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March 27, 2008

Reliant Stadium setup earning attention

MORE: NCAA Tourney Central | Sweet 16 Viewer's Guide

HOUSTON - The setup of the court at Reliant Stadium generated a great deal of buzz at the South Regional on Thursday as Memphis, Michigan State, Stanford and Texas held 50-minute practices.

Unlike the traditional setup in most football arenas, where the court runs perpendicular to the sidelines and is pushed up against one of the end zones, the court has been placed in the middle of the field. The halfcourt logo is right where the 50-yard line would be.

The court is raised 3 feet off the ground, with roughly 5 feet of carpet surrounding it. Players and assistants will be sitting below the court and must go up and down a short staircase to enter and exit the game.

Detroit's Ford Field is using a similar setup in the Midwest Regional.

The NCAA said the new look allows for more fans to be closer to the court and creates better sightlines. The NCAA plans to use the setup at the next three Final Fours, all at football arenas - Ford Field in 2009, the new Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis in 2010 and Reliant Stadium in 2011. San Antonio's Alamodome is the site of this season's Final Four.

"This is the last year you will see the Final Four being played in the end-zone style," Reliant Park president Shea Guinn said. "We worked for well over a year with the NCAA on the configuration and design. It's exciting to be part of the beginning of a vision. We are thrilled with the layout."

Guinn said the capacity is roughly 42,000, and he expects close to 40,000 fans for Friday's games, the large bulk of which will be Texas fans.

Michigan State believes they have a slight advantage with the unique setup, which is similar to that of one of their Big Ten rivals.

"I don't think there is much of an adjustment for us because in the Big Ten we play Minnesota, and they have an elevated floor," Spartans guard Travis Walton said. "So I think we have a little edge right there as far as playing on a hard floor."

Reserve is Memphis MVP?

USC coach Tim Floyd called Memphis coach John Calipari two weeks ago and told him reserve guard Willie Kemp is the most important player on his team.

"He said he gives us two point guards on the court at the same time," Calipari said. "Before, Willie was looking to come off the bench and score. But now he is scoring and creating. I told him you don't have to be instant offense. You don't have to be like (former NBA 3-point specialist) Dell Curry. He didn't know who Dell was, but he did know his son (Stephen Curry has led Davidson on a surprising run to the Sweet 16)."

But Kemp's biggest contributions have come on the recruiting front. Calipari is convinced freshmen phenom Derrick Rose wouldn't have signed with Memphis if Kemp, who was a former starter, had not made him feel welcome.

"One of the reasons I came here was Willie," Rose said. "He knew if I came here I would cut into his playing time, but he still wanted me. That showed me he really wanted to win."

Back-to-back ejections?

Stanford coach Trent Johnson, who was ejected three minutes into Stanford's overtime win over Marquette in the second round, said he won't hesitate to get yanked again.

"If we get off to a bad start I'll get ejected again so we can win the game," Johnson said. "No joke. If it comes down to winning, I'll do whatever it takes."

Ex-teammates do battle

Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel and Memphis big man Joey Dorsey played together for the American team in the Pan American Games this past summer.

"I call him a junkyard dog," Neitzel said. "He's very athletic and tough. We played on the same team in tryouts a lot. He made me look very good. We've stayed in touch. We text-message each other."

Welcome home

Texas freshman power forward Gary Johnson, a Houston native who played at Aldine High, will be playing in Houston for the first time in his college career. Johnson said he expects about 50 family and friends to attend the game.

This also is a homecoming of sorts for Trent Johnson, who spent four years as an assistant at Rice, which is in Houston, from 1992-96.

MORE: NCAA Tourney Central | Sweet 16 Viewer's Guide>

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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