By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
TULSA, Okla. – The term, “to have a successful season, your seniors have to have their best year,” was introduced to the Michigan State’s athletic community by head football Mark Dantonio some years ago.
Spartan basketball counterpart Tom Izzo has frequently thrown his verbal endorsement behind the concept, always with deference to the author, ever since.
It was a not-so-subtle motivator, wrapped in a challenge, when Izzo’s seniors were Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello; or Travis Trice and Branden Dawson; or Adreian Payne and Keith Appling; or Draymond Green and Austin Thornton; or Travis Walton, Goran Suton and Marquise Gray; or Drew Neitzel and Drew Naymick.
The theory has been validated with Big Ten championships and Final Fours, and the lack of such when seniors were injured or hobbled by other factors.
However, the importance of Michigan State’s seniors to this season’s success has been overshadowed almost since its nationally heralded freshman class stepped foot on campus. There was a seismic shift in philosophical approach when fourth-year senior forward Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, who came in a graduate-transfer to bolster the senior class, suffered season-ending knee injuries last fall.
Michigan State’s fortunes suddenly depended more on how well Izzo and his staff could get the freshmen to play than what the remaining seniors did.
Nevertheless, Eron Harris, a two-year Spartan who transferred from West Virginia, and Alvin Ellis III did everything they could, sometimes in the background, to uphold MSU’s senior tradition until two games before Senior Day, Harris’ season also came to an end because of a knee injury.
And now, going into its NCAA Tournament first-round game against Miami, MSU is down to the last of its scholarship seniors charged with having his best season. (Senior Matt Van Dyk joined MSU as a transfer walk-on in 2014, and was placed on scholarship last fall.)
Ellis looked around the Spartan locker room in the BOK Center, at the fresh faces of freshmen Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, and reflected on how he was once like them.
“I think about all those things, especially when I was a freshman coming in with that senior class (of Appling and Payne),” Ellis said. “Then as a sophomore and then a junior, as I matured, thinking of the senior class ahead of me, knowing what they were playing for.
“And now I’m in that position and I just want the other guys to know that’s the position I’m in now and we’ve got to take every game like it is our last. I’m going to try to play my hardest and stress to these guys that we are in one-and-done.”
Ellis’ freshman class consisted of Schilling and him.
“Until Eron came in, it was just me and Gav,” Ellis said. “Then it got real lonely when Gav went out at the beginning of the season and now Eron’s out, too. But I’m hanging in there – holding it down for them.”
By virtue of his injury, Schilling has actually delayed his final season of eligibility until next season when he’ll be a redshirt senior. Carter is also awaiting word on his petition to the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility.
So, it’s left to Ellis to shoulder the mantle of the senior class.
Throughout his career, Ellis was often his own worst enemy, curtailing his court time with an ill-advised shot or a poor decision. At times, it seemed like he would never get out of Izzo’s doghouse, like so many of his predecessors had. However, speculation that he was on the brink of leaving MSU for another program wasn’t based on anything he ever said to anyone.
“He’s not gentle with anybody,” Ellis said of the times he’s been scolded by Izzo, and counting. “He’s always gonna get on you, but it’s all teaching and you just got to take in the spirit it’s given and learn from it. We know he’s trying to better us, better the team and put us in a position where we can win games or be successful in our own lives.
“So I never thought about transferring. I don’t know where that came from -- just the media and the fans talking, I guess. But I knew I could get better here and I believe I’ve done that. The coaching staff has done a great job of getting me better. Even when I wasn’t playing as much, I was always hanging in there and fighting and earning my opportunities.”
A sense of urgency was accompanied by a now-or-never epiphany for Ellis this season. The youngsters needed an example to follow, and Izzo always appreciated Ellis for his toughness.
Eventually, he would applaud Ellis for his unconventional “best” senior season.
Ellis came off the bench at Minnesota to score a career-high 20 points while leading MSU to a 75-74, come-from-behind, overtime victory against the Golden Gophers. He had 16 in the next game, a win over Northwestern, and 18 in the home triumph versus Ohio State.
He didn’t get his first start as a senior, only the third of his career (he had one in 2013-14 and one in ’14-15), until the 28th game of the season, after Harris went down, and figures to be in the starting lineup for his seventh straight game against the Hurricanes. And yet, he leads all healthy Spartans in tournament-game appearances with nine.
“I’m just happy to be having my best year now,” Ellis said. “I’ve got to finish out strong, go out with no regrets and play the best basketball I’ve ever played when my number’s called. I’m comfortable with what I’ve done, but I’m not comfortable yet.
“We’ve got more work to do, of course, and we got to keep fighting. My hope is to get back to the Final Four again.”
Unlike some of the former MSU seniors in recent memory, Ellis wasn’t named All-American or even All-Big Ten. His name doesn’t appear among any of the conference’s statistical leaders.
Even so, the Spartans wouldn’t have extended their Big Ten-record streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to 20 without Ellis, according to Bridges.
“He brought us his experience,” Bridges said. “He made big shots for us throughout the whole year and he knows how to win because he’s been a part of a lot of winning teams. It’s good to have Alvin on the team because he’s shown that you have to be ready at all times.
“He was ready and he lifted us up when we needed it and he beat a lot of teams for us single-handedly. He’s just a great player, a great teammate and great person to be around.”
Ellis’ senior legacy will be enshrined in the streak and enhanced by whatever success MSU has in the tournament.
“I hope I’m remembered as just a tough kid who always came in and fought it out, and always competed every time I got on the floor,” he said.
Added Izzo, “Hopefully, we can send Alvin Ellis out the way Michigan State players should be sent out.”