PRODUCTS: Magic Johnson (1977-79), Jason Richardson (1999-2001), Kelvin Torbert (2001-05), Shannon Brown (2003- ), Maurice Ager (2002- )
At a Michigan State practice recently, coach Tom Izzo was calling for an inbounds play with guards Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager. The strategy was simple: an alley-oop pass from Brown to Ager. Again and again, the duo failed to complete the play. The timing was off, the pass was off -- until Izzo got into Ager's head.
"Hey Maurice, I bet Jason Richardson would have been able to dunk it!" he yelled to Ager with a smile. On the next try, Brown threw up a pass and Ager connected for the slam. "I took that as a challenge," said Ager, who has a team best 46-inch vertical leap. "After I made it we laughed if off and moved on to the next drill."
Whether it's Ager, Brown or past luminaries like Richardson and Kelvin Torbert, Michigan State has always made athleticism its No. 1 criteria. "I've tried to recruit anywhere from a 6-foot-3 to a 6-6 athletic wing who is multidimensional," says Izzo. "It's an important part of our success. One way or another, we need those kind of athletes to run like we do, rebound like we do, and defend like we do."
But the prototype of a Michigan State Athlete is not all about a flashy alley-oop dunk. Take Magic Johnson. Former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote used to describe Magic by saying, "He could be at full speed in one step."
Even though Magic wasn't a power jumper like Richardson, he had tremendous coordination. In 1979, Magic led the Spartans to their first NCAA title by upsetting Larry Bird and unbeaten Indiana State, 75-64.
The Michigan State system demands a player like Magic or Scott Skiles who can handle the ball. But because Izzo prefers pressure defense and an up-tempo approach, the model is perfect for an athlete who loves physical play. In the Izzo era, a string of strong power forwards have led the Spartans, and each player has had his own special attribute.
Richardson had sick jumping ability and a quick first step. Ager is a glider who can cover ground with and without the ball. And Spartans fans will be happy to know that after Ager graduates, the next generation is already in place. This week, Raymar Morgan, a 6-7 forward from Canton, Ohio, signed with Michigan State. Morgan averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds as a junior at McKinley High and led his team to the state championship.
For now, the focus is on this season. After losing in the Final Four to North Carolina last March, Izzo is relying on Ager and Brown to help take Michigan State to the next step and win the title. Ager, a 6-5 senior, gained 13 pounds this summer and now weighs 202. Brown, a 6-4 junior, is the most cut specimen on the team. "These are two of the top athletes in the country, and they are in the best shape of their lives," says Izzo. "It's a lot to build a team around."