Top Five Players of Tom Izzo Era at Michigan State
Tom Izzo’s accomplishments at Michigan State since taking over the program from Jud Heathcote prior to the start of the 1995-96 season are well known.
In his time at the helm, Izzo has racked up seven Big Ten titles, four Big Ten Tournament titles, six Final Four appearances, eight Elite Eight trips and the 2000 national championship in the midst of transforming Michigan State into a national brand.
But as he would be the first to tell anyone, any coach worth his salt owes his success to the pupils he gets to work with on a yearly basis.
While most point to what someone does in the NBA in terms of impact a player has for a program, I’ll focus more on what a player did between the green and white lines of East Lansing, Mich.—with some consideration given to what someone did after leaving Izzo’s program.
For example, four players have earned the distinction of being named Big Ten Player of the Year under Izzo—Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green. That honor isn’t one to be taken lightly when considering a list like this.
The following list consists of my top five players of the Izzo era (1995-present).
Before I reveal my top five players in the Izzo era, I'll offer up three that I believe all deserve to be mentioned.
These three players have definitely played a big part in Michigan State's success under Izzo—they just fall a tad short of the criteria I laid out previously.
Ager, one of the deadly wings on the 2004-05 team that made it to the Final Four, enjoyed a nice four-year career under Izzo.
Ager was at his best during the Spartans' run in the 2005 NCAA tournament, scoring a combined 45 points in consecutive games against Kentucky and North Carolina. Ager returned for his senior year and averaged just over 19 points per game.
According to the Lansing State Journal's Graham Couch, Ager is one of only five Michigan State players to record at least 200 career three-pointers.
Starting as a freshman on the 2004-05 team that reached the Final Four behind the likes of Kelvin Torbert, Alan Anderson, Chris Hill, Maurice Ager, Paul Davis and Shannon Brown, Neitzel might be the sole reason Michigan State's current run of 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is still going.
Definitely the driving force for Izzo's 2006-07 team, Neitzel's game-high 28 points in an upset win over then-No. 1 Wisconsin in late February may have single handedly put the Spartans in that season's NCAA tournament.
He averaged 18.1 points and 4.3 assists that year to help Michigan State gut through the year before reinforcements Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Chris Allen would arrive.
Neitzel averaged 13.9 points a game as a senior in 2007-08, a team that reached the Sweet 16 before bowing out to Derrick Rose and Memphis.
Bell was a member of Izzo's first three Final Four teams from 1999-2001 and started a school-record 136 games.
He averaged 10.5 points and 4.5 rebounds during his four years at Michigan State, earning All-Big Ten first team honors as a senior for the defending national champions, who lost to Arizona in the Final Four.
Perhaps he doesn't get the notoriety that teammates Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson received, but Bell is considered one of the better guards in the Izzo era.
He played for four teams during his NBA career.
No. 5 Adreian Payne
Payne grabbed the nation’s attention this past spring with his heartfelt relationship with Lacey Holsworth, and he's proven to be quite the basketball player, as well.
A member of two Michigan State teams to win Big Ten tournament crowns, Payne likely would have garnered All-Big Ten first team honors in 2013-14 had not for the time he missed because of injury.
Payne was at his best during the Spartans’ 93-78 victory over Delaware in the second round of this spring’s NCAA tournament, scoring a game-high 41 points, breaking Greg Kelser’s school single-game scoring record in a NCAA tournament game.
He averaged 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds a game for a team that began the season ranked No. 2. The squad jumped to the No. 1 ranking with a November win over Kentucky before injuries threatened to derail what was expected to be a special season in East Lansing.
Returning late in the year, Payne helped the team settle down en route to piling up 29 wins despite falling a win short of the Final Four with a 60-54 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut. Payne and Keith Appling became the first four-year seniors to not reach at least one Final Four under Izzo.
Last month, Payne was taken 15th overall by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2014 draft.
Couch put Payne 19th in his countdown of the top 50 players in Michigan State basketball history.
Like many great post players, Payne could raise his game in big moments and against key matchups — especially bulky, low-to-the-ground bigs. As sophomore, his 15 points against All-American Jared Sullinger were instrumental in winning at Ohio State. A year later, he was MSU’s best player in the NCAA tournament, tallying 14 points and 10 rebounds against both Memphis and Duke.
But it’s his senior year — which nearly didn’t happen — that puts him on this list at all, even with a chunk of games missed to a foot injury.
No. 4 Kalin Lucas
The point guard of the 2008-09 team that made good on Izzo’s pledge to play in the Final Four at Ford Field, the lightning-quick Lucas was at his best during that sophomore campaign.
Picked as the 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year, Lucas averaged 14.7 points and 4.6 assists a game and tallied a team-high 21 points in the Spartans’ win over Connecticut to reach the 2009 national championship game. He was the lone Spartan to score in double figures in all six games during the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
He was selected to the All-Big Ten first team twice and sits fifth on the Spartan all-time scoring list with 1,996 points.
But in some ways, Lucas represents the true “what might have been” in Izzo’s tenure.
