Michigan State basketball finds itself in the heart of the Big Ten season and is nearing the home stretch before March Madness commences.
In some corners, this month is simply known as “Izzo.” As a tribute to Spartan basketball teams of the past 18 seasons and a way to get our mind off of this year’s injury-plagued team, here is a look back at the top five Spartan teams under head coach Tom Izzo.
G-Keith Appling (11.4 Pts, 2.9 Reb, 3.9 Ast)
G-Austin Thornton (5.2 Pts, 3.3 Reb, 1.1 Ast)
G-Branden Dawson (8.4 Pts, 4.5 Reb, 0.8 Blk)
F-Draymond Green (16.2 Pts, 10.6 Reb, 3.8 Ast)
C-Adreian Payne (7.0 Pts, 4.2 Reb, 1.1 Blk)
Off the Bench
G-Brandon Wood (8.8 Pts, 2.8 Reb, 1.9 Ast)
C-Derrick Nix (8.1 Pts, 3.4 Reb, 1.0 Ast)
* * *
The ’11-’12 team, which received Michigan State’s first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2001, is the only team on this list that did not reach the Final Four. They started the season out rough, losing their first two games, but righted the ship and produced one of the best regular seasons in MSU history. This team also had all of the features that Izzo covets: leadership, toughness, rebounding and defense.
It started and ended with Draymond Green. He belongs alongside Magic and Mateen on Michigan State’s Mt. Rushmore of great leaders. Day-Day wasn’t only a great leader, but he was also the best all-around player at State since Magic Johnson, as you can see by his statistics. He was an All-American, the Big Ten Player of the Year and was named to the All-Big Ten Defensive team.
Although he was the leader of the bunch, Day Day did not do it alone. A young Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix banged down low as well. The sheer amount of quality bigs this team had at their disposal is astonishing. One could only imagine how great this team would have been if Delvon Roe (who was named to the All-Big Ten Defensive Team in 2011 and is second on State’s career blocked shots list) hadn’t hung it up before his senior year.
This team was also memorable because it was solid at every position. Keith Appling wasn’t the player that he is today, but he still was a formidable point guard who had a knack for getting to the rim. The transfer of Brandon Wood added depth at the guard position as Wood came to Michigan State after averaging around 17 points in the previous two seasons at Valparaiso. Branden Dawson had a stellar freshman year and Austin Thornton added valuable experience to this team.
Even though this team did not reach the Final Four, it still earned its way into Spartan lore through its success throughout the regular season as well as its Big Ten Tournament Championship (State’s first since 2000).
Also, the losses of Roe before the season, as well as Dawson’s torn ACL in the regular season finale, were huge blows. With both of them healthy, I believe this team would have made it to the Final Four and could have hoisted the National Championship trophy.
G-Mateen Cleaves (11.7 Pts, 7.6 Ast, 1.8 Stl)
G-Charlie Bell (7.8 Pts, 3.8 Reb, 1.0 Ast)
F- Jason Klein (9.4 Pts, 2.7 Reb, 1.0 Ast)
F-Andre Hutson (8.9 Pts, 5.2 Reb, 0.6 Blk)
F-Antonio Smith (6.5 Pts, 8.4 Reb, 1.5 Stl)
Off The Bench
F-Morris Peterson (13.6 Pts, 5.7 Reb, 0.9 Stl)
F-AJ Granger (6.6 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 0.6 Ast)
* * *
The ’98-’99 Spartans will always be remembered as the team that brought Michigan State back to prominence, winning a school-record 33 games and taking Michigan State to the Final Four for the first time since the Magic-era. Although they were a talented bunch, they didn’t quite have the experience to take home the hardware come March, as they fell short in the Final Four to Duke.
There is no question that Mateen Cleaves was the best player and undeniable leader of this Spartan team. He was named to the All-American team as well as the Big Ten Player of the Year. However, Mateen didn’t do it himself. Morris Peterson was also great that season, earning First Team All-Big Ten at the end of the year.
Another way this team set the tone for the Izzo era was their toughness. The core of this team was the original Flintstones: Antonio Smith, Cleaves, Peterson and Charlie Bell. All four grew up in a tough area of Flint, and their play on the court reflected this. They played with a chip on their shoulder, something this Michigan State program needed to earn their spot among the top programs in the nation. They also had played basketball together since elementary school, so their chemistry on the court was phenomenal.
