Coach Tom Izzo called Michigan State’s senior day tradition the best in the nation, following MSU’s closing regular season win over Ohio State.
Each year, he exalts the tradition and the four-year players continuing it. And each senior day, the Spartan faithful’s excitement that continues to occupy the Breslin Center for hours following MSU’s final regular game is hinged upon the senior class’ prospect of bringing home Izzo’s elusive second title.
“I’d like to finish by saying, I want to thank our fans,” Izzo said postgame. “I’ve been involved in a lot of great senior nights since I started doing it after the game and all but a couple of sad ones when we lost. But for the people to stay like they did tonight, I mean I just don’t think we lost anybody but the OSU fans.”
There was a reason they stayed.
Sitting in the nosebleeds in 2011 as Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers eked out a win over Iowa to conclude a disappointing season following preseason No. 2 expectations, I still got my first semblance of the tradition Shawn Respert birthed, and one that I’d experience firsthand for the ensuing 10 seasons. I was taken aback by Izzo's rare sentimentality as a former four-year Detroit point guard exited.
"I think back to Mateen (Cleaves) and Morris (Peterson) and those guys because those guys had started this whole thing for me, but I think, what Cassius has been through," Izzo said, his voice crackling.
Some would argue no senior day would transcend the one that produced Mateen Cleaves’ infamous "promise" to bring home a national title. Less would say so concerning the year following Lucas’ and Summers’, as Branden Dawson’s torn ACL in the final minutes and a loss to Jared Sullinger’s Buckeyes dampened Draymond Green’s senior day festivities, bringing MSU’s opportunity at a Big Ten regular season title and prospects of a national title along with him to the floor with a thud.
I clutched my faux Lansing State Journal print featuring seniors Green, Brandon Wood, and Anthony Ianni as I witnessed the blend of devastation and fury on the face of a player whose number hangs in the rafters and now bears the suffix "Sr."
Keith Appling and Adreian Payne’s festivities brought an excitement similar to that of Cleaves’, as one of Izzo’s most decorated classes entered the tournament as arguably the most dangerous No. 4 seed in the gauntlet’s history.
The following year, then-junior Denzel Valentine whipped the ball out of bounds to allow Dawson and Travis Trice to enjoy their moment before they led No. 7-seeded MSU to the Final Four.
Few were more emotional than in 2017, as Eron Harris hobbled to center court to salute and kiss the Spartan head. The year following, Lourawls Nairn Jr. uttered his infamous “It’s not because you got to, it’s because you get to,” mantra after his final home game while then-sophomore Miles Bridges enjoyed his pseudo-senior day.
And of course, last year, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins aided the Spartans’ second-straight regular season title and the second of three wins over Michigan before becoming one of the most beloved teams in Spartan history.
Yet, this year transcended each of them.
For over two decades, the seniors that kissed the Spartan head embraced Izzo in gratitude after four years of his molding them into the players and young men they had become. This time, the concept was inverted.
“As I say every year, ... players learn, grow, get better,” Izzo said. “Sometimes, players like Cassius here help a coach learn, grow and get better.”
Winston kissed the Spartan head at center court after one of the more memorable four-year tenures in the program’s history, as such a feat becomes ever rarer in college basketball. He led MSU to victory over one of the most revered prospects since LeBron James, persevered through personal tragedy, all the while teaching a head coach that had done so for many players before him.
“Cassius Winston will go down as one of the four or five greatest players I've had here,” Izzo said before the Spartans' game against Maryland. “I don't even know who everybody is, but what separates him is, he was such a good player; he was such a good passer, such a good shooter. That's hard to do both. And then he was such, such a good student and a good person. He had a little bit of everything.
"His demeanor was different than mine. He helped teach me some things. I have adjusted some, and he’s adjusted some, and it’s been one of those things that I bet when we’re done, I’m going to appreciate him even more."