(Written By Tom Shanahan)
The ten Top 25 teams that suffered upsets last week came as no surprise to College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Jud Heathcote. It’s February, after all.
The retired Michigan State coach said he understood how his beloved Spartans were among the victims when they lost on Sunday to unranked Nebraska. The then-No. 9-ranked team fell to an improving Big Ten foe albeit one hovering around a .500 record during the season.
“The funny thing is, you look around in February and there are always close games and upsets because it’s becoming a long season,” Heathcote told 6Rings. “Many of the players have hit a wall for games at this point in the season.
“They get rejuvenated for the NCAA tournament, but if you have three or four of those players hit the wall in the same game, it’s hard to win. I’ve always said it’s not how good you are, it’s how you play. Nebraska outplayed them on Sunday.”
Michigan apparently succumbed to the same syndrome on Sunday when the Wolverines were upset by Wisconsin. The two losses meant No. 13 Michigan State (21-5, 10-3 Big Ten) and No. 20 Michigan (18-7, 10-3 Big Ten) remained tied for first place in the Big Ten standings.
The Spartans play Thursday night at Purdue (15-10, 5-7 Big Ten), but Michigan is off during the week until the Wolverines host Michigan State at noon ET Sunday at the Crisler Center.
Michigan State’s injuries concern Heathcote more than losing to Nebraska, but he says the Spartans remain remain one of his three top picks to advance to the Final Four along with Syracuse and Arizona.
“I’m saying the fourth team will be one that comes out of nowhere,” Heathcote said. “It will be a team that no expects to be that good.”
Last year Wichita State was that team when the Shockers advanced to the Final Four and fell to eventual national champion Louisville 72-68 in the semifinals. Butler (twice) and Virginia Commonwealth are other recent examples. Wichita State (27-0) is unbeaten and ranked No. 3 this year, but no one knew the Shockers were Final Four good this time a year ago.
The 86-year-old Heathcote, who retired to Spokane in his home state of Washington, still wonders if that “team” a year ago could just as easily have been Gonzaga. He and his wife are regulars at Gonzaga games and head coach Mark Few likes to pick Heathcote’s brain over lunch. “Mondays with Jud,” he once called it, a play on Mitch Albom’s mentoring book, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Last year the Bulldogs were briefly ranked No. 1. They were the No. 1 seed in the West, but they lost to No. 9 seed Wichita State in the second round of the NCAA tournament 76-70.
“My wife says Gonzaga could have gone to the Final Four if they got past Wichita,” Heathcote said. “Nobody knew at the time how good Wichita was at the time.”
Heathcote says Michigan State’s Final Four hopes rest on practice time more than on how well senior point guard Keith Appling (wrist) and junior forward Branden Dawson (hand) can make it back from injuries. The injury-riddled Spartans must regain their early-season rhythm. In 26 games this year, the primary five of Adreian Payne, Matt Costello, Gary Harris, Dawson and Appling have started together on only 10 dates. If they’re not starting enough games, they’re not practicing enough, either.
“When kids miss practice, it’s hard to get better,” Heathcote said. “It showed with Keith and his wrist when he tried to play Sunday.”
A good example of a lack of practice hurting rhythm came with just under four minutes to play in the Nebraska game. The Spartans mounted a comeback and closed to within 51-49 on a basket by Payne with an assist from Kenny Kaminski. But after a missed Nebraska shot, Kaminsky took a 3-pointer from the left side without seeing Denzel Valentine was alone under the basket for what would have been a tying 2-point field goal. It’s a pass Kaminsky should have seen with Valentine on his side of the basket.
Appling’s injury that concerns Heathcote the most. The Spartans are missing his offense and defense.
“Wrists usually take a month to heal,” he said.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Jud’s long-time assistant and successor, said the latest prognosis has Appling (three games missed before a limited and unproductive return Sunday against Nebraska) possibly missing the remainder of the regular season, although Appling said Tuesday he feels his wrist has responded to acupuncture treatments. Dawson (seven games missed and counting) is to have pins removed from his hand on Thursday, but when he returns to the court is a separate time table.
“This has been a weird season for Tom,” said Heathcote. “I’ve never seen a team with so many guys miss games with injuries. They have five or six guys between injuries and sickness.”
Payne has been back four games since sitting out seven with a foot injury. In addition, Gary Harris has missed time with an ankle injury, center Matt Costello was sidelined by mononucleosis early in the year and point guard Travis Trice has missed games with a combination of flue and blisters.
Heathcote had his own painful experience with a talented team sidetracked by injuries in the 1983-84 season. The Spartans were a preseason No. 12-ranked team with a starting lineup that featured five future NBA draft picks: 7-foot center Kevin Willis, first round, 1984; guard Sam Vincent, first, 1985; guard Scott Skiles, first, 1986; forward Ken Johnson, second, 1985; and forward Larry Polec, seventh, 1986.
“Sam Vincent sprained his ankle, missed seven games and we lost all seven,” Heathcote said. “Kevin hurt his foot in the second game and played all season on a leg and a half. He wasn’t effective. I had to talk to NBA general managers and coaches to get him drafted in the first round. They said he only scored 11 points a game. I said, ‘Yeah, on one leg.’ Atlanta took him with the 11th pick and he played 22 years. That’s still an NBA record.”
When Vincent returned, Michigan State made a run with five straight wins to finish the regular season, but it wasn’t enough for a post-season bid. The NCAA was only a 48-team tournament in those days and the Spartans had only tied for fifth and finished with a 16-12 overall record. As it turned out, that wasn’t even enough for the 32-team NIT bracket.
Izzo was a first-year assistant that 1983-84 season, which may explain why he was cautious having his big man Payne return to the court too quickly.
Izzo has been called the national coach of the year by ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg for how he’s overcome the injuries. He has made good use of Valentine’s versatility and his bench’s depth — 14 different starting lineups — to still be in contention for a Big Ten title. Valentine, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore from Lansing Sexton, is one of only two Spartans to play in all 26 games along with backup forward Gavin Schilling, who averages only 6 minutes.
“They’ve had a fantastic year for what they’ve been through,” Heathcote said. “I still say if you go back to that game against Kentucky that might be the best game they played all year. They’ve got to get back to that.”
The 78-74 win over John Calipari’s all-stars in the second game of the season vaulted Michigan State to No. 1 in the nation before the injuries accumulated.
There is such a fine line to living up to potential and living with disappointment. Michigan State continues to successfully walk that tightrope.