Michigan State's Cassius Winston, Kenny Goins, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and Matt McQuaid talk about playing Texas Tech in the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Minneapolis — It might not be ideal for the players and it sure isn’t for fans, but the Final Four in the middle of a football stadium is here to stay.
The last weekend of the college basketball season has been played in massive stadiums for the better part of the last three decades, and since 2009 at Ford Field in Detroit the court has been placed in the middle of the stadium, allowing attendance numbers to jump over 70,000 on a regular basis for the championship game.
It certainly helps push the revenue for the NCAA, and the debate will likely continue over whether it should be moved back to more traditional basketball arenas like the regional sites are these days. Until then, the players make the adjustment, one that can be difficult when shooting the ball all season in a much smaller venue then moving to stadiums with large open spaces behind the baskets.
“Yeah. Kenny warned us a little about the depth perception,” Michigan State senior Matt McQuaid said. “But after we got out there and got a couple shots up it felt pretty good. You’ve just got to get used to it.”
Kenny, of course, is fifth-year senior Kenny Goins. He’s the only player on Michigan State’s roster who’s been at a Final Four. He was a freshman sitting out his redshirt season in 2015 when the Spartans faced Duke in the national semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Michigan State shot 40 percent (22-for-55) in a 20-point loss to the eventual national champions and were 35 percent from 3-point range (7-for-20).
“You get adapted pretty quickly,” Goins said. “As difficult as it is and as much as it might affect your shot, you get it back pretty quickly because of muscle memory and just let it go.”
Texas Tech players talk about taking on Michigan State in the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
It’s the same for both teams, and Texas Tech’s Tariq Owens says there’s only one way to approach it.
“The rim is the rim,” Owens said. “You’ve got to trust the work that you’ve put in. The depth perception is a little bit different, but you’ve got to trust the work. It’s muscle memory. You can’t be consumed with how much space is around you, how many people are in the gym. Just got to believe in the work that you’ve put in.”
It could lead to teams having a “Hoosiers” moment. In the iconic movie about a small school reaching the Indiana state high school championship, the coach has the team measure the height of rim and distance of the free-throw line.
It was all an effort to prove the court is the same no matter where they put it.
“The rim is till 10 feet and the distance on the court is still the same,” Michigan State freshman Aaron Henry said. “There’s just more people, a bigger stage, bigger lights, but that’s OK. It’s still basketball and I think I know how to play basketball pretty well.”
A lot has been made of Michigan State’s experience, and for good reason.
In the age of the one-and-done star in college basketball, the Spartans rely on a group of juniors and seniors to lead the way with a sophomore in Xavier Tillman coming of age at the most important time of the year while freshmen Gabe Brown and Henry are providing glimpses of what they might become.
So, the Spartans get asked often about their experience. Of course, junior Cassius Winston thought it was funny his younger teammates kept asking him about what to expect at the Final Four. After all, Michigan State was knocked out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of Winston’s first two seasons.
“Yeah, it's crazy because the freshmen sometimes ask me, ‘What do we do now or what it's like?” Winston said. “I'm like, ‘This is my first time too, you know.’ We're doing this together. So we've just been — like I said, we've been enjoying it, taking it all in, and just embracing the opportunity. That's how we look at it.”
As for Goins, who is getting his second shot at the Final Four?
“You never forget any of those memories,” Goins said. “I remember the whole experience like it was yesterday. I have tried to give the guys an insight to how it’s going to be like, but I told them, ‘You’re not going to know what it’s like. I can say all I want to, but until you get there you won’t actually know what it’s actually like,’ and now that they’re here they are beginning to get a feel for it.”
Michigan State junior Kyle Ahrens went through the team’s open practice on Friday, but Izzo said in a live interview during practice that Ahrens is still “gimping around” and simply wanted to be a part of the event.
Ahrens hasn’t played since suffering a grade three ankle sprain in the Big Ten tournament championship game win over Michigan.
… Minneapolis is home of the late Prince, and his music remains a big influence around town. Michigan State’s Joshua Langford was asked what he knew of Prince.
“I mean everybody knows 'Purple Rain',” the injured junior said. “That’s all I know.”