When President Obama visited the MSU campus in February, he teased the Spartans in the audience, saying “You’re greedy.”
In Indianapolis the Spartans, decimated by injuries throughout the season, beat Northwestern, Wisconsin and conference titlist Michigan to win the Big Ten tournament championship. Confetti flew in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, just as it did in December at Lucas Oil Stadium. Yes, Mr. President, Spartans are greedy. On the heels of winning a Rose Bowl, they want another Final Four (they know Tom Izzo has been there six times before).
With several NBA-caliber players on its roster, MSU was ranked No. 2 in the preseason. In its second game, a much-ballyhooed “High Noon” showdown in Chicago, MSU faced top-ranked Kentucky—a team so talented some Wildcat fans harbored visions of a 40-0 season. With great éclat, the Spartans carved out a 78-74 win, notching 17 assists against only seven turnovers. Senior point guard Keith Appling came close to a triple double, producing 22 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists and looked like an early candidate for Player of the Year.
The Spartans nabbed the nation’s No. 1 ranking and stayed on top for three weeks until a home loss to North Carolina.
Just as the Polar Vortex intruded into the Midwest, the injury bugaboo reared its ugly head—and feet, ankle, wrist, hand and even saliva. Against UNC, Appling fell hard on his shooting-hand’s wrist, and the lingering after-effects limited his versatility. He, Matt Costello, Brendan Dawson, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Travis Trice each had to sit out various games for ailments including mononucleosis, concussion, plantar fasciitis, joint sprains and a broken hand.
Incredibly, despite having to juggle 14 different lineups, Izzo still managed to stay in the Big Ten hunt and in the national Top 20 until late in the season.
MSU beat Virginia Tech and Oklahoma in New York and beat Texas 92-78 in Austin as a precursor to conference play. Despite a loss to Georgetown in Madison Square Garden on Super Bowl weekend, the Spartans began conference play like gangbusters, especially on the road. MSU won six road games before its first away loss at Wisconsin. For the first time in MSU history, MSU won its first 10 road games. Its road record through February was 11-2, a record all the more astounding as the Big Ten is widely regarded as the nation’s best conference, with six teams having made the Top 25 at some point. Equally astounding was MSU’s ability to win with so many different roster combinations.
Without arguably its best player, Adreian Payne, and top rebounder Brendan Dawson, MSU lost at home to archrival Michigan. It was MSU’s second home loss to the Wolverines in the last 15 games. The pain was exceeded only by a 60-51 home loss to unranked Nebraska, followed by another home loss to cellar-dweller Illinois. Injuries prevented the cagers from practicing together and developing the cohesiveness MSU teams usually develop late in a season, and the injury to Appling’s shooting wrist seemed to discombobulate MSU’s offensive flow.
Still, MSU remained tied for the Big Ten lead until a 79-70 road loss in Ann Arbor finally knocked the Spartans into second place. While Appling was able to return to action, he was far from the sharpshooter and defender he was before the wrist issue. Although MSU outrebounded the Wolverines 31-27 in Ann Arbor and shot 54.2 percent, Michigan had a 14-0 edge in fast break points.
Adreian Payne returned to action after missing seven games with an ankle sprain, and showed his value to MSU during a four-game stretch afterward, when he averaged 19.5 points and nearly 8 rebounds while shooting .542 from the field and .444 from 3-point range. Payne has also been touted by the media for his emergence not just on the hardcourt, but also as an academic success story and as a role model who engages in community affairs.
Dawson’s return from a broken hand made a huge difference on defense and rebounding, as the junior won MVP honors in the Big Ten tournament.
Sophomore guard Gary Harris, MSU’s leading scorer with nearly 18 points a game, is among the Big Ten leaders in both scoring and steals. Harris is someone who can pull the trigger in crunch time and has been mentioned by scouts as a potential first-round pick in the NBA draft, should he decide to declare early.
Rounding out MSU’s roster are sophomore wing Denzel Valentine, a great rebounder and passer who has the versatility to play three or four positions; junior Travis Trice, a sharpshooting point guard; sophomore Matt Costello, a center who can finish fast breaks; freshman Ken Kaminski, perhaps MSU’s best outside shooter; and juniors Alex Gauna and Russell Byrd as well as freshmen Alvin Ellis and Gavin Schilling.
Helping Izzo are assistant coaches Dwayne Stephens, Dane Fife and Mike Garland.
WOMEN HOOPSTERS WIN BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP
After a shaky start, the women’s basketball team went on a roll and won its second Big Ten title in the past four seasons.
The 2013–14 women’s hoops team tied for the Big Ten conference championship with Penn State, making Suzy Merchant the only MSU coach to have won two league titles. In 2009–10 she won the Big Ten outright.