Without this team, the 2000 National Championship banner would not be hanging in the rafters at the Breslin. That reason alone is enough, in my mind, to rank them this high. Factor in their talent and toughness, and their No. 4 spot among the greatest teams of the Izzo-era is well deserved.
G-Chris Hill (8.8 Pts, 1.8 Reb, 4.2 Ast)
G- Maurice Ager (14.1 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 1.8 Ast)
G-Shannon Brown (10.9 Pts, 3.2 Reb, 1.7 Ast)
F-Alan Anderson (13.2 Pts, 5.6 Reb, 1.7 Ast)
C-Paul Davis (12.3 Pts, 8.0 Reb, 1.6 Ast)
Off the Bench
G- Drew Neitzel (3.5 Pts, 0.7 Reb, 2.9 Ast)
G-Kelvin Torbert (9.5 Pts, 2.9 Reb, 1.5 Ast)
* * *
The ’04-’05 team made a run to the Final Four following a disappointing season in which they started out ranked No. 13, but suffered some tough losses and ended up being a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Point guard Chris Hill set the tone for this team. Hill was a smart player (and an academic All-American) who facilitated his teammates while not turning the ball over, demonstrated by the fact that he had a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Hill also was a great spot up shooter; he’s second on State’s career three-pointer’s list. If there was one weakness in Hill’s game, it was the fact that he couldn’t do it himself and take it to the rack the same way a Kalin Lucas or Keith Appling could. Also, Drew Neitzel came off the bench, but he wasn’t quite Neit-zilla yet. He didn’t average many minutes and only shot 38 percent from the field.
This team made a living from its depth on the wings. It featured Brown, Ager and Anderson, all of which were elite level athletes with NBA caliber skillsets. Anderson and Brown are enjoying lengthy NBA careers and Ager was taken in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft. If you don’t believe me, check out the picture of Ager going boomsquad over J.J. Redick in the Tournament. I have not even mentioned Kelvin Torbert, the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school, who was an experienced, sturdy forward and State’s best defender. Their run to the Final Four was largely due to their ability to throw athlete after athlete at the opposition, which is invaluable during March after a long season that leaves many teams fatigued and plagued with injuries.
While discussing the reasons this team made the Final Four, Paul Davis’ name must come up. The 6-foot-10 center had a stellar regular season, and fit this team’s style as he could rebound, outlet and run the floor with the best of them. During the NCAA Tournament, he did what great players do: took his game to the next level, posting four double-doubles and averaging 14.8 points and 11.6 rebounds (well above his averages of 12.3 points and 8 rebounds). After criticisms that he was “soft” plagued him his whole career, Davis showed up big in the tournament to cement his place in Spartan history (only to call it back into question by making an appearance on Celebrity Matchmaker).
One might say that this team is too high at No. 3. Sure, in one game, other Izzo teams might be a better pick, but you play to win championships. This team was built to make a championship run with smart guard play, dominant rebounding and depth on the wings. Not even the referee that said Patrick Sparks’ foot was not on the line could argue with that.
G-Kalin Lucas (14.7 Pts, 2.1 Reb, 4.6 Ast)
G-Travis Walton (5.1 Pts, 2.2 Reb, 3.3 Ast)
F-Raymar Morgan (10.2 Pts, 5.2 Reb, 1.2 Ast)
F-Delvon Roe (5.6 Pts, 5.2 Reb, 0.8 Blk)
C-Goran Suton (10.4 Pts, 8.4 Reb, 1.6 Ast)
Off the Bench
G-Durrell Summers (8.6 Pts, 3.4 Reb, 0.8 Ast)
F-Draymond Green (3.3 Pts, 3.3 Reb, 0.8 Ast)
G-Chris Allen (8.4 Pts, 2.2 Reb, 1.3 Ast)
* * *
It should be no surprise that the ’08-’09 Spartans, another deep team with stellar guard play, is ranked No. 2. in the Izzo-era. The team started the season No. 6. in the AP Poll and lived up to those expectations by making a run to the National Championship game, falling short to a stacked North Carolina team.
This team was stacked down low. The trio of Goran Suton, Draymond Green and Delvon Roe all finished among the top six in career blocks at State. They were tough, physical and anchored one of the best defenses under Izzo. Furthermore, Suton’s ability to step outside, as demonstrated by his three three’s in the Elite Eight against the No. 1 overall seed Louisville, helped stretch defenses and provided an extra dynamic to this offense. Morgan (before losing his front tooth) stood 6-foot-8 and is a member of the 1,000 point club at Michigan State. He also could defend just about any position.
