Senior day bittersweet for Spartans' Tom Izzo

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Matt Van Dyk

East Lansing — Michigan State will honor three outgoing seniors on Sunday afternoon at the Breslin Center, capping what can only be called an unlikely journey for each.

Following a critical matchup with No. 16 Wisconsin that tips at 4 p.m., the Spartans will go through their traditional ceremony, paying tribute to seniors Alvin Ellis, Eron Harris and Matt Van Dyk. It's a ritual coach Tom Izzo moved postgame several years ago.

It’s a decision he’s happy about, even though it hasn’t always worked out, as in 2012 when Michigan State suffered a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State on Draymond Green’s senior day.

“I learned that day we’re doing the right things,” Izzo said. “This is about honoring these guys, letting our fans enjoy them and I felt like even on that day it was handled so well. Draymond thought it was awesome. So, I learned that day that is how I’ll do it as long as I’m here.

“But senior day is not a great day for me.”

It’s not great because it’s the end. And as much as Izzo is hard on his players, their journeys always seem to be worth it. This class personifies that.

Ellis was a late addition in the spring of 2013, a guard from Chicago who was once committed to Minnesota but pulled out after Tubby Smith was fired. He ended up with the Spartans, joined by forward Gavin Schilling in a class remembered as the year Izzo missed out on Jabari Parker.

It was never easy for Ellis. He battled injuries and frustration early in his career, only brief glimpses of how good he could be coming far too often. Then before last season, it was off-court problems that landed him in Izzo’s doghouse.

“He could have transferred two years ago,” Izzo recalled this week.

Instead, Ellis dialed in and committed himself to the program. He’s been a steady voice for a young team this season and has done everything asked of him, playing nearly every spot on the court. He’s had big games, lifting the Spartans to an overtime win at Minnesota early this season with a career-high 20 points and the winning free throws.

When Eron Harris went down last week, it was Ellis who got the call to start.

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“He hung in there and I think put a lot more into basketball this last year and a half,” Izzo said. “I think basketball has given something back to him. How does it get any better than that? That’s kind of what life’s all about and it will help prepare him for the rest of his life because as he put more time in, he became a better player and a very valuable member of this team. He’s definitely one of the (top) six or seven guys the whole season and now he’s going to be one of the top four guys. I’m anxious to see him grow from here.”

Ellis isn’t sure what will be going through his mind on Sunday. He’s focused on the finish of the season and his new role as a starter.

It’s been a long, winding journey but he wouldn’t trade it.

“I think it’s been worth it,” Ellis said. “You learn from everything you’ve done, especially with four years here at a great program like Michigan State. So it’s definitely worth it.”

It’s also been worth it for Van Dyk, the former walk-on who just hoped he could somehow be part of the program. That desire led to a spot on the team and this season, it earned him a scholarship and four starts in the middle of the season.

“I remember sitting and watching practices and just thinking, ‘I want to be on this team. I just want to be part of the program,’” Van Dyk said. “If I was part of the team, even better. Then I made the team and a couple years later I earned a scholarship and then a couple months later I started. I didn’t really expect that but for that to happen it truly has been a blessing.”

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Quite the accomplishment for the native of Imlay City, who first went to Hope College before transferring to St. Clair Community College. By 2014, he was an MSU walk-on who watched the 2015 Final Four from the stands.

He’ll likely head back to the family lettuce farm upon graduation, but he’ll do so with memories he can’t trade.

“The best memories are things off the court,” Van Dyk said. “Some big wins are great memories too, but the stuff off the court, hanging out with the guys, watching big games with my teammates, going out to eat, the trips we’ve gone on. Went to Italy, went to Hawaii, Bahamas … all that offcourt stuff will really stick with me for a lifetime.”

Then there’s Harris, the former transfer from West Virginia who plugged away on the scout team his first year with the program as the Spartans marched to the Final Four. He was expected to be a big lift when he was eligible last season, but the consistency has been missing.

By midway through his senior season, Harris had embraced his role as a leader, gaining the respect of the entire program. When he injured his knee at Purdue a little more than a week ago, it devastated his teammates.

But he’ll be there on Sunday, hobbling on crutches as he urges his young teammates.

“With Eron it is such a shame,” Izzo said. “Like I said, some like it, some love it and some live it and he was guy that lived it. Somehow, someway I hope he can enjoy the day.

“It’s a sad day but a good day because even though (Harris) only got to play the two years and didn’t get to finish, he probably spent as many hours in this place as the guys that play four years and I’ll always remember that.”

Three players with far different paths, far different outcomes.

“Hopefully the fans appreciate what those guys gave them over the years,” Izzo said.

No. 16 Wisconsin at Michigan State

Tip-off: 4 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760

Records: Wisconsin 22-6, 11-4 Big Ten; Michigan State 17-11, 9-6

Outlook: Michigan State has used nine different starting lineups this season while Wisconsin relies heavily on four seniors. … The Badgers lead the Big Ten in team defense, allowing 61.3 points a game despite giving up 83 in a loss to Ohio State on Thursday. … Wisconsin has won three of the last four in the series while Michigan State has won nine in a row at the Breslin Center.