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To Sweet 16 teams, there's something magical about playing at Madison Square Garden

UConn players gather on the court at Madison

UConn players gather on the court at Madison Square Garden during practice at the NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, March 27, 2014. UConn plays Iowa State in a regional semifinal on Friday. Credit: AP / Peter Morgan

Aside from some lettering beyond each end line, all of the courts in the NCAA Tournament are exactly the same. It is an effort to promote neutrality, to spread the idea that every site is just like all the others.

On that score, two words come to mind for the East Regional Friday night: fat chance.

There is no way to make Madison Square Garden feel like just another gym. Nor should there be, according to the four teams that practiced there Thursday. The Sweet 16 would be special if it were held in the middle of a prairie, but there is something extra about this venue, this time.

"You know, the Garden is like a building version of our guy Magic," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, referring to his school's most famous basketball product, Magic Johnson. "Everybody knows who he is, what he's all about, no matter when you were born. And I think Madison Square Garden is something like that."

Izzo's current players have had games on an aircraft carrier and in Germany. He has coached in numerous NCAA Tournament arenas, having won the title in 2000. This one is just different. He said, "We're excited to be part of something that hasn't been here in 50-some years."

These will be more than typically intense March Madness games Friday night when Connecticut plays Iowa State and Michigan State meets Virginia. These will be historic -- the first NCAA Tournament games at the Garden since 1961, and the first ones, period, in the current building. Everybody involved appreciates that fact.

"As a basketball fan, growing up, Madison Square Garden has always been the arena where you see big-time players come in, they go off for huge games," Virginia star guard Joe Harris said. "It's the world's most famous arena."

It is so famous that even someone who never has played on Seventh Avenue knows the slogan.

To be sure, there are intriguing pure basketball matchups: Iowa State's and Connecticut's coaches are good friends and their point guards are elite players; top-seeded Virginia's defense will face preseason favorite Michigan State's experienced scorers. But the site is the biggest star.

Minutes after Connecticut beat Villanova in Buffalo on Saturday night, guard Ryan Boatright said, "At UConn, we call the Garden our second home because, when we go to the Garden, we take care of business." His coach, Kevin Ollie, on Thursday called it "the greatest arena alive for basketball."

Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, a former NBA player who vividly recalled his first time on the Garden floor, said of his players, "They see the jerseys up there, DeBusschere and Ewing and Frazier. To come out and experience this is just awesome for our guys. You take them out of Middle America, out of Ames, Iowa, you try to get the 'wow' factor out of the way as quickly as possible."

Then again, the "wow" factor might be the best part. "One of my favorite athletes, Muhammad Ali, competed here. The Beatles played here," Iowa State guard Naz Long said, slightly missing the mark on the latter statement -- John, Paul, George and Ringo performed there separately but not as a group. "Just look around and feel the aura of greats: Kobe has played in here and Melo. The whole world knows about the Garden. This is something I've definitely dreamed of."

This is the first trip to New York City for Long, a sophomore from Mississauga, Ontario. He forestalled any awe Wednesday night by staying in the hotel for a proctored Philosophy 230 exam about Socrates. So what would the philosopher think about a weekend at the Garden? "He'd probably say, 'Embrace it,' " said one of many players who intend to do just that.

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