COLUMBIA — Stephen Keller pitched his 10-person tent on a concrete slab in front of Mizzou Arena at 9 p.m. Wednesday, 71 hours before tipoff.
Keller’s tent hugged the east side of the arena, the first in a row of four tents that had been set up by Thursday afternoon in advance of the nationally televised game with KU on Saturday night.
“I love camping, and I love Mizzou basketball,” Keller said.
Keller and other MU students transformed the open space outside Mizzou Arena into an impromptu campground. They lined up in hopes of securing one of the first 250 seats in Mizzou Arena behind the set of ESPN's "College GameDay" telecast beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday.
After "GameDay," those 250 students will receive a lanyard that guarantees them a spot in the Zou Crew student section for the big game.
To fervent MU fans, these coveted spots are worth camping out three days early. This could be the last time the rival Jayhawks play basketball in Columbia because of MU's departure to the Southeastern Conference.
Senior Mike Lhotak transferred to MU from a small school in Arkansas two years ago to get closer to the atmosphere of big-time college sports. The basketball team’s success this year — the Tigers enter the game ranked No. 4 in the country – has been a "blessing," he said.
“What’s great is I feel like I’m a part of it,” Lhotak said, pointing to the tents and arena behind him. “It’s my last semester, too, so this game is really special to me.”
Keller and his three friends have had the same seats for every basketball game for the past three years: second row, right side, next to the band.
“We’re really careful not to mess anything up,” Keller said.
The superstition goes beyond that. When they watch road games at their apartment, Keller said, the four students align themselves on the couch in the same formation.
The campers aren't worried about amenities. One peek under a tent flap reveals queen-sized air mattresses, plenty of blankets, coolers full of food and beverages and laptop computers to watch movies and TV. Lhotak even brought a poker table and poker chips.
Matt Cassidy and his friends didn’t bring many supplies. They scurried out of their dorm at 2 a.m., tent in tow, fearing that all of the spots would be taken. The rest of their dorm's residents called them crazy.
“People said, ‘Really, the game’s not for three days?'" Cassidy said. “But this is a once in a lifetime thing.”
Cassidy pawed at a textbook. He was waiting for a bunkmate to relieve him for class.
“We’re doing it in shifts,” Cassidy said. “One of us stays while the rest go to class. Then tonight, we’ll all be here.”
As for the unmentionables, Keller credited MU for providing portable toilets.
“Last year we all went in the woods, and they didn’t like that,” Keller said.
Those in line on Thursday afternoon expected crowds to increase as the game draws near. So far they've been greeted with beautiful weather, but rain looms in the forecast for Friday.
Keller, for one, was thinking ahead. His gear included umbrellas, raincoats and parkas.