”
The game against Michigan State was the perfect confluence of factors for a big and boisterous crowd: A rivalry game with plenty at stake played on a Saturday afternoon.
A “win and they will come” philosophy probably doesn’t help Lochmann fulfill his goal of packing Crisler on a snowy Tuesday night in December.
But it certainly would help, right coach Beilein?
“I would hope so. I would hope so. But we have to do that, because we still have to get that crowd (to come) back,” Beilein said. “I don’t know what it was like when Rudy (Tomjanovich) played here or all the way through the championship team (1989) and the Fab Five. I have no idea what it was like.
"But I do know that was special out there for our kids.”
Rich Rezler covers sports for AnnArbor.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.