Crews prepare Ford Field for the NCAA Final Four Saturday and Monday. The NCAA expects a record attendance for the event.
Carlos Osorio / AP Enlarge
As the higher seed, the Connecticut Huskies will wear their white home uniforms against Michigan State in the national semifinals Saturday.
The rest of Ford Field will probably be awash in Spartans green.
This spring, there's nothing neutral about the Final Four.
The Huskies' third trip to the Final Four is a virtual road game. Michigan State's East Lansing campus is 90 miles from Detroit, and many in the expected record crowd of 70,000-plus will be Spartans fans.
"We'll have the white uniforms on. That's as close we'll get to being a home team, I think," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said on a Final Four coaches teleconference yesterday. "I'm very aware that there will be a little bit of noise for the guys in green. No question."
Ford Field, the domed home of the Detroit Lions, is expected to set the record for the largest Final Four attendance in the 71-year history of the event. Last spring, the stadium drew 114,591 to the two sessions of the Midwest regional, another record.
The larger configuration opened up more seats to local fans, a goal of the tournament committee, and NCAA organizers say about one in seven spectators will be Michigan residents.
That can only work to Michigan State's advantage, although playing in Ford Field didn't help the Spartans much in a hideous 98-63 loss to North Carolina on Dec. 3.
And the Huskies (31-4) hardly shrink when they venture out of Connecticut.
UConn went 9-1 on the road this year, its only loss coming at then-No. 3 Pittsburgh on March 7, and the Huskies are 8-1 in neutral-site games, losing only to Syracuse in six overtimes in the Big East tourney in Madison Square Garden.
Though they're a No. 2 seed and finished first in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, the Spartans (30-6) are being portrayed as gritty underdogs carrying the hopes of a depressed region.
"We've always stated our team's a blue-collar team ever since I came here," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "And there's no better blue-collar city than Detroit, and all the things they go through."
Michigan State hopes to fare better on this visit to Ford Field. But there may be an upside to the Spartans' 35-point loss to Carolina, which was part of a rugged nonconference schedule that included games against Kansas, Oklahoma State and Maryland and trips to Texas and Wichita State.
That competition helped steel the Spartans for the rigors of the NCAA tournament - and it may have paid off when they beat Big East champion Louisville in the Midwest regional final in Indianapolis, about 115 miles from the Cardinals' campus.
"I do think we became a little closer and a little tougher team," Izzo said. "I'd say the way we played the last two weeks, I think it helped it some, I really do."
Duke is the last team to play in a Final Four in its home state, losing to Arkansas in the 1994 national final in Charlotte.
Detroit is a long way from Chapel Hill, N.C., but the Tar Heels (32-4) ought to feel comfortable returning to the site of their romp past Michigan State.
After Carolina coach Roy Williams finished his postgame news conference that night, someone said, "See you in April."
"I'll be back, and I hope my team is with me," Williams replied.
His hopes came true in a decisive victory over Oklahoma in the South regional final.
North Carolina is seeking its fifth NCAA title. UConn and Michigan State have two apiece.
Villanova (30-7) has one NCAA title - and it came in 1985, the last time the Wildcats made it to the Final Four.
Villanova coach Jay Wright is making his first Final Four trip. This is Williams' seventh Final Four, the fifth for Izzo and the third for Calhoun - and all three have national titles on their resumes.
"This doesn't get old, by the way. I can tell you that much right now," Calhoun said.
Wright may be a Final Four newcomer, but he's long been respected by his peers, and he led the Wildcats to the 2006 regional final before losing to eventual champion Florida.
"This is definitely like one of those pictures you look at - choose which doesn't belong here, you know?" Wright said with a chuckle.
Wright belongs now, thanks to Scottie Reynolds' half-court dash for a last-second basket to give the Wildcats a 78-76 victory over Big East rival Pittsburgh in the East regional final.
Izzo said he still looks back fondly on his first Final Four trip, in 1999, when Calhoun also made his first appearance. Calhoun's Huskies won the national final in an upset of Duke, which eliminated Izzo and the Spartans in the semis.
"I'm not sure there's ever one that's more gratifying than the first," Izzo said. "Because you know, anything that happens for the first time, it's like your first kiss. You still remember it, right?"