It was just under a minute to play at the United Center back on November 17th, 2015. The Michigan State Spartans clashed with the Kansas Jayhawks in the Champions Classic and after a furious second half comeback led by one mere point, 72-71. The game was on the line when senior Matt Costello got stuck underneath the hoop, looking for an outlet. He gathered for a moment, then sent a desperate bounce pass to the left corner. Waiting there was a young freshman in his second ever collegiate game, Matt McQuaid.
A moment later his three pointer found the bottom of the net to a raucous Spartans celebration, the game was all but decided. ESPN‘s legendary color commentator Dick Vitale screamed into the microphone: “Ahhh, a star is born! He‘s gonna be the big man on campus!“ It sure felt that way. McQuaid had made the most of his first big game action in the green and white uniform, delivering suffocating defense and three big shots from downtown against a star studded Kansas team that among others featured the later National Player Of The Year Frank Mason. A highly decorated career seemed to await the Texas sharpshooter on the horizon that night.
A shooter with shooting woes
Today, about three and a half years later, one has to say that what seemed like a certainty during that magical night in Chicago didn‘t go quite as expected. Matt McQuaid did not turn into a star despite Vitale‘s overzealous praise. Make no mistake, the senior shooting guard has made himself into a very solid basketball player for Michigan State. But over the course of his 112 career games he has only shot 38.6% from the field, notching just 21 starts along the way and never really following up on those promising first steps on the collegiate hardwood. He didn‘t become that deadly three point machine many might have expected after his four star rating in high school and the early praise. Instead though he became something else, something that in itself can be just as valuable for a team looking to add to its trophy case – he became a captain through and through.
You only have to listen to his coach today, Hall Of Famer Tom Izzo, to know that there is much more to Matt McQuaid than just his shooting numbers. “He‘s extremely valuable to us and probably our glue guy who brings everybody together“, says Izzo about the 23-year-old, who was voted a team captain along with fellow backcourt mate Josh Langford before his senior year. “I know all our guys appreciate him but I‘m not sure if all the media does and I‘m not sure if all the fans do.“ One thing is for certain, Tom Izzo for his part is more than happy to have Matt McQuaid as a senior leader today. Maybe even moreso when you consider that he almost wouldn‘t have made it to East Lansing.
Matt McQuaid grew up in the tiny town of Ovilla, about 30 kilometers south of Dallas, Texas. His father Rob hailed from Midland, Michigan, and in the early eighties played four years of college basketball at Central Michigan and Northwestern State. When he moved to the land of the Longhorns Rob became a youth basketball coach, his wife Karen worked as a flight attendant. The latter turned out to be a lucky circumstance for young Matt – kind of. “I used to be away for quite some time,“ remembers Karen McQuaid. “So Rob had to take the kids with him to the gym. They basically grew up in the gym.“
Falling in love with the game
That gym was at nearby Duncanville High School, a place well known for its athletic prowess and the self proclaimed “basketball capital of Texas“. While McQuaid senior was running practice with the youth team, his toddler son was up to his own musings. “When I was a little kid I saw all these older kids play and I started to emulate them,“ remembers Matt vividly. “I ran all their drills by myself on the sideline.“ The recollections of his father are even more colorful: “He ran those drills hard and along the way played his own announcer. He truly was in his own little world.“ A seed was planted as McQuaid identifies these afternoons in Duncanville as the moments when he fell in love with the game for good.
“Very early on I developed a real passion for the game and it stuck with me ever since,“ recalls McQuaid, whose uncle Mike Winters also played college basketball at the University of New Mexico. “I just love playing basketball and if I even take two days off I already miss it.“ That work ethic combined with his athletic genes was the foundation for a strong high school career. As he got older McQuaid found himself on the radar of major college basketball programs and soon committed to SMU, then coached by legendary collegiate and NBA coach Larry Brown.
Tom Izzo met Brown during that time at a big high school tournament in Las Vegas watching McQuaid and remembered how impressed he was with the three point specialist. “I sat right next to Larry Brown and there was this kid making every shot,“ says Izzo of his first impression of the rising high school player. „I congratulated Larry on his commitment and he then told me that his family was from Michigan.“ Luckily for Izzo, McQuaid opened up his recruitment soon after as he felt that he had rushed his decision. He hadn‘t even taken any official visits before choosing the Mustangs. Izzo recollects: “Things happened, we got in contact with his dad and everything worked itself out.“
Like so many before him and quite a few after him, McQuaid was fascinated by his first official visit to East Lansing and the family atmosphere that surrounded the Spartans program. He was particularly impressed with seeing players like Draymond Green and Gary Harris coming back during the summer and welcoming him with open arms, even though they already went on to NBA stardom. “When he was there all the kids were real nice to him and genuinely wanted to help him,“ mentions his father Rob. “It felt good to him and if you are long ways from home you better feel good with the guys around you. A lot of people talk about it but you have to feel it.“ McQuaid certainly felt it during his visit: “There definitely is a family tradition and during my time up there everyone took me in like I was their little brother.“
Tough sledding after early fireworks
The “little brother“ made quite an impression in his second game that Chicago night against Kansas. People could see why ESPN‘s Jeff Goodman called him “the best shooter in his class,“ even ranking him ahead of future lottery picks like Kentucky‘s Jamal Murray or Duke‘s Luke Kennard. But soon after his Champions Classic fireworks Matt McQuaid fell onto some rough times. While immediately asserting himself as a capable defender, something his coach craves and traditionally rewards with extensive playing time, the Texan struggled to impact the game offensively. His three point shot was hot and cold, he wasn‘t a great finisher inside the arc and went through the rigors of adjusting to Big Ten basketball. The fact that his coach tried him as a backup playmaker for stretches made it even tougher on the young shooting guard. “It was a string on him playing point guard but he gave us immediate help there which was big for the team,“ remembers Izzo.
