As Javon Bess and Marvin Clark II talk about the challenges facing their teams in the stretch run of their senior seasons, they sound like their old Michigan State coach.
“We’re just getting after it and competing in practice every day,” Bess said of Saint Louis practices this week. “It’s about toughness and rebounding and defense.”
Added Clark, about his St. John's team: “I’m trying to do what Coach Izz wanted us to do. That’s the type of culture that we’re trying to build here, and to bring that consistently.”
Both players acknowledged they took their MSU lessons with them when they transferred from East Lansing after their sophomore seasons in 2016, as the touted recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford were going to eat into the already thin available minutes.
After sitting out a transfer season apiece, the pair has combined to start all but one game for their new teams in two seasons.
Bess has spent part of all three summers working out with Michigan State players and alums in East Lansing, and Clark said Tom Izzo’s lessons have stayed close to him.
That’s why, after going scoreless for the first time this season on four shots for St. John’s in a 70-69 upset this month at No. 10 Marquette, Clark paid tribute to Izzo by posting a picture of them together on his Instagram story, as he said he put MSU’s defense and toughness lessons into practice that night.
“I just paid him a little homage,” Clark said. “It makes me think back to everything I learned from him.”
Bess and Clark are making real marks offensively with their new programs under coaches who were formerly dynamic offensive players.
Bess, who with Clark helped MSU to the 2015 Final Four as freshmen, plays for coach Travis Ford, and leads the Billikens in scoring at 15.9 points per game.
He made two 3-pointers total in his two seasons for Izzo, but is knocking down more than two per game as a senior. Bess has developed to become a 37 percent shooter from deep this season for Ford, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference player at Kentucky.
Ford helped the Wildcats to the 1993 Final Four, a season where Ford shot 52.9 percent from deep, setting a then-program record with 101 3-pointers made that season.
“He’s a passionate guy, a real tough guy,” Bess said. “He’s a winner, been a winner since college and knows what it takes to win and knows what it takes to lead a team.”
After this week of practice, Saint Louis (17-9, 8-5 Atlantic 10) is at Dayton on Saturday with hopes of trying to get Ford to his seventh NCAA Tournament as a head coach but first at SLU in three seasons.
Clark’s coach at St. John's is also no slouch: Hall of Famer Chris Mullin.
“He reacts and still thinks like a player. He’s mobile with us, and is active in every drill at practice,” Clark said. “One thing that I love the most is he’s taught me a lot of little things, little nuances to get shots off and helped me a ton with my shooting.
“It’s something that I’m thankful for, and I’m blessed.”
Clark and St. John's (19-7, 7-6 Big East) topped No. 13 Villanova, 71-65, on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, another signature win that could balance out bad home losses to DePaul and Providence. St. John's has a chance to avenge the Friars’ loss on the road Wednesday night.
Clark is averaging 11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists for the Red Storm and is attempting more than six 3-pointers a game for Mullin, one of the game’s all-time great shooters.
Clark and St. John's are on the NCAA Tournament bubble, while Bess and Saint Louis likely will need to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament to reach The Dance.
Bess and Clark came to East Lansing in a recruiting class with Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., Clark’s high school teammate at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas.
Both say they are in close touch with college teammates like Lansing’s Denzel Valentine of the Chicago Bulls, and keep tabs on the current Spartans. Both played with MSU seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, and redshirt junior Kyle Ahrens.
“We all stay in contact,” Clark said. “It’s bigger than basketball. The bonds that we forged in my two years there, they’re something that can never be replaced and forgotten.”
Clark and Bess have professional dreams, and Bess said he could see himself coaching down the line.
He’s not the only one.
“Someday when he’s done playing that kid will be a coach and I might hire him,” Izzo said last week. “It has (worked out for Bess and Clark). I’m happy for both of them.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer. Detroit News writer Matt Charboneau contributed to this report.