After two seasons beset by injuries, Maurice Ager finally broke out last year with the kind of performance coach Tom Izzo expected when he recruited the 6'5" guard out of Detroit's Crockett High three years ago. Ager not only led the Spartans in scoring (14.1 points per game), but he also did so with uncommon versatility: He was the Spartans' top three-point shooter (40.2%) and dunker (with 21 jams). And he was even better in the postseason, upping his average to 18.2 points in the NCAA tournament as Michigan State advanced to its fourth Final Four in the last seven years, losing to eventual-champion North Carolina in the semifinals.
Ager lived on the rough west side of Detroit until he was 12. The facilities were so poor when he played at downtown Crockett that there wasn't even a gym; the team practiced at a rec center or the middle school next door. Ager avoided trouble by devoting most of his energy to basketball and church. Raised as a devout Christian by his mother, Mattie, Ager is so religious that Izzo agreed to move Sunday practices to the afternoon to give him time to attend services in the morning.
The relationship between Ager and Izzo, who's now in his 11th year as Spartans coach, is remarkably strong. The two talk every day. "I make sure to call him or visit the office," says Ager, whose father, Melvin Rucker, died of lung cancer in 2002. "He has taught me the main things about being a man: to be accountable and self-motivated. He's tough on me, but at the same time he gives me credit, and I can talk to him about a lot of different things."
Free now of the physical setbacks that have hindered him--a stress fracture in his right foot as a freshman and a sprained right ankle and a sports hernia as a sophomore--Ager is tough to defend because of his superior lateral quickness and explosive 46-inch vertical leap. "He's up there with Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson," says Izzo. "There hasn't been an athlete like this here in a lot of years."
With senior center Paul Davis returning, along with a solid backcourt of junior Shannon Brown and sophomore Drew Neitzel, the Spartans have all the pieces in place to win an NCAA championship, something they haven't done since 2000. "I've had to face obstacles for years," says Ager. "Right now I just want to take care of business. It's time to get Michigan State's brand back." --Julia Morrill
Flint produced the nucleus of the 2000 national champs and three current reserves, but Aloysius Anagonye of the 2000 team, as well as two of this year's big scorers (Maurice Ager and Paul Davis) hail from the Motor City area.
Coach: Tom Izzo 2004--05 record: 26--7 (13--3, 2nd in Big Ten)
2005 tournament: Lost in Final Four to North Carolina
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
Drew Neitzel is a better three-point shooter than you saw last year. He has a high hoops IQ and doesn't mind giving up the ball.... Shannon Brown is an aggressive defender whose D is undervalued.... Paul Davis was a talented player who needed a confidence boost, and the NCAA tournament run did that for him.... The Spartans don't have a star at power forward, but they have enough big bodies there to survive.