Minneapolis — It’s been 20 years since Tom Izzo first took a Michigan State team to a Final Four.
That team began a three-year run for the Spartans, which included a national championship in 2000 followed by a third straight appearance in the Final Four in 2001.
That year the game was played in Minneapolis.
Now back in the same city, Izzo and the Spartans began their preparations at U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday as they prepared for Saturday’s 8:49 p.m. matchup with Texas Tech.
“We feel fortunate to be here, and yet we think we've earned our way to be here,” Izzo said, just a few days after beating top-seeded Duke in the East Region finals. “I'm really proud of what my team has accomplished, meaning the way we've reinvented ourselves a few times and kind of stuck to the task and found a way to get to a Final Four. No better thrill than this.”
The Spartans (32-6) are back in a city they visit regularly with Minnesota being part of the Big Ten. And this trek north allows one of Michigan State’s biggest fans and famous alums the chance to take it all in and meet with the team.
That guy is Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. The former Spartan was in Washington last week to see his alma mater in the city he began his NFL career.
Izzo said he expects Cousins to address the team on Friday.
“Oh, he's a big Spartan fan, you know,” Izzo said. “I actually did talk to him two days ago. Hopefully, he's going to come by tomorrow and talk to the team a little bit.”
Izzo recalled the chance he got a few years ago to play golf at Augusta National Golf Club. He was joined by former athletic director Mark Hollis, former Ohio State quarterback and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit and Cousins.
To him, it was the perfect marriage of basketball and football, the sport Izzo insists is his favorite. But it’s Cousins himself that truly has impressed Izzo over the years.
“To the day I die, I think his speech at the opening of college football for the Big Ten at the Big Ten Media Day (in 2011) is one of the great all-time speeches I've heard. I've got it on tape,” Izzo said. “So I know Kirk pretty well, and yet I believe in him even more than I know of him. He's an unbelievable guy.
“Yeah, I'm excited he's going to be here this week. He was actually at one of our games in Washington last week. I know he's a big Michigan State fan, and I know he's a big supporter of basketball, and I appreciate that.”
As for that round of golf?
“Whenever I get over triple digits, I just kind of throw the card away,” Izzo said laughing. “We had a good time. Kirk Cousins is a pretty good golfer, too. Me, I'm just a ham-and-egg guy, kind of slap it around a little bit and hopefully stay out of trouble. You know, when you don't hit it that far, you're never in the woods, so I was never in trouble anyway.”
Considering Michigan State hasn’t played in a Final Four since 2015, essentially no one on the roster has played a game in a football stadium. Kenny Goins was on the 2015 team that played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, but he was redshirting, so getting used to the surroundings wasn’t as important.
On Thursday, the Spartans got their first chance to take it in the environment at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I have never been in anything like this before,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “When we walked out there, everybody was kind of looking around like, ‘This is huge.’ It was hard to even see the top of the stadium. I’ve never played in something this big. At the same time, it was really cool because the court was nice and close, and you could really focus in on it.”
The reaction was similar for junior Nick Ward, who admitted it will take some time to get used to the shooting backgrounds.
“It’s huge,” Ward said. “It’s tough because you look at the back at the hoop and it’s all empty seats. So, it’s tough, but something to get used to.”
As for the first couple of days in Minneapolis?
““It’s been great,” Ward said. “It’s been a great experience. We got a nice welcome to the hotel and our faces are everywhere. It’s been a great experience.”
As Cassius Winston continues to prove he’s one of the best players in the nation, the comparisons have started to roll in for the Spartans’ junior point guard.
“I’ve heard some Chauncey Billups before,” Winston said on Thursday. “Last weekend it was Kemba Walker. It varies all over the place.”
Winston, who earned first-team All-American honors this week from the Associated Press, was asked if he’d been compared to Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
“The only person ever to bring that up is Magic Johnson’s brother,” Winston said. “He calls me Earl the Pearl every time he sees me.”
… Junior Kyle Ahrens still doesn’t expect to play this weekend after spraining his ankle against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament championship game. However, he is moving around more.
“It’s better,” Ahrens said. “Better than yesterday. I was jogging a little out there, did some shooting and stuff.”