- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The night of Michigan State‘s regional semifinal rally against Kansas, fifth-year senior Marquise Gray heard from a program legend.

Mateen Cleaves also happens to be a longtime friend, a man with whom Gray shares a college choice and a rugged hometown.

Cleaves and his teammates led a Spartans roster with a heavy Michigan flavor to a national title nine years ago.

Now it’s up to Gray to match his old pal (not to mention Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell) this weekend in Detroit.

“I was always the youngest of the crew, and growing up watching those guys and watching the things they accomplished, it made me want to do something similar,” Gray said. “Those guys didn’t have a chance to play in their own backyard.”

Indeed, Michigan State (30-6) emerged from the Midwest Region as the first team to reach a Final Four contested in its home state since Duke jaunted to Charlotte, N.C., in 1994. In reality, it’s as close to a homecourt edge as any Final Four team will have enjoyed since Kansas took a short drive across the river to Kansas City, Mo., in 1988.

It’s also a dream scenario for the Spartans, whose verve to march past March somehow increased when they learned this year’s final weekend would unfold less than 90 miles from Michigan State’s East Lansing campus.

Nine Spartans players come from in-state, three more from neighboring Ohio. Unsurprisingly, the pleas for a long run didn’t just come from within as Michigan State earned the Big Ten regular-season title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“All the time. All the time, when I go back home, that’s all guys are telling me,” said sophomore guard Kalin Lucas, who grew up about 10 minutes from Ford Field. “Sometimes I go to the gym or I’m going to the mall, they’re saying, ‘Y’all got to make it. Y’all got to bring it back to the city.’ ”

A city that could no doubt use a boost as well. Few areas of the country were hit harder by the economic downturn than Detroit, a city (much like Gray’s hometown of Flint) long beholden to the auto industry.

The Big Three’s problems have cascaded through the area, which is expected to receive an eight-figure infusion of out-of-town cash from Final Four visitors. As such, any upbeat distraction is a welcome one for many in the region.

The trouble is actually finding something uplifting. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted while in office and ultimately resigned last year. Baseball’s Detroit Tigers fell even more precipitously than the city, tumbling from pennant winners to last place in two years. The NFL’s Detroit Lions were consigned to the history bin of laughingstocks after last fall.

And good luck find anything about General Motors without an ominous mention of bankruptcy.

Into this tenuous town arrives Michigan State, an infusion of green-hued giddiness at perhaps the perfect time.

“I like to look back at the New Orleans Saints [after Hurricane Katrina] and the impact that had on their state, and it could be a similar impact to our situation in Detroit,” freshman forward Delvon Roe said. “I think it could bring a lot of smiles to people’s faces.”

Those smiles would be especially wide if the Spartans can topple West Region champ Connecticut in the semifinals. Huskies coach Jim Calhoun acknowledged it would be a de facto road game.

Toss in the expansion of the Final Four’s seating capacity - to more than 71,000 with the court in the middle of the football field rather than placing it in an end zone - and it won’t take long before the people’s favorite is obvious in Saturday’s first game.

“We’re kind of like the home team,” Gray said. “Us and Michigan, and Michigan’s not here. It’d be kind of like a stress reliever for everybody. With the economy going bad and all the crime and everything happening in Detroit, it’ll give the city a chance to get away from that for a couple hours and kind of lean us.”

Of course, that could extend another 48 hours with a victory. Only nine other schools have reached an in-state Final Four since the NCAA adopted playing the semifinals and title game at the same site. Seven of those advanced to the championship, with five winning titles.

This will be the first close-to-home team to bring hordes of fans to a dome, an experiment-in-the-making to see how much a nominally neutral venue might tilt - and a demonstration of how strong of a Michigan touch could be added to a Final Four in a city ready to embrace the event.

“That doesn’t get you any wins or get you any more fans most of the time, because of the way the tickets are,” coach Tom Izzo said. “This thing is really a national tournament now. But the opportunity to play in our state, especially with some of the struggles we’ve gone through this past year, I guess I felt a little bit like hopefully we can be the sun shining through some pretty cloudy areas.”

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