Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament brings new experiences to student journalists
Going on the road to cover a basketball team in a big tournament is a singular experience, as MSU Journalism students Sarah Smith and Michael Markoch discovered.
By: Sarah Smith: Current Sports Beat Reporter
NEW YORK CITY - Bright lights, big city, and… basketball?
The East Region’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds of the 2023 Men’s NCAA Tournament was hosted by the Mecca of basketball - Madison Square Garden. Michigan State was one of the four teams making the trip, which meant I was lucky enough to travel with WDBM (Impact) to photograph the Spartans’ run.
The magic in the air of the Garden also applies to the excitement of being a photographer. One of the biggest opportunities to showcase my storytelling skills by capturing the postseason journey of players I covered all season. It means the highest stakes of college basketball. It means capturing a part of history. It means being a piece of the madness that is March.
My journey started the day before the round of 16 began. Media availability and press conferences, open practices, and coming up with new content to engage Spartan fans on social media. The anticipation of what this Michigan State team could accomplish was palpable in an empty MSG, as the Spartans were all business while taking the court for their practice.
Once the players started drills, I focused most on taking photos of MSU’s key players on the team - Tyson Walker, Joey Hauser, AJ Hoggard, etc. The media was limited to 15 minutes of practice coverage, so I had plenty of time to edit my photos and post on social media before Michigan State’s press conferences. I also took some photos at the press conference to post on Impact’s Instagram story with important quotes in the negative space of the photos.
This was Michigan State’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2019, and it was highly anticipated for Spartan fans. I was excited to have the amazing opportunity to shoot MSU’s biggest game of the year against Kansas State at such a historic arena.
Each photographer registered to shoot the game is assigned one shooting spot, which would be only the second half of offense for MSU in my spot. In order to get the best coverage for the entire game, I was able to find an open spot on the opposite side of the court before the game. This spot was not assigned to any photographer, so I was able to shoot the first half of MSU’s offense.
Once I sat down on the floor and MSU took the court to a roaring crowd, it was time for tip-off and the game began. I had an idea of what camera settings I would need from shooting practice the day before, but arenas usually turn on more lights for the actual event. So my aperture, shutter speed, and ISO needed to be set before the game. For this game, I was primarily shooting at a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second, f/2.8 aperture, and an ISO of 3200. The corners of the court are usually a bit darker but the action unfolds so fast so I usually only have time to quickly adjust my shutter speed when a play goes into the corner to get the correct exposure.
The first half went by quickly and then I only had 20 minutes to edit 10-12 photos from the first half for use on social media. I went back out to the court, to the MSU bench side, for the second half.
The sheer magnitude of the event itself was enough to fill me with a mixture of nervous and excited energy, but I had no idea what I was in store for during the second half. The crowd seemed to unlock a new level of commotion. The Spartans and Wildcats put on a show resulting in 16 lead changes throughout the game.
One of the hardest parts of being a sports photographer is catching the correct plane of focus. In the final minutes of regulation and all throughout overtime, I was locked in. Anticipating where a play was going to be made, I stretched my focal length to whoever had the ball in a vertical frame through my viewfinder to track and catch focus of faces like Hoggard or Walker streaking through a lane full of Wildcats to the basket.
In a game like this, it is so important to be aware of your surroundings, which leads to split-second decisions about what will make the best image for the situation. When Malik Hall had a rebound put-back basket and drew a foul, he sat expressionless on the court and waited for his teammates to help him up while the MSU bench went crazy behind him. Even though Hall made the situation exciting, capturing the bench’s reaction was a better image to tell the story of the situation. Decisions like these can change the narrative of the photos I capture.
In the final seconds of overtime, Walker turned the ball over to end the game. He laid on the floor in defeat. After a loss at these stakes it does not feel good to capture images of your favorite players crushed that their season is over, but it is all part of the story. I immediately framed up a wider image where the viewer could see every element of what had just happened. Hoggard with his hands on his head in the middle of the frame, Walker still laying face down on the floor in the foreground, and Joey Hauser hunched over in the background under the game clock that reads 0.0 seconds left while Kansas State celebrates in the distance.
If I could point to a single event that is the epitome of why I wanted to become a sports photographer, it would be this game. The adrenaline pumping through me from a roaring crowd and being able to tell the story of a program I have been a fan of my entire life while being a Senior was one of the best experiences I have ever had.
By: Michael Markoch: Current Sports Beat Reporter
NEW YORK CITY – Broadcasting an NCAA Tournament game from Madison Square Garden in New York City might seem like a pipe dream to many student journalists.
Last month, that dream became my reality.
I was one of four students and two broadcasters from Impact 89FM, the student radio station at Michigan State, that went to the New York Regional of the NCAA Tournament to cover the MSU men’s basketball team.
