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Retiring the Debate

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"I remember going into the Breslin the first time, looking up to the rafters and seeing all the great guys who have been through Michigan State.  To have my name mentioned with those guys is just a tremendous honor. It's something I'm definitely looking forward to and definitely will remember for the rest of my life." - Morris Peterson, 2009

By nearly every measure, Kalin Lucas had an outstanding career in Green and White. Lucas' teams won two Big Ten championships, advanced to two Final Fours, and produced the greatest run of sustained success for MSU since the glory years of Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell and company, from 1998 to 2001. Lucas himself was the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2008-09, was named first-team All-Big Ten twice and second team All-Big Ten once, and left East Lansing as one of only four players in MSU history to record 1,500 career points and 500 career assists.

There's little question that Lucas is one of the most accomplished players of the Tom Izzo era. But even when you're discussing great players, there's still room for debate: there's run-of-the-mill greatness, and then there's retire-your-number caliber greatness. Was Lucas' career sufficiently great that Michigan State should retire his number and raise his jersey to the Breslin Center rafters?

Many colleges have specific, defined criteria that a college basketball player must meet in order for the school to retire his jersey. The criteria vary widely: at North Carolina, you have to have been named the national player of the year; at Davidson, you must have earned a degree from the school; at Tennessee, NBA success and Olympic participation are factored into the equation. Michigan State does not have a formal litmus test or any specific requirement that it uses when weighing the merits of players who are considered for jersey retirement.

Retiring a player's number is perhaps the highest individual honor a program can bestow on a player. This is especially true at Michigan State, where Tom Izzo has frequently spoken in terms of "hanging banners" as a major program goal. Granted, Izzo is probably talking about Big Ten championships and Final Fours when he uses that phrase, and not to individual honors. Nonetheless, the eight retired-number banners hanging in the Breslin Center occupy an exalted place in MSU basketball history. Great teams achieve great things because of the contributions of great players, and MSU certainly has had more than its fair share of outstanding performers.

So far, nine players have been selected for this honor:

  • Mateen Cleaves (#12, played from 1996 to 2000)
  • Johnny Green (#24, played from 1956 to 1959)
  • Earvin "Magic" Johnson (#33, played from 1977 to 1979)
  • Greg Kelser (#32, played from 1975 to 1979)
  • Morris Peterson (#42, played from 1995 to 2000)
  • Scott Skiles (#4, played from 1982 to 1986)
  • Steve Smith (#21, played from 1987 to 1991)
  • Shawn Respert (#24, played from 1990 to 1995)
  • Jay Vincent (#31, played from 1977 to 1981)

(Note that the Spartans have only eight retired numbers even though there are nine players. That is because Green and Respert both wore #24.)

All the players named above are generally regarded as all-time MSU greats. It is hard to construct a qualitative analysis based on legend status, though, so we'll look at a few other characteristics that many of the players share:

  • Long-term individual statistical excellence. Every player whose number has been retired ranks in the all-time top 10 at Michigan State in either scoring, rebounding or assists. Michigan State's top five all-time leading scorers (Respert, Smith, Skiles, Kelser and Vincent) have had their numbers retired, and Peterson, who now ranks 12th, was in the top ten both when he completed his career and when his number was retired. Green is the school's second-ranked all-time rebounder, behind Kelser, and Cleaves is MSU's all-time assists leader. (Kalin Lucas completed his MSU career last season ranked sixth all-time in both scoring and assists.)
  • Team success. Five of the nine players with retired numbers played on NCAA championship teams while at Michigan State. Lucas did not, though he did lead the Spartans to three consecutive Final Fours.
  • Big Ten recognition. Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent are the only players with retired numbers who weren't named either Big Ten Player of the Year or honored with the Chicago Tribune's Silver Basketball award (a similar award given to the Big Ten's top player). All nine players were recognized at least once as first-team All-Big Ten performers. Lucas was the Big Ten's 2009 Player of the Year.
  • National recognition. All nine players were named to the Associated Press All-America first, second or third team, an honor bestowed on only 15 MSU players in history. Lucas didn't make an AP All-America team, though he twice received honorable mention.
  • NCAA Tournament recognition. Five of the players with retired numbers were named to an NCAA All-Tournament Team, an award bestowed on Lucas in 2009.

