State hoops: MSU's Tom Izzo plays salesman for EMU, and one of his guys gets the job

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo isn't just an ambassador for the Spartans. He's also an ambassador for college basketball in the state of Michigan.

This offseason and last, he has spent hours on the phone with two Mid-American Conference athletic directors, helping make sure they got the right fit at head coach.

Eastern Michigan coach Stan Heath.

Last offseason, in talks with athletic director Kathy Beauregard, he pushed hard for his assistant, Dwayne Stephens, to get the Western Michigan job.

The position ultimately went to assistant Clayton Bates, after the school instituted an external hiring freeze amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. This offseason, he made a new friend in Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee, in highly recommending Stephens, as well as former assistant coach Stan Heath.

Heath, an assistant at Michigan State in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ended up getting the job, because he checked two of Wetherbee's biggest boxes: He had head-coaching experience, and he had deep roots within the Eastern Michigan community, as a former player.

Eastern Michigan hired Heath, to replace long-time head coach Rob Murphy. Heath gets a five-year contract worth about $320,000 a year in base pay. Full contract details haven't yet been revealed.

"Tom and I, obviously we worked extremely well, had tremendous success when I was part of his staff," Heath said this week, after being introduced as Eastern Michigan's 30th head men's basketball coach. "He's always been instrumental in the moves I've made, whether it was making a phone call or just giving me advice, things to think about, things to consider. I value his friendship and relationship.

"I wouldn't be where I am right now without Tom Izzo."

It wasn't lost on Heath that Izzo had to stump for Stephens, too. And Izzo did in his calls with Wetherbee. Stephens hasn't been a head coach yet, and that was a main qualification Wetherbee was looking for.

"He should be a head coach," Heath said of Stephens. "No doubt about it."

There is another head-coaching opening in the state, at Central Michigan, which fired Keno Davis after nine seasons. It's not yet clear if Stephens has been contacted about that job, but given Izzo's clout and his willingness to play pitchman, don't be surprised if Stephens gets a look there.

As for Heath, he takes over a team that was 6-12 this season, albeit a season with wildly unusual circumstances, with a three-plus-week COVID-19 shutdown.

After the season, two star players, forward Ty Groce and point guard Bryce McBride, entered the transfer portal. Four players, in all, entered the portal since the season ended. McBride has now withdrawn his name.

Heath said he has met with the entire team, but wouldn't describe conversations he's had with the players who still are committed to transferring. The option is there to return, if there's a fit on both sides.

"Obviously, we're gonna have to redo our roster. Timing is everything, with guys in the portal, guys in high school are available," Heath said. "It's not just finding talent, but finding talent that fits.

"I do think we can get a roster together that's very competitive right away."

Heath has taken three different teams to the NCAA Tournament, including an Elite Eight appearance with Kent State in 2002. Eastern Michigan hasn't been since 1998, the longest Division I drought in the state.

In many ways, the portal and the new NCAA rule that allows Division I players to transfer to another Division I school without sitting out a year, could help speed up that rebuilding process.

Roster aside, Heath is working on putting his staff together.

Slam dunks

►Coaches can start hitting the recruiting trails again June 1, but don't expect all coaches to rush back into the hustle and bustle — and expensive steak dinners — of the road. Many colleges, particularly mid-majors, are talking about decreasing their recruiting budgets with athletic department finances still on shaky ground amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, ADs are realizing coaches can make do, somewhat, remotely.

►Central Michigan women's basketball will still be a favorite in the Mid-American Conference next year, but it is losing star player Micaela Kelly (the 21st overall pick in Thursday's WNBA Draft), as well as Maddy Watters and Kyra Bussell. All three decided to pass on the extra year of eligibility allowed by the NCAA.

►The transfer portal taketh, and transfer portal giveth. Western Michigan men have seven players in the portal, but this week officially signed Butler forward Markeese Hastings (from Wyoming, Michigan) and Duquesne guard Lamar Norman Jr. (from Grand Rapids).

►At Central Michigan, guard Meikkel Murray, second on the team at 15.6 points, entered the portal after Davis' firing. So did guard Caleb Huffman, third at 13.3 points, but he has withdrawn his name. Ralph Bissainth, a forward who averaged 7.7 points and 5.0 rebounds, is also in the portal.

►Eastern Michigan's women's team could be losing guard Jenna Annecchiarico, who averaged 9.7 points and 3.8 rebounds and is in the transfer portal.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984