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Almost Glory: the 1990 Michigan State Spartans

Hoops and counterfactuals.

Steve Smith

One stroke of bad luck derailed a very good team’s chances.

Coach: Jud Heathcote

Record: 28-6 (15-3 in the Big Ten)

Big Ten Regular Season Champions

Key Players/Stats:

  • Steve Smith, 20.2 PPG, 7 REB, 4.8 AST, 45.9% 3PT
  • Kirk Manns, 15.3 PPG, 45.5% 3PT
  • Ken Redfield, 11.6 PPG, 6.8 REB, 1.3 STL

Let’s begin, this time at the end. Or near the end.

It’s March, 1990. New Orleans, Louisiana, the Superdome. #1 seed Michigan State leads upstart Georgia Tech 75-73 with 4 seconds left to play. Kenny Anderson has the ball for the Yellow Jackets, not even looking to pass. He dribbles wildly, avoiding a Steve Smith steal. As the clock winds down, he careens to his left, looking for some space, any space at all. On the cusp of the three-point line, the buzzer goes off, shot leaves his hand and sinks through.

“It counts!” screams the CBS announcer, while the crowd and the Georgia Tech players go crazy, thinking the game’s been won. After the referees confer, they rule the shot a two-pointer and the contest resumes in overtime.

There’s just one problem: there’s no way that shot should have counted.

Michigan State was exceptional that year. Smooth-shooting guard Steve Smith was surrounded by some of the finest defenders in school history. They began the season unranked but rose to #3 in the nation going into the tournament. They won the Big Ten championship outright in one of the illest era in conference history. Seriously: ten of their eighteen conferences games were against ranked opponents!

But they ran into the wildly talented Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, with their two future NBA players, Kenny Anderson and Dennis Scott, whose 49 combined points in the Sweet Sixteen couldn’t be counterbalanced by Smith’s 32. Oh, and that dubious shot that shouldn’t have counted.

I’ve watched this on YouTube with 2016 eyes. Here in the present, with tenth-of-a-second game clocks and red lights on backboards, I know what I’m looking for when analyzing a final play. In this context, it’s obvious to me that Anderson didn’t get the shot off. But no one was even looking at that on the court. Even on the slo-mo replay the announcers were debating two vs. three; they don’t even mention the ball is clearly in hand with double zeros on the screen.

This What-If fascinates me. IF the officials make the correct call, then of course the Spartans storm past Minnesota, upset UNLV, and hold off Duke for their second national championship. (SPOILER ALERT: I’m a Spartans fans).

But that’s not what happened.

Basketball is a game of counterfactuals, the smallest of What-Ifs looming over the ultimate outcome. What if Kentucky had guarded Grant Hill on the inbounds pass in ’92? What if Roy Williams had done so last year? What if Chris Webber hadn’t. . .you get the idea.

This contest, the 1990 Sweet Sixteen game between Michigan State and Georgia Tech, featured more than most:

  • What if Steve Smith, a 75% free throw shooter, had made one or both from the charity stripe with four seconds left? (Spartans go up at least 3 and Anderson’s shot doesn’t matter.)
  • What if Kirk Manns–the Spartans best three-point shooter in history–hadn’t missed a wide-open three in overtime? (Michigan State goes up 2 with 25 seconds left.)
  • What if, off the opening tip, the Spartans hadn’t thrown it away? Would they have gotten the two points they needed then?

Of course, for all counterfactuals against, there’s usually an equal number in favor. The greatest What-If, in regards to this team, was recently unearthed in a Dana O’Neil piece for ESPN: what if Tom Izzo had done his job?

He was supposed to watch another kid at the Franklin Settlement Recreation Center in Detroit that day, but on his first recruiting assignment as an assistant, Izzo went off script. He kept eyeing a gangly player who made every big shot and eventually brought Heathcote for a second opinion.

"Tom, who the hell is that skinny kid who is always on the ball?" Heathcote memorably said.

His name was Steve Smith. He would go on to score 2,263 points and bring Michigan State back to the top of the Big Ten standings.

So maybe it worked out all right for Sparty after all.