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Behind the scenes

The MSU scout team doesn't get all the credit for glory, but their role is crucial to the success of the team

March 26, 2009

Junior guard Isaiah Dahlman smiles as redshirt freshman forward Austin Thornton shoots free throws during open practice on Thursday.

Eight seasons after the MSU men’s basketball team won the national championship, the days of preparation leading up to the 2000 title game are still firmly etched in Brian Gregory’s mind. The former MSU assistant coach remembers the Spartans had “two or three” walk-throughs and a practice on Sunday, followed by a light shootaround Monday morning. Gregory, now the head coach at Dayton, also remembers there was to be one last walk-through prior to the team dinner that Monday evening. It never happened.

“The scout team was getting ready to do one more walk-through in the hotel room before dinner, and they were ready to go, but Mateen (Cleaves) and Morris (Peterson) came to (MSU head coach Tom Izzo) and told Tom they didn’t need to do it,” said Gregory, who coached at MSU from 1990-95 and from 1999-2003. “(The scout team), in less than two days — in less than the prepared time — had done such a good job playing as Florida that those guys didn’t think they needed to go over it any more. Tom asked them if they were sure and they said that they were, so Tom said, ‘OK, let’s go eat.’”

‘The best scout team in the country’

This year, there’s an ongoing joke on the MSU men’s basketball team that its scout team runs upcoming opponents’ plays better than its opponents do.

Sometimes it’s actually true.

“At times I think they really do,” said MSU assistant coach Mark Montgomery, who called MSU’s scout team the best in the country. “We might not have the athletes that other teams have, but just running their sets or doing exactly what they do, at times we’ve walked away saying our scout team … (ran) similar plays better than the opposing team.”

For proof, look no further than MSU’s game against Robert Morris last Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

In the week leading up to the game, redshirt freshman guard Austin Thornton played the role of the Colonials’ Jeremy Chappell, the do-everything guard who averaged 16.9 points a game coming in.

In a 15-minute scrimmage during the week’s prep, Montgomery said Thornton scored 30 points playing as Chappell.

On Friday against MSU, Chappell scored 11.

“(Thornton) played (Chappell) better than he played himself,” senior guard Travis Walton said.

How they do it

Sitting in a circle March 19 in the Metrodome locker room in Minneapolis, the scout team — consisting of Thornton, junior forward Jon Crandell, junior guard Isaiah Dahlman, sophomore guard Mike Kebler and sophomore center Tom Herzog — spoke excitedly of their role on the team.

During the regular season, Crandell said the Spartans focus on their own plays in the first practice heading into a game, before spending the next two practices concentrating on the opposition.

Come March, that itinerary is put on fast-forward.

Last weekend MSU had about 41 hours between the final buzzer against Robert Morris and Sunday’s tip against Southern California to prepare for the Trojans. After picking up tape on USC when they got back to the hotel early Saturday morning, the entire team was to meet for breakfast at 10 a.m.

By the time everyone else got there, players on the scout team already had been working on USC’s plays for a 30 minutes to an hour.

The 41-hour turnaround can be described in many ways, yet each description means the same.

“A lot more pressure,” Dahlman said. “It’s a lot more intense right now.”

“We get yelled at a lot more, too,” said Thornton, drawing laughter.

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“If you’re going through a walk-through and you’re confused about a play or something …” Herzog trailed off. “There’s definitely more pressure.”

Still, assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said it took the scout team Saturday morning and just one more walk-through to understand most of USC’s plays.

Embracing the role

Aside from the players’ familiarity with the plays, Montgomery said most teams run similar sets with just a few different wrinkles tossed in.

Another thing that helps the short turnaround is the players usually already have a pretty good idea which player they will emulate in walk-throughs.

“Austin is the best shooter, so if they have a great shooter (the coaches) are going to put him as the best shooter,” Dahlman said. “They got me as a driver, so if they have a playmaker like me, that’s where (the coaches) put me at.

“If you want a small guard, like a Mickey Mouse-type, that’s where Kebs goes. Jon’s the defensive specialist … and Big Tom’s the center all the time.”

Along with those five, freshmen Korie Lucious and Draymond Green also spend time on the scout team, depending on which MSU player fits the role of an opposing player.

In this week’s preparation for Kansas, Kebler and Lucious have practiced as Jayhawks’ guard Sherron Collins, while Herzog has been mimicking 6-foot-11 center Cole Aldrich.

Thornton may have gotten to run the show last week, but this week the honor falls to those three.

“That’s the fun part, because for Austin, Chappell was the main scorer so he was real happy all week because he got to shoot all the time,” Dahlman said. “We rotate different weeks on whoever gets to be the best player. That’s the big thing — who’s going to be the best player.”

Paying dividends

Gregory said most of today’s scout teams are filled by walk-on players with minimal experience.

Not so for the Spartans, whose five key members of the scout team not only have talent, but also at least a year of collegiate experience under their belts.

Dahlman and Herzog were highly ranked coming out of high school and are both on scholarship. Thornton, who received scholarship offers from numerous schools, opted to come to MSU as a preferred walk-on.

Kebler and Crandell walked on, but each brings a unique skill to the scout team. Kebler has a pure shooting stroke, while Crandell brings size, rebounding and an intensity that may only be matched by Walton.

Individually, the five players don’t stand out, but combining their skills, experience and acceptance of their roles on the scout team make them an underrated X-factor for the Spartans.

“They’ve been around — some of those guys a couple years — and we have no freshmen on that team, so they’ve been through it,” Montgomery said. “That’s the good thing about playing a good schedule … they’ve been through it. Just through the experience over the year and of last year those guys know what to expect.

“They’re basketball savvy and their basketball knowledge is very high.”

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