After his freshman year the injuries began to rear their ugly head. The worst of them occurred in the summer of 2016 when McQuaid went through double sports hernia surgery. He missed a lot of time rehabbing, time he sorely needed to work on his game. As his sophomore season rolled around he started behind the eight ball in a crowded backcourt rotation and what followed was wavering confidence along with a struggle for consistency. “Matt went through a lot with some injuries and I‘m sure it was tough for him, especially early,“ says his coach. “But he is a guy who does not fall off the deep end when he isn‘t making shots.“ While his already sub par field goal shooting numbers from his freshman year (38.9% to 35.3%) dwindled even further McQuaid found other ways to contribute and solidify his spot in the rotation, even on the star studded MSU team of 2017/2018, Matt‘s junior year.
While the dreams of the sharpshooting All-Big-Ten gunslinger from Texas never really materialized until now, there were plenty of flashes over the course of McQuaid‘s MSU career where he showed just how good a shooter he can be. His freshman year he strung together five games where he made 10 of 17 threes, during his junior season he had two similar six game stretches where he went 16 of 29 and 16 of 26. Today his coaches, his teammates and Matt himself hope that he can show more of that shooting prowess during his last go around as a senior. But his impact on the team, just as Tom Izzo noted, is felt in many more ways, especially in his new role as a veteran leader and captain.
Kyle Ahrens, who is battling McQuaid for wing minutes this year, recollects many moments when his friend picked him up, especially during his redshirt season following foot surgery in 2017. “I was riding the stationary bike all the time and through a window had a view of the team practicing,“ says McQuaid‘s roommate and good friend ever since they both set foot on campus in 2015. “I was feeling bad but after every made three Quaido pointed at me and let me know he was thinking of me. He helped me to get through some really tough times, made sure I keep fighting and he gave me an edge throughout the whole rehab.“
A laid back leader with emotions
While many applaud him for his prolific leadership off the court, Matt McQuaid has special ways of getting his team going on the hardwood as well. Him taking a charge has become a patented starter of MSU runs and when you ask his teammates his outgoing and explosive shot celebrations have become legendary. “My teammates often make fun of my emotions, especially since I‘m usually more of a quiet, laid back kind of guy,“ laughs McQuaid about his own outbursts. “I just go with the flow on the court and then my emotions take over from time to time. I feel like it helps the team.“
As you hear him talking today in his typical low baritone voice, aged 23 and in the middle of his senior year in college, you can sense that a lot has happened between his first games as a Spartan and now. There were certainly some bumps in the road but at the end of the day it has been a great experience already for Matt McQuaid: “Back in the day when there was a game on TV I used to joke with my Dad how I might be on the screen someday. I texted him when we got the top ranking in the nation my freshman year and so many other great things happened to me here. I‘m really blessed with a lot of the things we‘ve accomplished, the people that I met and feel like I‘ve become a better person.“
What‘s most noticeable is that Matt McQuaid seems to have found his confidence night in and night out, something that wasn‘t always the case throughout his career. His shooting numbers have risen into the mid forties. He also seems to put in a more concerted effort to take the ball to the basket, a dimension that not only helps his own game but also gives Michigan State a much needed threat to open up the court for its shooters and inside players. “I have to be a student of the game, make the right read and just play,“ says McQuaid, who has always been important to MSU as a secondary ball handler. “Whatever the defense gives me, I have to take it. No matter if that is a ball fake and taking it to the hoop or shoot the open three.“
At long last, a true captain
His new found security and confidence has also shown in team meetings. “We had this video thing set up and I said whatever they see and I see, they can challenge me,“ laughs Tom Izzo about a recent occurence in the Spartans video room. “But I told them they better have the goods and he went up to the screen.“ Turns out his captain had “the goods.” “I would say he was a little more right than I was,“ says Izzo with a broad smile on his face, knowing how much he loves it when players start to think the game through. “He then brought a red flag into the huddle later and reminded me as a coach you have to have the goods if you want to challenge. It was a pretty good moment.“
Even if Matt McQuaid never became “the big man on campus,“ it turns out he has become pretty big in his own right and that he now is poised for a strong finish to a long and successful career. A career that many others would be proud of and one where he himself has always been a valuable part to the Spartans basketball program.
There is an old saying by Will Rogers stating that “we can‘t all be heroes, somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.“ In Matt McQuaid‘s case, you only have to ask his coach, his teammates or watch him play to know that he is doing a great deal more than applauding from the sideline…