- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

DETROIT | One look at the thousands of fans waiting in the rain an hour before the gates at Ford Field opened, and it’s clear where Michigan State’s motivation comes from.

For Connecticut, the focus is much narrower, though no less powerful. A year removed from that crushing loss to San Diego in the NCAA tournament, two from that unUConn-like 17-14 record, their program buffeted this season by coach Jim Calhoun’s latest health scares and other distractions, the court is the Huskies’ refuge, the one place they are truly in control.

“This team has given me incredible joy this season,” said Calhoun, a Hall of Famer who was diagnosed with his third bout of cancer last May. “They were the tonic, quite frankly, the best medicine I could ever possibly receive.”

You can say the Michigan State-Connecticut matchup in the Final Four on Saturday night is only a game, even though the winner advances to play for a national title. But when real-world problems - unemployment, cancer, possible recruiting violations - are a constant companion, those 2 1/2 hours they play give fans and players alike an escape.

Connecticut (31-4) was expected to be good again this year - when, really, are the Huskies not? Then came the news in late May that Calhoun had skin cancer again and would need radiation. The treatment killed the cancer cells, but it also sapped his strength and energy.

Yet when practice began in the fall, there was Calhoun on the sidelines.

“He brushes it off, and the next day he’s at work,” Jeff Adrien said. “We really learned from Coach the mental side, and that’s what makes us who we are.”

They would need every bit of that strength.

With big man Hasheem Thabeet looking like a newer version of Dikembe Mutombo, A.J. Price recovered from a torn ACL and Jerome Dyson patrolling the perimeter, the Huskies raced out to a 24-1 start. North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Louisville - none of them looked as good as Connecticut - and it sure looked as if the Huskies were on their way to a third national title.

But in UConn’s Feb. 11 game against Syracuse, Dyson collided with another player and suffered a season-ending knee injury. Two weeks later, Calhoun went on a tirade after a freelance journalist peppered him with questions about his $1.6 million salary, an exchange that became an instant YouTube hit. The Connecticut governor later called it an “embarrassing display.”

Calhoun missed the Huskies’ first-round rout of Chattanooga after being hospitalized for dehydration.

Six days later, news broke of possible recruiting violations involving former UConn player Nate Miles. The NCAA is reviewing the allegations, and Calhoun and Connecticut are barred from commenting on the situation.

So to be at the Final Four, playing Michigan State (30-6) in what essentially will be a home game for the Spartans? Go ahead and bring it on. The Huskies have been through worse.

“We go into every game with the us-against-the-world mentality,” Price said, defiance in his voice. “With everything going on now, us basically having a road game out here, will make that more apparent.”

A friendly environment is the least the basketball gods could do for Michigan State.

Few states have been hit worse by the economic crisis than Michigan, the heart of the U.S. auto industry, and it’s personal for the Spartans. Each of them knows someone - some more than one - who has been laid off or is struggling just to make ends meet. Both of Durrell Summers’ parents were laid off from their jobs and now work at a local post office.

Having the Final Four here would have been a diversion for the hardluck state, regardless of who was playing. To have one of their beloved teams here, well, it really doesn’t get any better. The Spartans are greeted by well-wishing fans every time they walk through the door of their hotel, downtown buildings are decked out in green and a line of people snaked around Ford Field in the rain when the Spartans pulled up two hours before their practice began Friday.

The open practice drew 30,000 fans, triple what some teams get for actual games.

“We’re trying to put smiles on people’s faces,” said Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas, a Detroit-area native. “We have the city on our back and we’re going to come out tomorrow and we’re going to make sure we hold it down for the Motor City.”

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