It's been 12 years since Earvin "Magic" Johnson - a revolutionary 6-foot-10 point guard - left Michigan State to take his legend to the L.A. Lakers and the NBA. The Spartans (and no one else for that matter) have never seen another player like him, but eventually they found someone who came close.
Four years ago Jud Heathcote, MSU's long-time coach, discovered a tall, gangly kid named Steve Smith when he was supposed to be scouting another recruit. When Smith came to MSU, Heathcote knew immediately that he had something special. One day, Doug Weaver, the MSU athletic director, wandered down to basketball practice and asked Heathcote about his new team. Heathcote pointed to his freshman, Smith."See that kid?"
"You mean that skinny kid?"
"There's our next great player."
"You've got to be kidding. Why?"
"Because he can do so many things."
Since then Smith has proved his coach right. He is the continuation of the revolution Johnson started - a player with front-line size (6-foot-7) playing point guard, but doing much more. This season Smith led the Big Ten Conference in scoring with a 25.2 average, but he also ranked among the Big Ten leaders in rebounding (6.2), assists, three-point shooting and free-throw shooting.
"He plays every single position on the floor," says Utah coach Rick Majerus. "He can pass, dribble, shoot, post-up. He does everything. He'll be a lotto pick (in the NBA draft) or at least a first-round pick."
Majerus should know. He has been studying films of MSU and Smith for the past 48 hours, and for good reason. Fourth-seeded Utah, 29-3, meets fifth-seeded Michigan State, 19-10, today at 12:35 in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament in Tucson. The winner will advance to next week's West Regional finals - a.k.a the Sweet 16 - in Seattle to meet the winner of today's UNLV-Georgetown game.
To beat Michigan State, Utah must control Smith, who has scored twice as many points this season as any teammate.
The comparisons between Johnson and Smith of course are inevitable, but Heathcote resists them. "You don't compare a college senior to the greatest guard in the history of the game," he says. "But if you want to compare them to when Johnson was a sophomore and Smith a senior . . . Both are multi-dimensional. Magic had a greater sense of where players are. He was a true guard. Steve moves around to different point in our offense."
It might be fairer to compare Smith with Utah's 6-foot-10 forward Josh Grant. Like Smith, Grant is tall, lanky, and multidimensional, leading his team in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and steals. Says Heathcote, "(Grant) brings the ball up the court against pressure, he posts up, he shoots on the perimeter, he rebounds, he drives with the ball, he makes good passes."
"We have to realize that Grant will be their go-to guy like Smith is ours," says MSU center Mike Peplowski.
That was never more obvious than during Friday's first round. Smith hit a last-second 18-foot jump shot to give MSU a 60-58 win over Wisconsin-Green Bay. In the next game, Grant scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half to rally Utah from a seven-point deficit to an 82-72 win over South Alabama.
That set the stage for today's matchup - a matchup both sides seemed to prefer.
"Utah is more our style of play (than South Alabama's)," says Heathcote. " . . . They like to pound it down, just like the Big Ten. We like the physical game."
"I think we'd have an easier time with Green Bay, but I'd like to see us play a name team," said Utah coach Jeff Judkins before Friday's games.
For the record, Michigan State tied Illinois for third place in the Big Ten (behind Ohio State and Illinois), with an 11-7 record. Last year they were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in a controversial overtime loss to Georgia Tech (Kenny Anderson hit the game winner after time had expired).
MSU and Utah had only one common opponent this season. The Spartans beat Michigan twice; the Utes lost to Michigan 81-65 in their only game against a Big Ten team.
"At that point we had six players who were playing the first Division 1 game of their lives," says Majerus. "That was 31/2 months ago. I'd like to think we've come a long way since then."
If Smith and Grant are the leading men in today's game, then the hefty centers will be strong supporting actors, at least. Here is the beef: For Utah there is 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior Walter Watts; for MSU, there is 6-foot-10, 270-pound sophomore Mike Peplowski. Watts averages 10 points and 7 rebounds per game, Peplowski 7.4 points and 6.5 rebounds.
"I want Watts weighed before the game," joked Heathcote Saturday. "He looks like he weighs more than that."
Aside from Smith and Peplowski, the MSU lineup consists of 6-7 junior Matt Steigenga (12 points per game, 5 rebounds), 6-7 sophomore Dwayne Stephens (5.2, 4.3) and 6-2 junior Mark Montgomery (7.7, 3.3).
"Both clubs are better defensively than offensively," says Heathcote. "We have struggled all year offensively."
And how will the Utes handle the Spartans? "I really don't know what we're going to do yet," Majerus said Saturday. "I've got to eat on it."
Among other things, Majerus is concerned about MSU's use of plays. "They use a lot of them," he says. "After every time out and dead ball there's a play. (Heathcote) is a great play coach. I could never teach that many plays. (Our players) couldn't remember that many."
Considering the two teams, Heathcote said, "(The Utes) are like us. They don't don't dominate anybody. They just win."
But today somebody must lose.