ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Two years ago, Jordan Morgan and Michigan had to play a road game in the NCAA tournament — or so it seemed at first.
The Wolverines were in the round of 32, facing Duke in Charlotte, N.C. It appeared the Blue Devils would have a big advantage until Morgan noticed something about the crowd.
“Duke and North Carolina both played there,” said Morgan, a 6-foot-8 forward. “All the North Carolina fans stayed after North Carolina played and cheered for us to beat Duke.”
Now it’s Michigan and Michigan State that will share an arena close to home at the start of the tournament. Both teams open Thursday at the Palace in Auburn Hills. The fourth-seeded Wolverines face 13th-seeded South Dakota State in the South Regional, and the third-seeded Spartans take on 14th-seeded Valparaiso in the Midwest.
It should be a fascinating atmosphere — a crowd full of fans wearing maize and blue — or green and white. It’s a scenario that’s been anticipated for a while, with the Wolverines and Spartans hovering near the top of the Big Ten all season. It became reality Sunday when the tournament pairings were announced.
“I think it’s 90 percent positive. You know there’s always the 10 percent of keeping players focused,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Sometimes, if you get them away, it’s a little better. But to be here for our families, to be here for travel, to be here for a bunch of Spartan fans who’ll get to go to the games and save money is good.”
The most interesting question is how fans will handle the week. If South Dakota State takes an early lead over Michigan, will there be a critical mass of Michigan State fans still in the building, cheering for the underdog?
The Spartans play at 12:15 p.m. Thursday. Michigan’s game isn’t until the night session at 7:15. If both teams win, that’s when things could get interesting. There would be two games Saturday — one involving Michigan and one involving Michigan State.
Izzo actually tried to downplay the rivalry a bit in the name of Big Ten solidarity. Whether anyone will take his attitude to heart remains to be seen.
“I am pulling for the Big Ten a lot. I really am. So I hope everybody worries more about their team,” Izzo said. “It is unique. I don’t remember this happening except in the Final Four with Illinois (in 2005). It was just the opposite. I think our fans were awesome to them and their fans were awesome to us. I’m not expecting the same, and understand why. It’s a little earlier in the tournament, but it will be unique.”
The “pod” system was introduced in 2002, rewarding top teams by keeping them closer to home and reducing travel. Duke and North Carolina have played in the same arena in their home state — the Blue Devils held on to beat Michigan in that 2011 game.
Elsewhere this year, Louisville will play in Lexington, Ky., Ohio State stays close to home in Dayton, Ohio, and both Kansas and Kansas State will open the tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
Michigan coach John Beilein says regionalizing the tournament is a good idea that can help attendance and reduce travel.
“I think they should even do more of it,” Beilein said. “It really makes sense to me. Obviously, it saves two things. It puts more money in the game, and it saves on huge travel expenses, huge, to take teams all over the country.”
As for the underdogs — even South Dakota State doesn’t seem too upset about this arrangement. The Jackrabbits made it this far by winning the Summit League tournament, which was played in ... Sioux Falls, S.D.
“It’s kind of a taste of our own medicine, really,” forward Tony Fiegen said.
For some players, part of the charm of the NCAA tournament is a chance to travel to new places. For the Wolverines and Spartans, that can wait.
“You can go either way. It’s kind of fun to go somewhere,” Morgan said. “At the same time, you can’t be disappointed in the advantage that we’ll have, paying close to home, less travel.”