What I learned was that it isn’t easy to broadcast one of the biggest sporting events in the country in one of the largest cities in the world.
There’s a lot that needs to be done.
Our week consisted of prep work for the broadcast, calling the game, recording stand-ups and staying active on social media, which can be a lot, especially for someone like me who had to juggle their course load and other school related responsibilities from almost 700 miles away.
I also was battling a head cold, exhaustion and burnout every day and that took my energy and motivation to work.
But when you grow up in the small town of Bridgman, Michigan like I did and have an opportunity to go to New York City for work…you rally.
My work week started on media day, which is one of the unique things about any post-season games in collegiate athletics. In the regular season, there almost never is a guaranteed day set aside for the media to get information.
Sometimes there’s a press conference with the head coach a few days before or a day that practice is open, but rarely an entire day where it’s all together. Even when they do happen, you rarely get much, just a lot of coachspeak and watching the players get shots up for 15 minutes.
None of that really changed in New York as obviously the teams were not going to show us anything that could potentially be seen by their opponent. But having that designated day is still important, allowing the media to get the lay of the land in an arena that some members, like myself, had never been in before.
MSU spoke first in the interview sessions, followed by their opponent, KSU. Then it was time for me as a broadcaster to leave the arena and create more content such as stand-ups, reading previews and watching and breaking down film.
Most student media organizations have an annual budget, mainly for travel or to help fund events. Impact’s annual budget is $10,000, and while that may seem like a lot, it’s difficult to stay on track when sending students to the big games. We knew coming to New York meant going over budget, so we felt obligated to push out as much content as we could - which may have led to better preparation.
There’s already a lot that goes into preparing for a game, especially one of this magnitude. Broadcasters have to do hours of prep, learning both teams from top to bottom. There’s roster grids, statistics, shot charts, rankings, quotes, storylines, and other small pieces of information that have to be looked at and processed.
It’s always better to have too much information than not enough. Probably close to 80-90% of what I have on my broadcast boards is never used, but it means I’m never not prepared during the call.
My boards are usually very simple, the first sheet has my roster grids and then the other has the other information like rankings, team statistics, coach information and upcoming schedules.
My grids have three different columns. The first column lists all the players on the team with their grade, position, height, weight and hometown. The second column has their stats along with season and career highs and the third column has some facts about them, some may be statistical and others may be more personal. I try to keep the information to what the audience may not know about such as if a player is averaging double-digits over the last five games or if their brother plays in the NBA - I try to find it all.
Usually, if I get my boards done, that’s enough. But for this game, more prep was required. I watched some film of both teams, broke down an MSU offensive set for social media and read some game previews from other writers and wrote down some final, key storylines.
The next day was game day, which brought with it a lot of emotions and feelings.
I’m not really nervous before broadcasts, rather, feeling more excitement and anticipation. Walking onto the floor at Madison Square Garden and calling a Sweet Sixteen game changed all of that.
Right before we were supposed to go on-air, I started second-guessing myself. Did I do enough prep? How will my voice sound? Am I ready for this? I didn’t feel worthy of being in that position. Having a sense of belonging is something I’ve always struggled with, but I think that self-doubt pushes me through in the end to try and prove myself wrong.
That extra push was needed because the game was deserving of my best. It ended up being one of the most exciting games of the season as the Wildcats outlasted the Spartans, 98-93 in overtime, to advance to the Elite Eight.
We were on the air for every second of it.
After the game and an emotional post-game send-off were over, it was back to the media room to hear from the two teams. That was mostly a time of reflection for me, as I was listening to MSU Coach Tom Izzo and the players, I realized that not only was the season over for the team - but for me too.
I’d given so much to this team this year and now, for the first time in four months, there wasn’t an interview or practice the next day, or any prep that needed to be done.
We had booked our stay in New York through the end of the Elite Eight game on Saturday, meaning we now would have some time off. So, I embraced my inner tourist, as this was my first time in NYC.
We packed the next few days with trips to Times Square, Central Park, Chinatown, the Brooklyn Bridge and the 9/11 memorial pools. Seeing that space was one of the most sobering experiences of my life. We ate New York-style pizza and street meat, rode the subway and made local drivers upset with the times we chose to cross the street.
On our final night in the city, the group went back to Madison Square Garden, mainly for a free meal, but also to watch one last game, this time as fans.
As Florida Atlantic took down Kansas State to reach its first Final Four and red and blue confetti came from the rafters…I found myself asking, to myself and others, 'When's the next time I or any of us are going to get to do anything like this?’
In one of the fastest moving cities in the world, time never stands still but for me, on that night, it did. I don’t know when or where my next experience will be, but I do know that this one was one that will last a lifetime.