However, these Spartans never would have gotten as far they did without the leadership and defensive play of Travis Walton. His stat line does not accurately represent what he meant to this team. Walton was a three-time captain and one of the best defensive guards in Michigan State history. He won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award and was a three-time member of the All-Big Ten Defensive team.
Walton was one of many exceptional guards on this roster. Kalin Lucas was a blur on the court and won the Big Ten Player of the Year award at the end of the season. Fellow sophomores, Chris Allen and Durrell Summers were both key contributors for this team. Summers was an explosive player that stepped his game up in the NCAA Tournament (cue the video of Durrell taking UConn’s Stanley Robinson to boomtown). Allen, before his off-court issues, was also a great guard who could stroke it from deep. The three sophomores, along with Walton, made State’s backcourt arguably the best in the nation.
This team is not only memorable because of their abilities, but also because of the storyline that went along with reaching the Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit. It was soon after the auto industry crashed in ’08, so Michigan State reaching the Final Four gave fans all throughout Michigan a feel-good story when they desperately needed one. This team will not be remembered for falling short to UNC in the title game, they will be remembered for Kalin Lucas’ electric smile in front of a hometown crowd after defeating UConn in the Final Four. For that, they are immortalized in Spartan lore as one of the best Spartan teams of all time to lace ‘em up.
G-Mateen Cleaves (12.1 Pts, 1.8 Reb, 6.9 Ast)
G-Charlie Bell (11.5 Pts, 4.9 Reb, 3.2 Ast)
F-Morris Peterson (16.8 Pts, 6.0 Reb, 1.3 Ast)
F-Andre Hutson (10.2 Pts, 6.2 Reb, 1.5 Ast)
F-AJ Granger (9.5 Pts, 5.3 Reb, 1.2 Ast)
Off The Bench
F-Jason Richardson (5.1 Pts, 4.1 Reb, 0.6 Ast)
F-Al Anagonye (2.9 Pts, 3.0 Reb, 0.3 Ast)
* * *
Who else could be on top? This was the ultimate Izzo squad. They had it all: talent, toughness, leadership and anything else you can think of. It featured two Big Ten Player of the Year’s (Mateen in 19999 and Mo Pete in 2000) and five future NBA players.
The only weakness of this team was its lack of a dominant, athletic big man. A.J. Granger was State’s starting big man, but he was only 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds. Obviously, he was an offensive threat, as he could stretch the defense (he shot 45% from three point land and posted three 18+ point games in the NCAA Tournament). He wasn’t the most athletic center, so it’s easy to see how a team with a dominant center in the mold of Payne could exploit these Spartans down low. However, the squad mitigated any size disadvantages with their toughness and gang rebounding.
Andre Hutson was also a beast down low and was among the team leaders in blocks, points, steals and rebounds. Hutson also had invaluable experience; he is MSU’s career leader in points scored in the NCAA Tournament. With Hutson and Granger paving the way, this team set the tone for all Izzo teams to come: no matter how undersized, they still won (and frequently dominated) the boards.
If the opposition didn’t have a dominant big man, it was a completely different story. This backcourt was by far the most talented that Izzo has coached. Mateen Cleaves was a two-time All-American, Charlie Bell did it all, averaging 11-5-3 while also marking the opposition’s best player on defense. Izzo commonly refers to Bell as the best rebounding guard he has ever coached, which says a lot. Not only did this backcourt have talent, it also had all the intangibles, with the Flintstone’s leadership and toughness leading the way. There’s a reason that Izzo named his son after Mateen.
This team was also extremely talented on the wings. Mo Pete won Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament and is among the all-time greats at Michigan State. It could be argued that he is the best player to have played under Izzo. Mo Pete was flanked by Jason Richardson, who was a freshman at the time. Although he played a reserve role, J-Rich was one of the top athletes to come through Michigan State and was always a threat on offense.
All in all, every team that dons the Green and White in East Lansing will be compared to the ’99-’00 Spartans. The image of Mateen Cleaves and Izzo crying together after the final buzzer sounded off is etched eternally into every Spartan fan’s memory. Because of this, they top the list as the best Spartan team of an era filled with plenty of them.
Now it is up to this year’s Spartans to make their mark in Spartan lore. Will they cement their place among the Spartan greats with a deep run come March?
Harry Jadun is a panelist on The Pact for Impact Sports.
Photo: David Defever/Impact Sports