MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - It’s starting to feel like the Final Four in downtown Minneapolis.
The last four teams battling for the NCAA men’s basketball championship all arrived to the Twin Cities on Wednesday, and got settled into their team hotels in Minneapolis. The teams got their first chance to practice in U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday, in sessions that were closed to the media and public.
Thousands of basketball fans are expected to hit Minneapolis on Friday as Texas Tech, Auburn, Michigan State and Virginia all hold open practices at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Minneapolis Convention Center is hosting the Fan Jam, which offers all kinds of activities for fans coming to town. It’s not just basketball, they’re trying to appeal to all sports fans.
The Final Four games are Saturday night, with the national champion to be determined Monday night.
Coaches and players from all four teams spoke with the media after their practices on Thursday. Here’s what they had to say about Minnesota.
Michigan State – Tom Izzo: ‘I miss Flip’
It became painfully obvious watching Tom Izzo speak. He misses his dear friend and former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. Izzo spoke about the Saunders family and relived fond memories of late night phone conversations with Flip after practice on Thursday. Saunders died in October of 2015 after a battle with cancer.
Izzo said he called current interim Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders the night Michigan State beat Duke to advance to the Final Four. He said Ryan told him, “My dad would be excited.”
“I just love Flip Saunders, he was such a fun guy to be around. I do miss Flip, I miss the late night calls,” Izzo said. “He’d be the guy that ordered everything off the QVC, whatever the hell it is. He’d stay up all night, that’s how he bought his watched and his coats. He would call late at night, coaches stay up late. I miss those phone calls.”
Izzo said he hopes to make it over to the Timberwolves to see Ryan Saunders, Flip’s wife Debbie and their two daughters.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, a Michigan State alum, is expected to address the basketball team on Friday. Izzo said Cousins went to Washington, D.C., last week to watch Michigan State.
Texas Tech – Chris Beard: ‘Smell the roses, but be us’
Chris Beard has made it very clear to his players. He wants them to enjoy the overall experience of being in Minneapolis for the Final Four. After all, it doesn’t come around very often.
Beard said Thursday when Texas Tech played Duke earlier this season at Madison Square Garden, they saw every inch of the city they could that the schedule allowed. They went to Rucker Park, one of the most famous playground basketball courts in the country, ate “ridiculously priced” food and went to the under layers of Madison Square Garden to see displays of the great players that called it home.
“We don’t ever want to be a team that doesn’t enjoy the great cities we get to go to,” Beard said. “We’re going to enjoy life, we’re going to enjoy the ride. It’s who we are.
For Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti, it’s their first time in Minnesota. Predictably, Morreti talked about the cool conditions in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday.
“Never been to Minnesota. It’s good, it’s kind of cold. I don’t like cold, but it’s a nice city so far,” Moretti said.
Auburn – Bruce Pearl talks ‘unfinished business’
Bruce Pearl led Auburn to its third SEC title and its longest run in some time in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the Tigers’ first trip to the Final Four, but they’re focused on advancing in the tournament. It would mean playing for a national championship Monday night.
The Tigers used Thursday’s closed practice at U.S. Bank Stadium to get accustomed to playing in a bigger arena. Pearl doesn’t think it will be an issue when they take the court Saturday night against Virginia.
“We were here this morning on got a lot of shots, and the sight lines are really good,” Pearl said. “I’ve been in some bigger domes as a fan, and it doesn’t seem as big. The guys got lots of shots, it shouldn’t be a factor.”
Virginia talks U.S. Bank Stadium, Mall of America
Virginia isn’t going to let playing in a huge building like U.S. Bank Stadium bother them against Auburn Saturday night. The Cavaliers have already played in a football stadium this season. They faced Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
“It’s not as big as this one of course, but still just the depth that it has, it’s kind of similar,” Marco Anthony said.
It’s Braxton Key’s first time in Minneapolis, but he’s hoping the Virginia team gets the time to hit the Mall of America this weekend. It will have plenty of Final Four feel with the 3-on-3 tournament in the rotunda, featuring several of the nation’s top seniors. But Key wants to do some shopping.
“It’s my first time, it’s cold. It’s freezing. Hopefully I can get to the Mall (of America). I’ve heard about it, I’ve never been but hopefully I can get over there, walk around and look at it,” Key said.
Welcome to spring in Minnesota and the Final Four.