Michigan State was a so-so basketball school until Earvin “Magic” Johnson arrived on campus in 1977. Less than two years later, the Spartans were national champions.
The 1980s saw MSU revert to relative mediocrity. However, since 1990, they have been a fixture in the NCAA tournament. In fact, since 1997, Tom Izzo’s third year as coach, the Spartans haven’t missed out on the NCAA tournament.
Izzo’s run has featured a stretch of three consecutive Final Four appearances (1999-2001); another Final Four in 2005; back-to-back Final Fours in 2009-2010; and now yet another Final Four appearance. Izzo’s Spartans have made the Sweet Sixteen 13 times in the past 18 seasons.
Perhaps most remarkably, Izzo’s record in second day of an NCAA tournament weekend games — the Round 32 game, the Elite Eight game, and the Final game — is 21-4. Evidently, he doesn’t need much time to figure out how to beat you.
Izzo typically builds his teams around outstanding guards, especially at the point, and a tough forward in the 6-7 to 6-8 range. It’s a winning formula, especially during tournament time.
Outstanding guards dominate the list of all-time MSU greats. You could argue that the five best ever Spartan players were guards. Unfortunately, they can’t all make my all-time team, which requires at least two big men.
Here are my selections
Magic Johnson (1977-79):
As a sophomore (his last year at MSU), Johnson was a first-team All American. In the tournament, he led the Spartans to victory in the final over Larry Bird’s Indiana State team. Bird was the college player of the year, but Johnson was named the tournament’s outstanding player. For the season, he averaged 17 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.4 assists. During the tournament he was even better: 21.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 10 assists, with two triple-doubles.
Scott Skiles (1982-86)
NBA fans remember Skiles as a great assist man (he holds the record for assists in a single game, 30). In college, however, he was a high-scoring point guard. As a senior, Skiles averaged 27.4 points per game on .554 shooting, to go with 6.5 assists per game. This may be the best season any MSU player has ever had. Skiles ranks third on the all-time scoring list (had the three-point shot existed in his day, he might well be first) and second in all-time assists.
Shawn Respert (1990-95)
He’s Michigan State’s all-time leading scorer, and second in all-time points per game for a career (21.2). As a senior, Respert averaged 25.6 points per game, and shot a remarkable .474 from 3-point territory and 87 percent from the free-throw line. Not surprisingly, he was named Big Ten player of the year. Like many a great but undersized college shooting guard (his listed height was 6-3, but he may have been closer to 6-1), Respert had an undistinguished pro career.
Greg Kelser (1975-79)
Magic’s running-mate on the ’79 national championship team (he had 19 points in the Final), Kelser is MSU’s fourth all-time leading scorer and number one all time leading rebounder. Kelser was named All-Big Ten and first-team All American as a senior. His points per game dropped (from a high of 21.7 as a sophomore) after Magic arrived. However, his shooting percentage soared from .492 to .610 as a junior.
Johnny Green (1956-59)
“Jumpin’ Johnny” Green was a rebounding machine. The 6-5 power forward averaged 18 boards per game as a junior and 18.5 as a senior. He could score too, averaging 16.4 points per game during his three year career. As a senior, he led the Spartans to the Big Ten championship and was named second-team All American. In his final college game, Green scored 29 points and pulled down 23 rebounds in the regional finals, to which MSU did not return until Magic Johnson took them there.
Green had a very solid NBA career during which he made the all-star team 4 times and pulled down more than 9,000 rebounds.
Mateen Cleaves (1996-2000):
He’s far-and-away MSU’s all-time leader in assists and he led the Spartans to the national championship in 2000. Cleaves averaged 12.5 points during his four years as the starting point guard, but his shooting average was only .406. His value is better gleaned from the fact that he’s the program’s only three-time All-American and was twice named Big Ten Player of the Year.
Steve Smith (1987-91)
As with Cleaves, it seems almost criminal to exclude Steve Smith from my first team. He’s number two on the MSU all-time points list and he made just under 49 percent of his career shots. As a senior, Smith averaged 25.6 points per game. He made first-team All American as both a junior and a senior.
