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Michigan's college hoops coaches excited to play at Little Caesars Arena

UDM's Alexander, Oakland's Kampe, MSU's Izzo and UM's Beilein ready for Dec. 16 doubleheader

by Dana Wakiji and Art Regner @Dwakiji and @ArthurJRegner /

DETROIT - For college basketball fans in the state of Michigan, Little Caesars Arena is about to become a mecca.

On Tuesday, Olympia Entertainment president and CEO Tom Wilson joined Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Michigan coach John Beilein, Oakland University coach Greg Kampe and University of Detroit Mercy coach Bacari Alexander outside Little Caesars Arena to announce a college basketball doubleheader on Dec. 16.

Michigan will face Detroit Mercy in the first game while Michigan State will square off against Oakland in the second.

The first game is a nod to the first game at Joe Louis Arena, in which Michigan beat Detroit Mercy, 85-72, on Dec. 12, 1979.

"We just felt it was really important to kick off college basketball in the biggest way we possibly could here in the state of Michigan," Wilson said. "Rather than go outside to some other big-name schools, we said, 'Let's put it together right here with our own teams.' It took a long time but finally, with a lot of juggling, we were able to make that happen."

Kampe said as soon as the Red Wings announced they were building a new arena, Oakland University wanted in.

"No matter what you do, I want to be a part of it and I'll bend over backwards to be a part of it," Kampe said he told his friends at Olympia Entertainment. "Then, as Beilein said up there, it was hard to get together just because scheduling's a hard deal. Everybody made it work. You think about that day next year with the Lions playing here, 80,000 people there, 21,000 people here, that big video board will be playing and the Lions fans that are tailgating will be watching basketball, I got to believe that (Dan) Gilbert and (Mike) Ilitch and all those people, this is what they envisioned and this is what they dreamed of and they'll be smiling. I'll be very happy that Oakland's part of it."

The Lions host the Chicago Bears that same day at Ford Field.

Izzo has been part of huge events before but said his excitement about the event comes from not just because he's MSU's coach but because he's from Michigan.

"When you play on an air base in Germany and you see our soldiers over there, it's special," Izzo said. "When you play on an aircraft carrier and the president of the United States is sitting across from you, it's special. No disrespect to any of those people, but this is home for me. It's been home my whole life. I do believe, even though the U.P. (Upper Peninsula) carries most of this state, I do believe that Detroit has to be successful if our state is going to be looked at like it used to be looked at 50 years ago. It does make me feel proud. I'm looking forward to the night. It's going to be hard. When the president was sitting across from you, it was a special day, but the first college game in this building and seeing what they're doing down here, it's going to be hard to top that for a lifelong Michigander."

Alexander is a native Detroiter coaching in his home city so he claimed Little Caesars Arena as part of "Titan Territory."

"We were the institution that helped start the college basketball scene way back when the Joe was erected, Michigan and Detroit Mercy playing over in the Joe," Alexander said. "Now, for us to go into Little Caesars Arena and do the exact same thing is just poetry in motion. We want to continue to be part of an historic event like this, but we want to continue with the whole idea of growing with the city."

Beilein said he loves coming to high school basketball games in the city of Detroit and is thrilled that Michigan could make the schedule work to be part of this event.

"It's more to us about doing something that can really impact college basketball in the state of Michigan," Beilein said. "It does help in the years to come, the NCAA Tournament will be here. I think the one year we played in the Palace, we had great crowds when we were selected, but we've got to get to the NCAA Tournament first."

Although the scheduling might not always work for Michigan and Michigan State, there is the thought that perhaps some of the MAC teams like Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan could play at Little Caesars Arena in the future.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of interest in it and I think when people get a sense of what this building is and how much fun it is to play here and the support that you're going to have from Detroit-area fans, I think everybody's going to want a piece of this," Wilson said. "So we think this is only going to get bigger."

Kampe said it's also important to bring in college basketball fans who might then want to come for the Horizon League tournament.

"We've got to make it the home of the Horizon League tournament for years to come and the only way to do that is to prove that we can draw people," Kampe said. "This will be a big day for us. If both of us can play well and we can sell this thing out like we expect we will, it should bode well for the Horizon League."

It also can only help recruiting for all four schools to play in a state of the art place like Little Caesars Arena that is already set to host first and second-round NCAA men's basketball games in 2018 and 2021.

"Something like this lets kids dream about playing at all our institutions," Izzo said. "In the past, this state had enough talent to fill all our rosters."

It is also vital for the city of Detroit to have the District Detroit area come alive with all kinds of events.

"I am one of those guys that likes to see big cities prospering and doing well downtown," Beilein said. "This is huge. When you're in Indianapolis (for the Big Ten tournament) as part of this thing, it's just magnetic to people, it's just wonderful. To have this now downtown, we're just really pleased to be in the first year of this."

Although Izzo joked that the U.P. had lots of buildings like Little Caesars Arena, he and the other three coaches were blown away after touring the facility, which was a beehive of nonstop activity preparing for this fall's grand opening.

"You could have gotten what everybody thought was bigger schools in some ways, but I think this is who we should become, take care of our own and be part of this," Izzo said. "That's why I was excited when the Pistons moved down here, the Red Wings coming over, the Lions right next door and the Tigers. How many places have this in the whole country? So my hat's off to all the people that have done such an incredible job of getting this going.

"I can't wait 'till it's done."

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