All season Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had avoided using the site of this year's Final Four, Detroit's Ford Field, to motivate his team. But last Friday night the time seemed right. After his Spartans beat Kansas 67-62 in the Midwest Regional semifinals in Indianapolis, Izzo gathered the players at the team hotel and talked. He had already been to four Final Fours, even won a title, in 2000, right there in Indy. But could they grasp how gratifying going to a Final Four just 90 miles from East Lansing would be for someone like him, a Michigan native who'd never lived anywhere else? Did they know how few teams have played in a Final Four in their home state? (A dozen since the first tournament, in 1939, and only two in the last 30 years.)
Detroit was named as the 2009 site in July '03, and Izzo had used that selection to lure nine Michigan prospects to this team, including sophomore guards Durrell Summers of Detroit and Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten player of the year, whose home in Sterling Heights is 10 minutes from Ford Field. Izzo wasn't just blowing recruiting smoke. Going into the season, every four-year player in his 13-year tenure had made it to a Final Four.
Now there was even more on the line. Six years ago Izzo couldn't have envisioned how far in the tank the state economy would be, how many jobs would be lost, how dismal the Detroit sports landscape would look (the 0-16 Lions!) and how deeply Michiganders would need something to cheer in 2009. Izzo had much to discuss in the hotel ballroom, but, he says, "I found out there wasn't a lot of time to talk about it, because there was other work to do."
That work is the reason the Spartans were able to rout top-seeded Louisville 64-52 on Sunday. As Magic Johnson, the star of the school's first NCAA title team 30 years ago, looked on in a Michigan State sweatshirt, Izzo improved his record to 14-2 in the second game of NCAA tournament weekends. "This means a lot for the team, the coaches," said Lucas. "And you know it means a lot for Detroit."
The Spartans' preparation is intense; they got their first scouting report on the Cardinals at 2 a.m. last Saturday, then had 20-minute walk-throughs or film sessions every few hours leading up to the game. The scouting staff records every televised game all season, and 14 editors (some of them student volunteers) use a $500,000 system to break down all their opponents' shots and ball screens. Travis Walton, the 6' 2" Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, was able to study each move the Cardinals' 6' 8" star, Terrence Williams, made this year. On Sunday, Walton helped hold Williams to one field goal. Said Izzo, "The job he did was incredible."
Fifth-year senior Goran Suton carried the offense. The 6' 10" center had 10 rebounds and four assists, and he scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half, including three three-pointers. "I didn't realize how open I was in the first five minutes," said Suton. "When Coach said, 'Shoot it or I'm going to take you out,' I had no choice but to shoot it."
Suton is one of the Michigan guys, though he wasn't born there. A native of Sarajevo, he fled that violence-plagued city along with his family during the Bosnian war, taking the last civilian flight to Serbia in September 1992. Eight years later, when he was 15, the Suton family moved to be near relatives in Lansing, where Goran became a star at Everett High, Magic's alma mater. Like Johnson, Suton won a state championship at Everett.
Now he has a chance to do what even Magic couldn't: win a national title in state.