Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Field of Four: MSU faithful prepare for semifinals

Issue date: 4/1/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Writer

Ten years ago, Jeff Miller found himself inside a dressing room in St. Petersburg, ready to begin his usual pre-game routine.

Eventually, he’d put his game face on, head out to the court, shake a few hands and take a few pictures before putting on a show for a crowd.

But before that, he’d always head to the bathroom first.

“So before the game, I’m going there before I put my costume on,” Miller says. “I look over, and [former UNLV coach] Jerry Tarkanian is at the urinal next to me.”

Right then and there, in a bathroom located in the bowels of Tropicana Field, a stark contrast from the bright lights that awaited him on the court, Jeff Miller realized there was going to be nothing usual or routine about this game.

It was the 1999 Final Four and Miller was in his final basketball game as Sparty, Michigan State’s official mascot, as Trajan Langdon, Elton Brand and Duke outlasted Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and the Spartans, 68-62.

“The Final Four,” he said, “Is just a spectacle.”

On the court, Miller walked by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson. He found Magic Johnson in one corner of the court and shook his hand.

“And I thought I recognized the two guys next to him. It was [rappers] P. Diddy and Mase.”

“It was awesome,” he recalls. “Everywhere you looked there was someone you recognized. You would just see a bunch of random famous people walking the streets of St. Petersburg.”

But this time around, when Miller takes the much shorter, 90-minute trek down Interstate 96 to Detroit, the hometown flavor will taste that much sweeter to him.

“This one will mean a lot more to me,” he explains. “Because it’s at home and I’m taking my dad with me.”

The Spartans are headed to their fifth Final Four in the past ten years under head coach Tom Izzo and in the days since Sunday’s defeat of top-seeded Louisville in the Midwest regional finals, have been the talk of the sporting nation because of their abbreviated home game in Detroit.

At Ford Field – a place the Spartans have played, and lost, twice previously – they will be joined by Connecticut, North Carolina and Villanova.

“It means a lot,” Michigan State graduate and Detroit sports radio host Mike Valenti said. “It re-cements the program to being elite. Winning the Big Ten then going to the Final Four with the toughest road there, it’s very satisfying.”

Both Miller and Valenti envision heavy Spartan crowds not only at Ford Field, but in Downtown Detroit.

“It will be packed,” Valenti said. “If the weather is nice, there will be good foot traffic and the people of Detroit will get the metropolitan experience that Chicago and New York does.”

“I’d be surprised if there was less than 40,000 Spartans fans there Saturday night,” said Miller, who lives in East Lansing.

Although the makeshift home-court advantage should benefit Michigan State, Central Michigan men’s basketball coach Ernie Ziegler points out some potential speed bumps the team must guard against.

“I think the coaching staff’s focus will be getting the team prepared and staying focused, because you will have distractions that are ten times what the other three participants have,” Ziegler said.

As for the home crowd’s influence on the game, Valenti thinks the crowd can have an influence on the first five minutes of the game and the last five minutes, but in the middle it comes down to the players.

“I think it can help, but the players must take care of their end of the bargain,” he said. “Michigan State fans didn’t help much when North Carolina came in there and beat them by 40 earlier this year.”

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