AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Returning to the place his childhood team won an NBA championship, this time ready to begin his own run for a title, Keith Appling couldn’t help but smile.
“Being a hometown kid, of course I followed the Pistons, especially when they won the championship that year,” Appling said. “It’s a special feeling to be able to play here in the NCAA Tournament and have all my family and close friends be able to come watch us play.”
The Spartans arrived at the Palace of Auburn Hills for the first time Wednesday to prepare for their opening game of the NCAA Tournament today (12:15 p.m., CBS) against No. 14 seed Valparaiso (26-7).
The in-state atmosphere, which included several hundred fans to watch MSU’s practice, is something Spartan players have begun to feed off of.
The crowd roared when the players finished practice with jaw-dropping dunks, highlighted by the expected suspects, sophomore guard/forward Branden Dawson and junior center Adreian Payne, as well as surprise performances from Appling and sophomore guard Travis Trice.
“We’re all looking forward to playing here and having home court advantage because our fans are great,” Payne said. “We’re just very supportive and thankful that we’re going to be able to play here at the Palace and have their support.”
The return to the area has special meaning for Derrick Nix as the senior captain prepares for one final run with the green and white.
With his MSU career on the verge of ending each time he steps on the court, the senior center said he’s driven to give everything he has to help lead the Spartans to the Final Four.
“It means a lot,” Nix said about returning home. “I’ve just got to approach every game like it’s my last, because it is. I’ve just got to make sure everybody is ready to play.”
The return also was nostalgic for MSU head coach Tom Izzo, who said memories of winning a regional final at the Palace in 2000, before going on to win his first national championship, came flooding back as he stepped out on the court.
Izzo said he spoke to the leader of that historic team, Mateen Cleaves, and said his former guard is even more excited about the Spartans’ arrival at the Palace than the coach is.
“I’m tickled to death to be here,” Izzo said. “I love sharing things with people. I love seeing people happy because we do well, especially if it’s Michigan State people. … So it’s all good, it’s all good being here. We’ve just got to perform now.”
To see an interactive timeline of MSU’s regular season, click here.