It would seem that NBA success is not a criterion for having your jersey retired at Michigan State. Honorees such as Magic Johnson, Steve Smith and Scott Skiles became NBA stars, but others, such as Mateen Cleaves, Shawn Respert and Greg Kelser, did not. Additionally, many of the Spartan greats who have enjoyed a lot of NBA success-players such as Jason Richardson, Zach Randolph, Kevin Willis and Eric Snow-haven't had their MSU jerseys retired.

An issue of scarcity

Eight retired numbers may not seem like a lot for a storied program such as Michigan State's, but that number represents one-fifth of the numbers that the NCAA allows teams to assign to players. NCAA rules limit the assignable jersey numbers to 37: numbers 1-5, 10-15, 20-25, 30-35, 40-45, and 50-55. The numbers 0 and 00 are also permitted.

So, scarcity may influence how many other Spartans-former, current and future -will be able to join the retired-number club. (Shawn Respert and Johnny Green, both of whom wore #24 for MSU, may have done their fellow Spartans a favor in this regard.)

Quantifying greatness

Michigan State may not have a formal system to determine whether a player deserves to have his number retired, but there would be benefits to establishing one. Doing so would help the program avoid the looming number crunch, give current players definite targets to reach in order to be immortalized in the Breslin rafters, and ensure that the honor is reserved for only the best of the best at Michigan State.

As discussed previously, many of the schools that use specified criteria for jersey retirements rely on subjective factors such as membership on all-conference and all-America teams, or recognition as conference or national player of the year by specific publications. Other schools even give consideration to players' post-college careers, which seems rather problematic.  What about team success? Should extra consideration be given to players who played on championship teams?  Finally, should a player's statistics and other more objective criteria be factored into the formula? And how stringent should those criteria be?

We can derive some guidance on this topic from statistical guru Bill James, who developed similar tests and descriptors for baseball that describe how likely (and to a lesser extent, how deserving) a player is to be selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. James' Hall of Fame Monitor takes into account nearly every impressive accomplishment a player could attain during his career. Its "Black Ink" test considers the number of times a player led the league in any of several important statistical categories during a season. The "Grey Ink" test takes a broader look at a player's excellence, and considers the number of times a player finished within the top 10 of the league in those same categories.

While James' tests emphasize statistical greatness, they can be used as a jumping-off point to devise a ranking system that uses both subjective and objective criteria. Statistics perhaps provide a strongly quantitative means to evaluate a player's greatness, but it's clear that major awards also do much to cement a player's legacy, and may even be more important than stats. In addition, team success should definitely matter at Michigan State in the Tom Izzo era, because Izzo's emphasis on team goals over individual accolades means that Spartan players should be judged on how successful they were in achieving those team goals, even though a player's team success owes substantially to the quality of the other players. Any number-retirement system at MSU must give special consideration to Big Ten championships and Final Four appearances, as well as NCAA titles.

With those concerns in mind, I propose the following framework for evaluating players' number-retirement candidacies:

  • National Player of the Year: 10 points
  • Big Ten Player of the Year: 7 points
  • Associated Press First Team All-American: 7 points
  • MSU all-time leader in points, rebounds or assists: 7 points
  • Significant contributor to an NCAA championship team: 6 points
  • MSU all-time top five in points, rebounds or assists: 5 points
  • Significant contributor to a Big Ten championship team (regular season): 3 points
  • Significant contributor to a Final Four team: 3 points
  • Associated Press Second or Third Team All-American: 3 points
  • All Big Ten First Team: 3 points
  • All Big Ten Second or Third Team: 1 point

Note that players are not given credit in multiple categories for the same achievement.  For instance, players who win a national championship are not given an additional three points for playing on a Final Four team. Similarly, players who are named Big Ten Player of the Year are not also given credit for All-Big Ten First Team honors. 


(Click for full size.)

The honorees

The formula, if nothing else, eliminates all doubt that Mateen Cleaves is the greatest player in the history of Michigan State basketball. His 57 points on the scale are far and away the highest total of any player surveyed. The results also reveal how stunningly good Magic Johnson was at MSU. Despite only playing two seasons in Green and White, Magic checks in with the fourth-highest total of those whose numbers have been retired.

