Michigan State's Cassius Winston, Kenny Goins, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and Matt McQuaid talk about playing Texas Tech in the Final Four. The Detroit News
Minneapolis — Doug Wojcik wasn’t sure exactly what his role would be last fall when Tom Izzo asked him to rejoin his coaching staff.
He figured it’d entail more than the recruiting coordinator’s title implied, though. Few coaching staffs in college basketball are more collaborative than Izzo’s at Michigan State. And Wojcik knew that from first-hand experience, having spent a few years as an MSU assistant earlier in his career, including a Final Four trip in 2005 before getting his own crack as a head coach — first at Tulsa, and later at the College of Charleston.
But it was sometime in late December, right around the time that Joshua Langford was sidelined with an injury and Michigan State’s staff scrambled to reconfigure their plans, that the 54-year-old Wojcik understood where he could help best. Beyond all the prep recruiting evaluations, there was another project Izzo handed him.
It was Kenny Goins, the fifth-year senior who’d been around long enough — and been through so much — that Izzo figured it was time for a change.
“Just a different voice,” Wojcik explained, “at a time where as a player you could get bored or grow lethargic.”
And if it gave Wojcik a better sense of purpose, it offered Goins a sense of security.
“He’s kind of just helped me in remaining calm throughout the season,” Goins said Friday, on the eve of the Spartans' Final Four showdown with Texas Tech here at U.S. Bank Stadium. “He’s always the guy that’s able to bring me back down to earth. He has kind of come in with an outside perspective and helped me with all the off-court stuff.”
Not that he hadn’t gotten plenty of guidance over the years from Mike Garland, Izzo’s longtime assistant and a father figure that Goins says has “been my man since I stepped on campus.”
“He was honestly the first person that told me, ‘You’re gonna be a great player here someday,’” Goins said.
But that seems like forever ago now for Goins, a former walk-on who grew up cheering for the Spartans and turned down other Division I scholarship offers as a two-sport star at Warren Mott to pay to play for Michigan State.
Tears of tuition
The 22-year-old vividly remembers the day he left Izzo’s office after hearing he’d earned a scholarship at the start of his sophomore year in East Lansing. (“It was right outside by the Magic Johnson statue,” Goins said, “and I just sat down and started crying.”)
He’s had a few good cries in the 3½ years since, too, riding an emotional rollercoaster that took some odd turns. Goins showed his toughness early on, playing through a broken nose and a variety of other injuries. He flashed some potential as well.
But when he wasn’t playing out of position, filling in as an undersized center (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) as a redshirt sophomore in 2016-17, Goins was struggling to find playing time on a roster overloaded with talent last season. All along, his coaches kept reminding him that if he’d learn to love the game rather than simply like it — a familiar refrain from Izzo to players over the years — they’d all love to see it.
They saw it last summer, as Goins joined teammates in the gym for individual workouts morning, noon and night. He’d love to tell you how many shots he’d put up daily, trying to refine a 3-point shot he knew would be a key to success as a senior.
“But I lost count,” Goins laughed Friday. “It was just hours and hours.”
It showed. Wojcik was cautious at first when he approached Goins earlier this season. He’d hang around while he shot after practice with a team manager, remind him to keep his hips low and his pivot foot back, ready to catch and shoot. Mostly, though, he was just there to talk, and listen, especially as the pressure on Goins to produce was ratcheted up after Langford’s season-ending injury.
“I just tried to approach it as more of a friendship or mentorship,” said Wojcik, whose last head coaching stint ended abruptly in 2014 amid allegations he’d verbally abused his players in Charleston. “I thought the light went on with our connection.”
The green light helped as well. Goins was a player who didn’t attempt a single 3-point shot his first two seasons. He only took 15 a year ago as a junior, making four. And yet as he finally began to settle into a role as a stretch-four forward in the fall, somehow the flip got switched.
“Probably earlier this year when I missed a couple shots and Coach Izzo told me to keep shooting, that’s when I knew I had the green light,” he said. “I was definitely taken aback.
But also emboldened.
“When you hear something like that,” he added, “your confidence just goes through the roof.”
His stats certainly reflected that, as Goins shot nearly 44 percent from 3-point range (36-for-82) from the beginning of January through the end of the Big Ten regular season.
Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau preview Michigan State's game against Texas Tech in the Final Four. The Detroit News
Even when he found himself in a mini-slump last month, missing 11 consecutive threes in a stretch that began in the Big Ten tournament and carried through the start of the NCAA tourney, the light stayed on. After another dismal performance (2-for-10) in the Sweet 16 against LSU, Izzo resorted to playful ribbing in an attempt to shake Goins out of it.
““I kept saying to him, ‘Are you gonna make a shot? Would you like to make a shot?’” Izzo said.
Then came the team meeting before the showdown with Duke in Washington D.C., where MSU legend Magic Johnson gave the Spartans a pep talk. His message to Goins was direct: “Just keep shooting.”
He admits that thought was rattling around in his head in the critical final minute against the top-seeded Blue Devils, when a play drawn up for a lob from Goins to Xavier Tillman instead ended with Goins rising up and burying the game-winning 3-pointer over Duke star Zion Williamson.
When Goins saw Magic after the game, “He told me, ‘What’d I say? Just keep shooting.’”
So he will, knowing this is his last shot. Goins is the only player on Michigan State’s roster who’d experienced a Final Four before this week, tagging along as a freshman when the Spartans lost to eventual champ Duke in the 2015 national semifinals.
"Kenny isn’t even the older brother, he's like the uncle,” laughed Tillman, who has emerged as terrific tag-team partner for inside. “We always joke about Kenny being old, like the oldest brother who's been through it all. He looks tired all the time, but he's always in it for us, always wants us to succeed."
Goins' own success this season — his elite rebounding, defensive versatility and that outside shot — may open the door for a pro career. And that was one of Wojcik's goals this winter, to help Goins earn an invite to the NBA pre-draft camp for top college seniors in Portsmouth, Va., later this month.
But whatever happens next, this project is nearly complete.
"It's been a long five years," Goins said. "But I've definitely got more confidence in what I can do after this."
At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9), 6:09 p.m. (CBS)
Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)