Auburn Hills — Fans filled the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Wednesday, hoping to catch a glimpse of the team that could make history by going on to win this year's NCAA championship.
Michigan and Michigan State were among the tournament teams taking to the court for practice ahead of Thursday's opening-round games, much to the delight of hundreds of hometown fans of all ages.
MSU grad Joel Reb of Brighton brought his 4-year-old sons Jack and Connor to check out their favorite team. Everyone in the family has gone to the school, so it was only natural that the boys would be Spartan fans.
"It's a fun way to let them watch basketball," said Reb. "If you go to a full game, they tend to lose concentration, so this is nice and short and free."
On Thursday, No. 3 seed MSU will face Valparaiso at 12:15 p.m. and No. 4 seed U-M will take on South Dakota State at 7:15 p.m. Teams moving on in the next round will head to games on Saturday, also at the Palace.
The open practices Wednesday continued throughout the day, with fans showing up for an up-close encounter with their favorite players. Some checked the odds on their smart phones and others pulled out folded pieces of paper and went over their brackets. The predominant colors in the crowd: Michigan Blue and Spartan Green.
"I've been a huge fan of Michigan my whole life," said 18-year-old Aaron Boening of Clinton Township, who wore a Wolverine-shaped maize and blue hat to the practice. "I've never actually seen them play before, so I'm excited for it."
Boening has tickets to Thursday and Saturday's games because he's confident Michigan will make it through the first round.
"I'm hoping they win," he said. "I'm pretty sure they are going to go far."
Two fans who stood out from the crowd were Nichole and Justin Hawkins of Waterford. He is originally from Memphis, Tenn., so they boldly wore Tigers blue for their team, which plays St. Mary's on Thursday.
"It's kind of fun because we get to explain just how good they are," said Nichole Hawkins. "Plus all of our friends are Michigan and Michigan State fans and they just happen to be in the same tournament this year."
The two have tickets to Thursday's game and intend to get tickets to Saturday's action should their team continue on.
"It ended up being completely perfect," said Justin Hawkins.
The Spartans finished their practice driving to the basket, and the crowd oohed with excitement at every dunk. At the end of their session, the players waved to the fans as they walked off the court to a standing ovation.
"It's a great experience," said Michigan State fan Julian Dozier, 13, a three-time Amateur Athletic Union champion in boys basketball. "I just want to be out there with them. I like everything about it."
Dozier, who attends Burton Academy in Detroit, came with his grandfather Willie Hardaway. Hardaway, a Detroit resident, said he was thrilled to see his grandson so excited about the game.
"It's always good to see young guys go the right way," he said.
Sparty fan Zach Stevens of Lansing wore his love on his arm, literally. The 23-year-old proudly displayed his unique Spartan tattoo while wearing a Michigan State tank top. He said he got inked to honor his grandmother Sharlene Rotman, a longtime Michigan State employee and fan who died last year.
"Being a State fan, it was just really easy to get it done," said Stevens, whose tattoo includes a Red Cross and an Army Reserve dog tag, honoring his grandmother's service in both organizations. "She was a hell of a woman," he said.
For many, the open practices were a chance to throw themselves into March Madness with friends.
"It's all basketball. To me this is the best sport event there is, bar none," said Jan Hall, a lifelong Spartans fan from Saginaw. "You can have the Super Bowl, I love the World Series but this for me is just the best."
Hall, who is retired, came to the Palace with friends George Michelson, an Indiana Hoosiers fan, and Kevin Bupuis, a Michigan fan. The Big Ten buddies bought tickets to Thursday's games and enjoyed scouting out the teams at practice.
"We're here to scope them all out, you know, just in case the coaches want to give us a call if they want tips," joked Michelson. He said given the ups and downs of the regular season, he was looking forward to a tournament full of surprises.
"Nobody sees these things coming and that's what makes the tournament so exciting," he said. "With the season it's been with all the upsets, I expect the tournament to be the same way."
Michigan State cener Derrick Nix, left, signs autographs for fans including Keegan McCulloch, 6, of Lake Orion, with hat at right, during Michigan State practice for the second round of the Men's NCAA Tournament at The Palace. / Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
These three friends are all from Saginaw, but they each root for a ... (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
College basketball fan Willie Hardaway (no relation to U-M junior guard ... (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Jacob Egelski, 6, gazes up at the giant scoreboard over center court while ... (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
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