MSU head basketball coach Tom Izzo talks about the three seniors on his team. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — These are the days Tom Izzo hates.
OK, maybe not hate, but it’s safe to say the emotional Michigan State basketball coach could do without some of what takes place during the final home game of each season.
Michigan State’s matchup with Illinois on Tuesday night will be the 23rd time Izzo has had to give a pregame speech knowing some of the faces staring back at him won’t do it again from the home locker room.
There will be three of those faces this time, each bringing his own unique story to the Michigan State program. And, on top of that, there’s the fact the second-ranked team in the nation will be playing for a chance to clinch at least a share of its first Big Ten championship since 2012.
“In my own way, I’ll miss all of them,” Izzo said. “But to have an opportunity to maybe play for a Big Ten championship at home on Senior Day is also really special. It hasn’t happened all the time; doesn’t happen often. To do it at home is special. To do it on Senior Night is really special.
“I’m excited about it and it’s always a sad day for me. It’s always a bad pregame speech because I do appreciate what these guys have given us and what they’ve done.”
Summing up what Tum Tum Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter have done at Michigan State is a story with three distinctly different chapters. None would be considered ordinary.
Nairn is ‘heart and soul’
Nairn was walking to class Monday morning, a journey that took him past the Breslin Center. As the 5-foot-10 guard from Nassau, Bahamas — he long ago became used to the harsh Michigan winters — glanced at the building he’d played in more than 70 times, his eyes started to fill with tears.
“All the memories of playing in this gym stay in your head,” Nairn said.
The fact Nairn was brought to tears is nothing new. His teammates like to give him a hard time about it. He cried more than anyone as a freshman in 2015 after Michigan State’s loss to Duke in the Final Four. He said he cried at the first practice this season.
But if there’s player who’s appreciated where he is more than Nairn, it is hard to remember who that might be. He left home at the age of 13 to chase a college basketball dream. It was far from an easy journey, but the fact it ended in East Lansing has never been lost on Nairn. That’s why he tackles every day like it’s his last.
“I never took a day off, never took a practice off, never skipped a rep in the weight room, never took a sprint off,” Nairn said when asked what he hoped his legacy would be. “Anything that had to do with this program I did with all my heart.”
It was always noticed by his coaches and teammates.
“Every single day he brings it,” sophomore Cassius Winston said. “That is hard to do. Trust me, it’s hard to bring it every day and he brings it every day.
“He put the heart and soul in this place. It will be a sad day when Tum leaves the program.”
MSU seniors Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., Gavin Schilling, and Ben Carter talk about celebrating Senior Night at Breslin Center. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
There’s always the chance, though, that Nairn could see more days with the program. He said last week he’d love to be the head coach at Michigan State someday. It was something Izzo endorsed on Monday. That day would, clearly, be down the road, but the three-time captain clearly has the passion for the game, though Izzo is certain no matter what Nairn chooses to do with his life he’ll be a success.
If Nairn did end up as a coach, there’s no doubt he’d bring positive energy to any program.
“He’s the most infectious human being I’ve ever been around,” Izzo said. “If he’s had a bad day, I don’t know when it was.”
Nairn has no intention of Tuesday being a bad one. Kissing the Spartan logo will be enough to ensure that, but he’s confident it will be done celebrating a championship.
“It’s special to have this opportunity,” Nairn said. “One of my goals in college was to win a Big Ten championship and it’s finally here, so I want to embrace the moment and not take it for granted.”
Extra year yields one more shot
This is a year late for Schilling. The 6-foot-9 forward came to Michigan State in 2013 as a three-star along with guard Alvin Ellis III. Neither came with the accolades of a lot of other MSU recruits, but as a sophomore, there Schilling was, starting in the Final Four.
The next year he was primed to be the starting center before a toe injury in the preseason opened the door for then-senior Matt Costello. And before last season, Schilling tore his knee ligaments, forcing him to sit the entire season.
However, it did allow him to be back this season and chase one more shot at a championship and a return to the Final Four.
“Looking back, I’ve been here a long time, but it doesn’t feel that long,” Schilling said. “It feels like yesterday my mom was dropping me off for the first time.”
Schilling says there was excitement that day, not nervousness. Since then he’s seen his minutes go up and down. However, he’s always remained a key part of the rotation, never more this season than the 20 minutes he played in the win over Purdue when he did his best to contain Isaac Haas.
Those sporadic minutes haven’t changed Schilling’s approach, however.
“There could have been a lot of dissension and complaining,” Izzo said. “I just haven’t seen it at all. I’m sure, deep down when goes home at night he wishes he was playing more, but he’s really embraced what I hope this program has stood for and that’s winning together.”
Schilling has done his share of winning, something he hopes to add to on Tuesday night. After that, he might let his five years sink in a bit.
“It is gonna be an emotional night for me,” Schilling said. “I’ve gone through so many ups and downs here. What I’ve been through here has formed me into the man I am today. It’s really gonna hit me tomorrow night.”
MSU ‘second family’ to Carter
When it’s all done, Carter will have played far more games at Oregon and maybe even UNLV. But to the sixth-year forward who came to Michigan State last season as a graduate transfer, those other schools don’t have the same meaning as MSU.
“They are a second family to me,” said Carter, who’s played in 20 games this season.
His journey has been the longest. The Las Vegas native played two years at Oregon before transferring back home to UNLV. He played 22 games in 2015-16 before a knee injury ended his season. Instead of sticking around — UNLV made a coaching change — he looked for a place to play one more season.
Carter had five visits set up. His first was to Michigan State. He never took another visit. It was an easy choice; he was a Spartan.
But the challenges kept coming as Carter hurt his knee again during his first practice with the Spartans. A year of rehab followed by a petition to the NCAA allowed him one more season. And though his playing time has been limited, Carter regrets nothing.
“What I went through, to see life in a different perspective, it’s not just about basketball and you feel that in a place like this even though you look around and see the banners,” Carter said. “It’s more than basketball here.”
Instead of lamenting his time on the bench, Carter has joined the scout team in an effort to make MSU better. He’s pushed freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and told freshman Xavier Tillman to jump in the scout team, too, all in an effort to win games.
“It has definitely been a very long journey, lots of ups and downs, lots of different experiences, lots of lessons learned,” Carter said. “I’m happy where I am and how it is ending.
“When I came here I had a goal to win championships and was one of the main reasons I decided to come here in the first place. To be able to contend for that on Senior Night is a dream come true.”
Illinois at No. 2 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: Illinois is 13-15, 3-12 Big Ten; Michigan State is 26-3, 14-2
Outlook: A victory by Michigan State would clinch a share of the Big Ten championship for the first time since 2012. … Senior Day will be celebrated in a postgame ceremony honoring Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., Gavin Schilling, and Ben Carter. … Illinois will try to play the role of spoiler after knocking off Nebraska on Sunday, hurting the Huskers’ chances at reaching the NCAA Tournament. Senior Leron Black scored a career-high 28 points.