Izzo, Spartans cherish their NCAA Magic moments

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo grins as he takes his place during the official NCAA player and coach interviews Saturday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte, N.C. – It's one thing for Michigan State's players to heed the advice of the coaching staff, but even they admit, hearing the same thing day after day from Tom Izzo and his assistants can sometimes wear a little thin.

That's why it never hurts to add a new voice this time of year, and the Spartans are fortunate to have one of the all-time greats hanging around to offer his expertise.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson spoke to the team before its practice on Saturday, and the former Michigan State national champion and NBA Hall of Famer does what he usually does this time of year – remind the current players of what they need to do to keep on marching.

"It's one of the greatest players of all time talking to us," junior Denzel Valentine said. "He really cares, and if he is noticing things, you want to pick it up and learn from him. It is extra motivation to do good and make him proud because he is cheering us on and has our backs. With Magic, you just want to make him proud.

"He's not around every day and you don't get to talk to him every day. It's definitely different when you talk to Magic."

Johnson was at the game Friday when Michigan State beat Georgia and should be in the stands when No. 7 Michigan State takes on No. 2 Virginia at 12:10 p.m. on Sunday.

Johnson following his alma mater in the NCAA Tournament is usually a yearly occurrence. But he is always following the Spartans, whether that means dropping in on a practice or calling players with some timely advice.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo counts it as one of his favorite things about his job.

"He's one of the rare people in sports or maybe in the world that has transcended time," Izzo said. "Everybody knows Magic Johnson. I've been blessed. I'm telling you, the greatest thing that's happened to me at Michigan State is he has supported us. He flies here from LA; he did it last year, he did it the year before, he did it when I first started. He's kind of got an annual thing now where he brings his dad. It's the coolest thing.

"He sat there and when he talked to (the team) today, I said to my assistants, 'They must think I had a meeting with him before and gave him all these things to say because he analyzed their team way better than I did.' So it's just special for me and I think it's special for my team that a man of his stature would take the time on a regular basis."

It was especially big for freshman Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn. The native of the Bahamas has spent all season embracing every aspect of Michigan State's traditions, and getting the chance to talk to Johnson was no different.

"Tum is a special guy," Izzo said. "When Earvin walked through the door today the only thing Tum didn't do was bow to his knees and genuflect. I just can imagine thinking about where he grew up and what he did and all of a sudden somebody of that stature says, 'Little fella, next time do this, don't do this.' I sat back and laughed and covered my mouth watching Tum say, 'Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.'"

'Next question'

The mood was light in the Michigan State locker room after the Spartans practiced at Time Warner Cable Arena on Saturday.

The impeding matchup with the ACC regular-season champion hardly had the team on edge, and when the cramped locker room was overrun with members of the media, senior Travis Trice and freshman walk-on Kenny Goins were having some fun.

Goins held the microphone for a local television station has he sat next to Trice during an interview. That's when Goins jumped in and asked who had the best celebrations on the bench, suggesting, of course, his were the best.

"Next question," Trice said.

Bennett vs. MSU

Virginia coach Tony Bennett's only NCAA Tournament game as player came at Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1991 against Michigan State. The fifth-seeded Spartans got a late jumper from Steve Smith to avoid the upset and knock off the 12th-seeded Green Bay team, 60-58.

Bennett was also a staff volunteer for his father, Dick Bennett, at Wisconsin in 1999-2000. No. 8 Wisconsin advanced to the Final Four but lost to No. 1 Michigan State, 53-41. It was the fourth time the Badgers lost to the Spartans that season.

… Michigan State is 4-0 all-time against Virginia, including last season's 61-59 victory in the Sweet 16.

… Denzel Valentine needs nine points to reach 1,000 for his career. He'll become the fourth current Spartan with 1,000 career points, joining Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Bryn Forbes.