Two days after scoring a game-high 25 points in a 70-67 win over New Mexico State in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament, Lucas tore his Achilles tendon in the first half of Michigan State’s 85-83 victory over Maryland.
While Korie Lucious filled in admirably at the point in helping Michigan State beat Northern Iowa and Tennessee to get back to the Final Four in 2010, many people believe that Lucas’ absence cost Michigan State the program’s third national title and second under Izzo that season.
Couch put Lucas 18th in his countdown.
Had Lucas not torn his Achilles during the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament, MSU would likely have a second national championship under Tom Izzo, the disastrous 2010-11 season unfolds differently and Lucas is in the NBA. And, on this countdown list, he’s pushing he top 10.
No. 3 Morris Peterson
Mateen Cleaves’ running mate on the back-to-back Final Four outfits in 1999 and 2000, Peterson joined his teammate in earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors during the national title-winning 1999-2000 season.
Becoming the first guy to earn all-Big Ten first team honors as a sixth man the year before, Peterson came up big when he was needed most. During the 2000 NCAA tournament, Peterson scored a combined 39 points in wins over Syracuse and Iowa State to help get the Spartans back to the Final Four.
Peterson averaged 16.8 points and six rebounds during his senior year and tallied 21 points in the 89-76 win over Florida in the 2000 national title game.
He helped keep Michigan State afloat early on in the 1999-2000 season as Cleaves worked his way back from injury.
Unlike Cleaves, Peterson enjoyed a lengthy NBA career. Selected 21st overall by the Toronto Raptors in 2000, Peterson played for three different teams from 2000-11.
Couch placed Peterson 10th in his summer countdown of the top 50 players in Spartan basketball history.
Peterson was the modern era’s Greg Kelser, the national title running mate next to a program-changing point guard. Like Kelser, his resume stands alone just fine.
Peterson is arguably the most efficient offensive star in MSU history. He shot better than 50 percent over his final two seasons, and played in an egalitarian offensive era. Peterson’s 16.8 points per game as a senior came on an average of just 12 shots. By comparison, Terry Furlow took 24 shots a game his final season, Scott Skiles and Steve Smith 19 each, Shawn Respert 17 and Kelser 14.
Peterson was an equal partner with Cleaves on one of two national championships in MSU history. And he was an integral piece of the group that began all that is today for Spartan basketball.
No. 2 Draymond Green
Perhaps the best guy to fit the Cleaves mold in terms of leadership since Cleaves’ departure, Green will go down as one of the best leaders in Michigan State basketball history.
Despite not coming away with a national title like Cleaves, Green accomplished quite a bit during his four-year Spartan career.
Initially committed to play for Tubby Smith at Kentucky, Green’s change of heart following Smith’s firing led him to play for the school he grew up watching.
By the time he was done, an indelible mark was made.
One of just three MSU players to record a triple-double, the 2012 Big Ten Player of the Year unexpectedly led the Spartans to 29 wins, a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, a Big Ten Tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 2011-12
A member of a pair of Final Four teams during his first two seasons in East Lansing in 2009 and 2010, Green left as the program’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,096 and is only one of two men in program history, along with Greg Kesler, to have scored over 1,500 points to go along with pulling down over 1,000 rebounds.
Couch placed Green just outside the top 10 in his countdown of the top 50, at 11th.
In the Tom Izzo era, Green is considered alone in a class with Cleaves in terms of ability to steer and will a team. He played Final Four clubs his first two seasons — as the go-to guy on the final possession as a sophomore — and won three Big Ten titles. As a senior, Green was selected as the Big Ten player of the year and the National Basketball Coaches Association’s player of the year.
No. 1 Mateen Cleaves
Upon giving his pledge to Izzo to come and play for the Spartans before the 1996-97 season, Cleaves became the measure that everyone who has or will play for Izzo will be up against—right or wrong.
Cleaves, the only Spartan to win Big Ten Player of the Year honors twice during Izzo’s tenure, is the only three-time All-American in program history in the midst of averaging 12.5 points and 6.6 assists in his four years.
Named the 2000 Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after coming through with his pledge to win a national title after coming up short against Duke in the 1999 Final Four, Cleaves tallied 18 points in the first half against Florida in the 2000 national championship game before leaving in the second half.
The program’s leader in both steals and assists, Couch put Cleaves as No. 2 in his summer countdown of the 50 best players in Michigan State history, behind only Magic Johnson.
Cleaves averaged 12.5 points and 6.6 assists for his career, molding his game around winning. As a sophomore in 1997-98, with a less-proven cast around him, Cleaves averaged 16.1 points and 7.2 assists, taking all of the big shots and leading MSU to a then-improbable Big Ten title, before averaging 21.6 in three NCAA tournament games for a young team, just finding the national radar.
Later in his career, as Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson matured, he became a facilitator first. To put it in perspective, his most individual national accolades came during a season in which he scored a modest 11.7 points per game. He was never a great 3-point shooter, but his flat shot seemed to be truest in the biggest moments.
Cleaves was a once-a-decade leader, as Izzo calls them, not replicated until Draymond Green, perhaps not seen since Magic. Cleaves was MSU’s swagger and its face.