Of the players whose numbers are already retired, all but two earned more than 25 points on the scale. The two players who fall below that threshold, Scott Skiles and Jay Vincent, are arguably reasonable exceptions. Skiles' number was retired primarily because of his 1985-86 season-arguably the greatest individual season in MSU basketball history-in which he averaged 27.4 points and 6.5 assists per game, and was named Big Ten Player of the Year. Vincent's case is perhaps more tenuous, but he was a major cog in a national championship team, and had two outstanding seasons immediately following MSU's 1979 NCAA title.

Given that seven of the nine players whose numbers have been retired exceed the 25-point threshold, and the fact that the relative success of the Izzo era may mean that MSU will become more selective about retiring numbers, the 25-point mark seems an appropriate place to draw a line.

The contenders

I've gathered data for seven recent Spartan greats whose accomplishments perhaps merit consideration for jersey retirement. Three of them--Paul Davis, Raymar Morgan and Drew Neitzel--simply don't come close to 25 points in our proposed system. All were great players, but for a variety of reasons they simply do not stack up to the players whose numbers hang from the Breslin Center rafters.

Antonio Smith also falls well below the 25-point threshold, garnering only 17 points. However, if ever there was a player who deserved bonus points for his contribution to the program, Smith is surely the guy-he has defined the Tom Izzo archetype at Michigan State with his aggressive, hard-nosed defense and ferocious rebounding. Smith played on Izzo's first four teams and set the tone for Izzo's program. His 1,016 career rebounds trail only Johnny Green and Greg Kelser on MSU's all-time list, and he's one of the only Spartans ever to serve as captain during three different seasons. If Smith was one year younger (and thus had played on the 2000 title team), he would likely meet the 25-point threshold. As it stands, given his integral role in laying the foundation for future success, he'll never be forgotten by the Spartan faithful, even if his number isn't retired.

Jason Richardson comes close to reaching the 25-point mark, despite playing only two seasons at MSU. That's certainly a testament to how spectacular those two seasons were. Richardson's role increased throughout the 1999-2000 national championship season, to the point where he played 16 minutes and scored nine points in the NCAA title game against Florida. He followed up that effort with a truly stunning sophomore season, in which he was named second-team All-America and first-team All-Big Ten. Richardson left for the NBA after that season, and while the case of Magic Johnson (who also played just two seasons in East Lansing) demonstrates that a two-year stay isn't fatal to one's number-retirement chances, it makes the bar higher. Richardson's career wasn't spectacular enough to overcome his decision to forego his junior and senior seasons.

Perhaps the most interesting borderline case is that of Charlie Bell. Bell was unquestionably a great player at MSU, and his list of team accomplishments is unsurpassed by any player in program history: four Big Ten championships, three Final Fours, and a national championship. Largely owing to that team success, he checks in with 33 points, a number surpassed only by his backcourt partner on the 2000 NCAA title squad, Mateen Cleaves. But, while Bell was named first-team All-Big Ten in his senior year, his individual accomplishments aren't on par with those of the players whose jerseys have been retired.

NBA success shouldn't be factored into consideration, but in Bell's case, his long, productive NBA career is at least instructive: Bell's skills and contributions are substantial, but have been under-appreciated both in college and as a professional. He went undrafted after completing his career at Michigan State, and played several seasons overseas before finally cracking an NBA rotation-but has since proven to be a valuable, consistent pro. Perhaps his lack of individual accolades shouldn't be held against him, because his value is so evident in other ways.

If MSU decided to retire Charlie Bell's number, I wouldn't complain. But my verdict is to leave his #14 jersey in circulation.

Who's next

This brings us to the case of Kalin Lucas, who scores an impressive 28 points under the ratings system. He's one of only six players in program history to be named Big Ten Player of the Year, and the other five have their jerseys hanging from the rafters. He was the best player on a team which enjoyed the second-greatest period of sustained success in program history--three two straight Final Fours. He fought through serious injury during his senior season and nonetheless led a disappointing Michigan State team to rally and preserve MSU's streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. He provided Spartan fans with a host of great memories, including his backbreaking three-point play to knock defending national champion Kansas out of the NCAA Tournament in 2008. Lucas' 1,996 career points make him fifth best in Spartan history, and his 558 career assists rank sixth.

The conclusion? Kalin Lucas' number belongs in the Breslin Center rafters.