Marquise Gray may have left Michigan State in 2009.
However, Michigan State never left Gray, a 6’8,” 235-pound former Spartans bruiser who played in a Final Four and national title game.
He’s a world away, playing professionally in Japan, but he finds ways to keep East Lansing, Tom Izzo and his family of former teammates near and dear to his heart.
When he’s not busy putting up 18 points and 11 boards per game for the Yokohama B-Corsairs, he’s catching Spartans highlights, fielding phone calls, hopping on Skype and making other efforts to remain in tune with the basketball program that transformed him from a Flint kid to an overseas superstar.
Watching Michigan State struggle toward the end of the regular season was difficult for Gray, but his confidence wouldn’t fold—he knew, either sooner or later, that his alma mater would return to March Madness form and do what it does best.
During a recent Skype session, Gray talked about Team Izzo and the field of 68 in this year’s Big Dance.
I’m biased. I never like anybody else. I’m a big fan of Wichita State—I don’t care what conference you play in, to win every game is tough.
But I’m a ‘Spartan Dawg’ until I die. We could be 1-20 and I’m still pulling for us. I don’t care what happens.
To say that Gray expects a lot from Keith Appling, Travis Trice, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson and, among others, Adreian Payne, would be an understatement.
Pound for pound, position for position, the 2013-14 Spartans bring about memories of past Izzo-era-defining clubs, and this year's edition is more than capable of cutting down the nets April 7 at Cowboys Stadium.
With a slight laugh, Gray said the following:
I won't say that they're the best, But they're up there. My sophomore year, in my mind, to me, that's when we had one of our better teams. But we underachieved and that's when George Mason ran through everybody.
Players such as Paul Davis, Goran Suton, Alan Anderson and many others made those early to-mid-2000s Spartans ensembles incredibly sturdy in the paint, along the perimeter and everywhere in between.
This [year's] team has some of the same qualities. But it’s still up in the air. When everything’s done—I remember Mo Cleaves telling me this my senior year before the tournament—when everything’s done, all you have left are memories of championships that you won.
Twenty years from now, it'll be about what this team does in the tournament...
I played in a national championship game—those are memories. This team right here, I think that’s what will determine their place in Michigan State history.
Job No. 1 was completed Thursday.
After pouring on the offense during its 93-78 round of 64 victory over Delaware in Spokane, No. 4-seeded Michigan State advanced in the Big Dance and will face No. 12 Harvard in the round of 32 on Saturday.
Getting to the Final Four and winning it all is the obvious goal.
Together as One
Health was a major issue for the Spartans, who, in the nick of time, strung together an impressive three-game winning streak that secured the Big Ten tournament championship banner.
Now that everyone is back on the good side of the team doctor, Gray says that Michigan State can finally show the nation why it was a preseason favorite.
I think the main thing with them to me was health. This is kind of the first time Dawson and Payne have got to play together healthy. They’ve always been a little unhealthy. When they’re healthy, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
In 2009, Durrell Summers flashed his offensive skills with dunks, double-digit point totals and momentum-shifting defense as the Spartans fought off No. 3 Kansas, No. 1 Louisville and No. 1 UConn.
Dawson, who broke his right hand in January, could supply Summers-like production. The junior averaged 15 points and seven rebounds during Michigan State's run through the conference postseason and is, without question, the X-factor, the role Summers once held.
Gray analyzed the comparison:
I think he can do a little more. Durrell was a true 2/3 man. BD can play the 4. He’s strong enough to hold his own on the block.
Durrell probably shoots the ball a little better. A lot of people didn’t realize that—Durrell shot the hell out of the ball. He was a natural scorer in high school. But BD can shoot the ball and he’s strong enough to go to the block—not only go down there, but be productive while he’s down there.
As for Payne, well, he's the "main guy inside" for Michigan State. Scoring 41 points and snagging eight boards during Thursday's win over Delaware proved just how much damage he can deliver—a program-best, tournament-scoring's worth of damage.
However, there is more to the story.
Superman is a Big Softy
Payne is mean...he's aggressive...right?!
He's also a huge baby. Just ask Princess Lacey, his biggest fan.
Lacey, a young cancer survivor in Michigan, has captured the heart of the 6'10," 240-pound forward. And in doing so, she's captured the heart of an entire fanbase.
Alongside her big buddy, she's become a symbol of Spartans basketball. That bond defines Payne, says Gray. Not the points, rebounds, blocks or wins.
Lacey says a lot about him. He’s got a big heart. That’s the kind of guy coach recruits. That’s the kind of guy coach is.
A chance meeting with Gray may have persuaded Payne to choose Michigan State. At the time of graduation, Gray ran into the then-prep star at the Clara Bell Smith Center on the university's campus.
I recruited Adreian. The day of [my] graduation was one of the days he came up to visit.
I asked him if he wanted to be pushed harder than he's ever been pushed before, and told him that [MSU] is the place for you. You’ll have relationships that will last for a lifetime, tons of fun and you’ll win—if that’s what you want, [MSU] is for you.
He asked, 'What made you come?' I told him it was the relationship I had with coach [Izzo].
As one of the nation's elite high schoolers, Payne carried a reputation that nearly overshadowed his towering height. It took a few years for him to develop, but he's now living up to his previous 5-star billing.
Becoming a program great was simply a matter of time for Payne, says Gray:
I thought he was a kid who had all the potential in the world. It’s happening how it was supposed to happen for him. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do.
I've been watching him.
Stories such as Payne's melt the hearts of even the largest men, even guys such as Gray, who's known for his mean streak on the court but has a much softer side away from the game.
Izzo is Nuts
Don't adjust your screen. You've correctly read the subhead.
Of course it was meant to catch eyes. But it's only one side of the tale.
Yes, countless hours of war drills, pads, helmets and Izzoisms can take their toll.
But it's a good toll.
Without the trademark crazy from Izzo, Gray wouldn't be in his current position, nor would others who've moved on to higher levels of basketball.
ESPN's Sport Science recently ran a special on the 19-year veteran head coach, who is known for blowing a gasket or two on the sideline. The tests revealed that Izzo's heart rate stands up to those of NASCAR drivers flying around tracks at nearly 200 mph.
But, strangely, his heart is in great shape for a 59-year-old.
Truth is, coach is always stressed.
His passion is what makes you love him and it’s what make you hate him, too. He recruits guys who he thinks are like him—guys who care about people more than they do themselves.
I remember him being there in practices until midnight.
Gray's words echo similar statements from former players. Izzo's teachings, some of which are harsher than others, stick with his players forever.
His days of playing ball for Izzo are done but not forgotten.
"I love coach and Michigan State," Gray said. "When I get to heaven, my wings better be green and white."
Follow Bleacher Report Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81