(Written By Tom Shanahan)
Michigan State is playing in Jud Heathcote’s backyard for the Spartans’ opening game of the NCAA tournament for the second time in five years, but he’s more worried about the blame than credit.
When the unveiled NCAA bracket revealed the Spartans were scheduled to play Delaware Thursday in the 14,000-seat Spokane Arena, the former Michigan State coach’s friends accused him of placing his beloved team in his home state of Washington, where he retired upon turning over the reins in the 1995-96 season to his long-time his assistant, Tom Izzo.
Four years ago the Spartans began their run to the 2010 Final Four with wins over New Mexico State and Maryland at the Spokane Arena. Korie Lucious hit a buzzer-beater from the top of the key to defeat Maryland.
“Everyone accuses me of having pull on the selection committee, but if I had my druthers I wouldn’t want them to have to play so far away,” Heathcote told 6Rings Sports. “So I guess I’ll take the blame instead of the credit.”
Heathcote’s concern is Michigan State’s 1:40 pm Pacific Time tipoff on Thursday isn’t much recovery from winning the Big Ten championship Sunday. The Spartans returned home late Sunday night and then flew cross-country less than 24 hours later to Spokane. They had Tuesday’s practice to recover from the travel and then Wednesday’s practice was interrupted by media interviews and the NCAA’s open practice period.
But the truth is overall Heathcote feels good about Michigan State’s chances to go all the way in the NCAA tournament, although he adds with his usual biting humor he’d feel better if ESPN’s Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps hadn’t jumped on board to pick the Spartans following their domination of Michigan in the Big Ten championship.
“We went from the ….house to the penthouse,” he said.
A cloud had hung over the Spartans in February and early March as they tumbled out of the Top 10 with a flurry of injuries that led to a 5-7 finish in the regular season. Once Branden Dawson broke his hand and joined Adreian Payen and Keith Appling among the walking wounded on the bench, a promising season that began with Michigan State ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll and holding the No. 1 ranking appeared swept away in this winter’s polar vortex.
But Heathcote felt confident the Spartans could reassemble in time for an NCAA push for more reasons than one.
“Tom did a masterful job of adjusting and readjusting,” Heathcote said. “They had 15 different starting lineups. I think Tom was trying to break the record and pull some guys out of the student section for a game or two.”
Another Heathcote reason for optimism was the team’s chemistry.
“Tom has said all along this is a great group of kids who really like each other,” Heathcote said. “When that happens, you’ll hang in there. They lost some close games, but they just stayed together and stayed together. The last three games (the three Big Ten tournaments wins) they played some of their best basketball.”
Senior forward/center Adreian Payne has regained his conditioning from a foot injury. Sophomore guard Gary Harris emerged from his ankle injury and a shooting slump. Junior forward Branden Dawson regained his mojo from his hand injury and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten tournament. Sophomore center Matt Costello is rebounding stronger after mononucleosis set him back in December. Backup junior point guard Travis Trice has gained confidence as a scoring threat following bouts of illness and nagging blisters.
Heathcote, though, said the Spartans still need more from senior point guard Keith Appling. His wrist injury has improved to allow him to run the point and drive the lane, but his outside shooting and free throws are still off.
“He’s still struggling with that wrist,” Heathcote said. “He does not look to shoot, but he’s still driving. He’s playing better every game, but he’s still a shadow of what he was earlier in the year when he was completely healthy.”
Another concern is the bench play, despite Trice’s improvement, Kenny Kaminski’s 3-point shooting, Gavin Schilling’s physical presence and Denzel Valentine’s versatility to start the game at one position and switch to others in a relief role.
“The starting five is as good as anyone in the country,” Heathcote said. “I’ve said before if they stay out of trouble and their good players play the majority of the minutes, the sky is the limit as far as how far they can go.
“A lot of times they’ve had different guys step up with outstanding games. What they need are two or three guys to have outstanding games. They haven’t done that often, but in the Big Ten tournament, they had three straight games where three or four guys played well.”
Normally, Michigan State’s opener in Spokane wouldn’t draw much attention merely because a former coach lives in the area. But the fact that is does speaks to how close Heathcote and Izzo were while they worked together and how close they have remained in Heathcote’s retirement years.
Heathcote has turned 86, but he says he remains as excited about the Spartans and college basketball as ever. He has a seat reserved for him with his name at Gonzaga, his adopted team, for home games at the McArthey Athletic Center in Spokane.
But for the NCAA games at the Spokane Arena, he will be seated in a private suite as a guest of his neighbor, who built the arena.
“I really do get excited,” Heathcote said. “I go to the Gonzaga games and I watch all the games Michigan State plays on the Big Ten Network. I’ve become a TV watcher who sits on his butt and doesn’t do anything.”
Don’t believe him. Jud and Izzo are on the phone frequently. Sometimes Izzo hands the phone to one of his players, who is subjected to instruction from Heathcote on something he spotted watching the game.
Heathcote and Izzo, each with one national title in their careers, continue to explore ideas idea on how the Spartans can rule the Big Ten and the NCAA.