ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Two years ago, Jordan Morgan and Michigan had to play a road game in the NCAA tournament – or so it seemed at first.
The Wolverines were in the round of 32, facing Duke in Charlotte, N.C. It appeared the Blue Devils would have a big advantage until Morgan noticed something about the crowd.
“Duke and North Carolina both played there,” said Morgan, a 6-foot-8 forward. “All the North Carolina fans stayed after North Carolina played and cheered for us to beat Duke.”
Now it’s Michigan and Michigan State that will share an arena close to home at the start of the tournament. Both teams open today at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. The fourth-seeded Wolver- ines face 13th-seeded South Dakota State in the South Regional, and the third-seeded Spartans take on 14th-seeded Valparaiso in the Midwest.
It should be a fascinating atmosphere – a crowd full of fans wearing maize and blue – or green and white. It’s a scenario that’s been anticipated for a while, with the Wolverines and Spartans hovering near the top of the Big Ten all season. It became reality Sunday when the tournament pairings were announced.
“I think it’s 90 percent positive. You know there’s always the 10 percent of keeping players focused,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Sometimes, if you get them away, it’s a little better. But to be here for our families, to be here for travel, to be here for a bunch of Spartan fans who’ll get to go to the games and save money is good.”
The most interesting question is how fans will handle the week. If South Dakota State takes an early lead over Michigan, will there be a critical mass of Michigan State fans still in the building, cheering for the underdog?
The Spartans play at 12:15 p.m. Thursday. Michigan’s game isn’t until the night session at 7:15. If both teams win, that’s when things could get interesting. There would be two games Saturday – one involving Michigan and one involving Michigan State.
The “pod” system was introduced in 2002, rewarding top teams by keeping them closer to home and reducing travel.
Michigan coach John Beilein says regional- izing the tournament is a good idea that can help attendance and reduce travel.
“I think they should even do more of it,” Beilein said. “It really makes sense to me.”