The achievement underscores Suzy Merchant’s emergence as the league’s most consistently successful current coach.
As MSU head coach, Merchant has finished third or better in each of the last six seasons.
From 2007 through 2014, MSU has topped the league with 25 All-Big Ten selections. All five of this year’s starters earned All-Big Ten honors. Aerial Powers is the only freshman to make the first team All-Big Ten.
Under Merchant, MSU is one of only two Big Ten schools to have made five straight NCAA tournaments.
MSU has won at least 20 games, and at least 10 conference games, in each of Suzy Merchant’s seven seasons. MSU boasts the longest such active streak in the conference at 11 seasons.
Statistics reveal that Merchant’s winning formula is predicated on defense. Just as in four of the past five seasons, in Big Ten competition MSU led the conference in scoring defense—this past season at 62.3. This year MSU also led the league in field goal percentage defense (38.6%), 3-point field goal percentage defense (28.9%) and scoring margin (+10.3). The Spartans were also second in rebound margin (+7.5) and field goal percentage (45.3%).
Merchant’s winning percentage at MSU overall and in Big Ten games rank in the Top 12 in conference history. Her winning percentage is even higher in February (.755), a sign that her coaching matters. In Big Ten road games, Merchant boasts 38 wins in 59 tries (.644)—the league’s best record in that time frame; this past season, MSU was 7-1 in Big Ten road games.
One amazing stat attests to her refusal to fold under pressure: MSU has won 99 of its last 100 games when leading with five minutes left.
The 2013–14 team was the only Big Ten team to feature six different players who were able to notch a double-double. Stalwart veterans in seniors Klarissa Bell and Annalise Pickrel and junior Becca Mills formed a strong base. Two freshmen, however, emerged as the team’s leading scorers for 42 percent of the offensive output—the highest percentage for a freshman class in Merchant’s seven years at MSU.
Forward Powers was the only freshman in the nation to have at least 350 points, 200 rebounds and 60 assists. She accounted for 7 of MSU’s 15 double doubles. Her 13.5 scoring average is the best ever for a Spartan freshman.
“She’s a complete player and she does it in multiple positions for us,” says Merchant. “I don’t think that there’s been a more impactful freshman out there that’s helped a team win a championship than Aerial.”
Guard Tori Jankoska also earned a starting position and in conference games averaged almost 14 points a game while making treys at a .416 clip. She led the team with 61 treys, the second-most ever by a Spartan freshman.
Bell shared point guard duties with Jankoska after starter Kiana Johnson was suspended midway in the season. A defensive force, she averaged 7.9 points and 5.2 rebounds. Pickrel averaged 12.6 points a game on .458 shooting and 7.1 caroms. Junior forward Mills contributed 9.9 points and 5.6 caroms a game. Junior Jasmine Hines, unable to play early in the season because of a concussion, emerged eventually to average nearly double digits in scoring in her last six games while shooting over 50 percent. By contrast, she only averaged 2.9 points at 43.9 percent during her first 14 games.
Other contributors included freshman Branndais Agee and junior Madison Williams. Helping Merchant are assistant coaches NcKell Copeland, Mark Simons and Amaka Agugua.
STEVE GARVEY AT FIRST PITCH—This year’s fundraiser for MSU baseball featured baseball superstar Steve Garvey, who played both baseball and football at MSU. The legendary Dodger and Padre first baseman had his No. 10 jersey retired by Head Coach Jake Boss, Jr. In his 19 seasons in Major League Baseball, Garvey made 10 All-Star Game appearances; he won the National League MVP in 1974 and National League Championship Series MVP awards in 1978 and 1984. He holds the NL record for consecutive games played (1,207) and was nicknamed “Mr. Clean” because of his unblemished image.
MERIT RAISES—After leading MSU to seven straight bowl appearances, including a Rose Bowl win in 2014, MSU has given raises to Big Ten Coach of the Year Mark Dantonio and his assistant coaches. In 2013 MSU became the first Big Ten team ever to win all eight of its conference games by double-digits. In his first seven seasons, he has graduated 80 percent (98 of 123) of players completing their eligibility. Dantonio’s players have earned Academic All-Big Ten honors 87 times, Academic All-American honors five times. MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis has lengthened Dantonio’s contract to a six-year rollover, and has upped his base salary from $682,905 to $2 million and total annual compensation from $1.99 million to $3.64 million. Assistant coaches also received raises. “I want to thank President Simon, Mark Hollis and the entire administration for their trust and loyalty,” says Dantonio. “Coaching staff stability is extremely important for the long-term success of a program. . . . As we move forward, we will continue to dream big.”