In the four seasons since 6'8" Magic Johnson left the Great Lake State to become a great Laker, Michigan State hasn't even gone to the NCAA tournament, much less repeated its 1979 title-winning performance. The Spartans should take the Big Ten championship and return to the NCAA tournament this season, led by a 6'8" guy from Los Angeles named Johnson (below). Fair is fair.
This one's first name is Ken, not Earvin, and the 240-pound transfer from USC joins all five starters from the Spartans' 17-13 NIT team of a year ago. "We have proven players at every position," Coach Jud Heathcote says. "We've struggled since Earvin left. This is where we always like to be."
To be precise, they will be there when they start the Big Ten schedule against Iowa on Jan. 4, when Johnson, a forward, becomes eligible. "So many people have been building Ken up, I told him he's going to have to change clothes in a phone booth," Heathcote says. Two years ago as a freshman, Johnson averaged 9.5 points and nearly eight rebounds a game and led the Pac-10 in blocked shots (43), but he liked neither the one-dimensional low-post role that Trojan Coach Stan Morrison laid out for him. nor the quick whistles of the conference referees. "The Big Ten is known for a lot of physical contact," Johnson says. "In the Pac-10, I'd check a guy and get called for afoul."
Johnson joins a team loaded with quality and experience. The Spartans have the best guard tandem in the conference in sophomore Scott Skiles and junior Sam Vincent, and the Big Ten's leading rebounder (9.6 per game last season) and most accurate shooter (.596) in senior Center Kevin Willis. The 6'1", 190-pound Skiles was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1982-83, though Heathcote calls him "a short, fat kid who can't run and has no quickness." But Heathcote quickly adds, "What Scott has is an instinct for the game and great competitiveness."
Skiles also has a take-charge attitude that occasionally rubbed some teammates the wrong way last season. "It's not so much that I like running the offense," Skiles says. "It's what I have to do to play."
Skiles followed up his 1982-83 Michigan State performance—12.5 points and 4.9 assists per game—by winning first-team all-tournament honors at the National Sports Festival over the summer. Vincent turned down a summer basketball tour of Asia to stay on campus for some star-studded four-on-four at Jenison Field House. His courtmates included such NBA and former Midwestern collegiate notables as his brother Jay, the former Big Ten MVP while at Michigan State; Magic and his '79 sidekick Greg Kelser; Isiah Thomas, who led Indiana to the 1981 championship; and Mark Aguirre, the former Player of the Year from DePaul.
Vincent wasn't happy about being moved off the point to make room for Skiles last season, but he responded with 16.6 points per game. "Give the ball to Vincent, clear out of his way, and he'll get you a basket," says Illinois Assistant Coach Bob Hull. Vincent's goal this season is improved defense. "There are some little things I picked up over the summer," Vincent says. "I understand defense better. I'm concentrating much more."
Lack of concentration was the biggest rap last year against Willis, who nonetheless picked up his second consecutive Most Improved Player award from his coaches. "He's still in the developmental stage of his game," says Heathcote. "He's a better athlete than he is a basketball player." The 7-foot, 225-pound Willis won the annual preseason Spartan Mile against his teammates, with a time of 4:54, and as often as not, he'll rebound to start the fast break and then sprint down the court to finish it.
Heathcote gets excited when he talks about Willis combining underneath with Johnson. "This is the first time in the eight seasons I've been here that we have a power forward and a genuine center," he says. Heathcote plans to put Johnson in the middle of the Spartans' renowned matchup zone, with Willis on the wing. When those two are joined by 205-pound defensive specialist Ben Tower, the Spartans will, as Johnson puts it, "have some meat inside."
Heathcote also has a few other options at the forward opposite Johnson. In addition to Tower, he can also call on two other experienced players, sophomore Patrick Ford, who provides quickness and scoring, and junior Larry Polec, who can do a little bit of everything.
"I sense a quiet confidence," Heathcote says. That should change quickly, however, when the crowd gets cranked up in Jenison, one of the few remaining barns among the nation's arenas. The Spartans don't have Magic this year, but they may have magic.