Gotta love the names from Michigan State hoops. Magic and Mateen. Jud and Izzo. Smooth Steve Smith. Shootin' Shawn Respert. The Izzone.
There was plenty of game behind those names, making it easy to place the Spartans at No. 15 on the list of the greatest college basketball programs.
MSU's been to six Final Fours (more than Georgetown
or Cincinnati), has won 67 percent of its NCAA tournament games (better than Indiana), has logged 22 appearances in the Big Dance, has 10 regular-season conference titles to go with 1,418 wins, more than its fair share of great NBA players and hasn't missed an NCAA tourney since 1997.
And probably most memorable, they've cut down the nets twice in the NCAAs – the first of which vaulted the NCAA tournament into must-see TV.
Much has been written of Magic Johnson's Spartans beating Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores, usually as the start of a wonderful rivalry, which always elevates that 1979 title game ever higher. Watching it again, it's not an especially dramatic game. The Spartans defense negated a struggling Bird and Magic ran the show much the way he did for the Lakers later on – with ease and flair.
Still, it's tough to ever talk about MSU hoops without talking about that talented squad. After a 25-5 record and a spot in the Elite Eight the season before, pundits thought MSU would be a contender (Magic, then known simply as Earvin, was on SI's cover). Three players from that title team – Magic, Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent – have had their jerseys retired. The school's only done that for five other players.
Simply put, Jud Heathcote's crew set a standard that would be tough for any MSU team to match, even with stars on the roster.
Scott Skiles took MSU to a 23-8 mark and a Sweet 16 in 1986.
Smith bettered that four years later when the Spartans snagged their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, a spot in the Sweet 16 and a 28-6 record (not that he'd ever brag about it).
Respert – among the NCAA's career scoring leaders –is the only Spartan with a player of the year award to his name, but never made it past the NCAA's second round.
Indeed, MSU seemed to be cursed when it came to March. A 1986 loss to Kansas was marred by a shot-clock mix-up that helped the Jayhawks reach the Final Four. After escaping in 1990 vs. 16-seed Murray State (still the only time a No. 1 seed has gone to overtime in the opening round), Georgia Tech sent a game with Sparty into OT on a Kenny Anderson shot, which replays showed was launched after time expired. Another Final Four chance, gone.
When Heathcote retired in 1995 after five decades of basketball, he established Michigan State as a defensive-oriented team that no one wanted to play. It made sense that his successor and longtime assistant, Tom Izzo, would continue that thread.
But who knew Izzo would take the program to new heights?
After a couple of .500 seasons, MSU took off. The Spartans won 115 games in four years, reached three Final Fours and won a title in 2000 with one of the most complete, physically tough teams the game's seen in the last 15 years.
To play Michigan State around the turn of the century meant losing the rebounding battle (I can't do this justice, so I'll let spartansweblog give the details) and trying to contain one of the game's great floor leaders in Mateen Cleaves.
Cleaves, who took MSU "to another level during his four years," missed the first 13 games of the championship season with a stress fracture in his right foot. It's no coincidence that four of the Spartans' seven losses that season came when he was out.
After the title, Michigan State reached Final Fours in '01 and '05 and an Elite Eight in '03. Izzo's teams earned a reputation for thriving in the NCAAs, which helped establish them as one of the country's premier programs – no small feat for a school vying against the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Next season will bring high expectations to East Lansing. Sure, MSU was 27-9 and reached the Sweet 16 – Izzo's 7th since '98 – but fans want a spot as a "super-elite" program.
Actually, the Spartans are already there.
Next Tuesday: No. 14 on the list of greatest programs.