Smith had a stellar pro career. He is also well known for his charitable work. Most notably, he donated $2.5 million to Michigan State, which is said to be the largest single donation ever by a professional athlete to his former school.
Sam Vincent (1981-85)
He’s number seven on the all-time scoring list. As a senior, Vincent averaged 23 points per game on .544 shooting. He also contributed 4 assists per game. This earned him all-American honors, and he was twice first-team all-Big Ten. He’s one of only eight MSU Big Ten scoring champions. Vincent had a respectable seven year NBA career.
Jay Vincent (1877-81)
Jay Vincent ranks just ahead of his little brother Sam on MSU’s all-time scoring list, and he made more than half of his career shots. His scoring/rebounding averages for his junior and senior years were: 21.5/7.7 and 22.6/8.5
Draymond Green (2008-2012)
Green, at 6-7, is the prototypical tough forward on whom Tom Izzo relies. As a senior, he averaged 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists, and led his team to 29 wins, a Big Ten championship, a Big Ten tournament title, and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That year, he was Big Ten player of the year and a consensus All-American. He’s MSU’s all-time leading rebounder and he played in two Final Fours. Green is now a valuable member of the Golden State Warriors, who have the best record in the NBA this year.
Kalin Lucas (2007-11)
He’s fifth on the MSU all-time scoring list and sixth in assists. Lucas was Big Ten player of the year and twice was first-team All-Big Ten.
Terry Furlow (1972-76)
Furlow averaged 29.4 points per game as a senior, a school record. Twice, he was first-team All-Big Ten. Furlow shot .488 for his career.
Mike Robinson (1971-74)
He’s the greatest scorer in MSU history, having averaged 24.2 points during his three-year career. Robinson is 10th on the all-time scoring list, the only three-year player in the top 20. He shot .462 for his career.
Morris Peterson (1995-2000)
“Sweet Mo Pete” was the first of Izzo’s “Flintstones” (a group of stars from Flint, Michigan). It took him a good while to develop, but by his senior year, Peterson was special — Big Ten player of the year, All-American, and national champion. Peterson led the Spartans to victory in the national championship game after fellow Flintstone Mateen Cleaves injured his ankle.
Paul Davis (2002-06)
The best pure center MSU has had in the modern era. Davis ranks fifth all-time at MSU in rebounds and ninth in scoring. He averaged 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds as a senior.
Many Spartans deserve honorable mention. The list includes, but is hardly limited to:
Julius McCoy (1953-56): As a senior, he averaged 27.3 points and, at 6 feet 2 inches, 10 rebounds per game.
Charlie Bell (1997-2001): Another Flintstone, Bell started a school-record 136 games for MSU. During this stint, the Spartans won four Big Ten titles, went to three Final Fours, and won a national championship. He made first-team all-Big Ten as a senior.
Horace Walker (1957-60): At 6-3, Walker was almost as good a rebounder as Jumpin’ Johnny Green. He averaged 17.7 boards as a senior, and was first-team All-Big Ten.
Adreian Payne (2010-14): This rugged and versatile power forward/center averaged 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds as a senior, while making 42 percent of his 3-pointers.
Drew Neitzel (2004-08): Forced to carry the scoring load as a junior, this point guard averaged 18.1 points and 4.3 assists. He was named first-team All-Big Ten that season.
Maurice Ager (2002-06): MSU’s 13th leading all-time scorer. He averaged 19.3 points as a senior. Ager’s 15.1 scoring average in 11 NCAA tournament games is tops in the Tom Izzo era.
Eric Snow (1991-95): An outstanding assist man (only Magic topped his best season) and a fabulous defender (Big Ten defensive player of the year as a senior).
Pete Gent (1961-64): Before he played wide receive for the Dallas Cowboys and before he wrote “North Dallas Forty,” Gent was a college hoops star. He led the Spartans in scoring all three of his seasons, and averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds per game as a senior.
Finally, “dishonorable mention,” at least from a Maryland basketball perspective, goes to Korie Lucious. In 2010, he hit a buzzer-beater from at least 35 out to upset an outstanding Maryland team in the Round of 32. Less than a year later, Izzo kicked him off the team for misconduct.