1979 Michigan State Basketball: Overcoming Obstacles On The Way To History

The 1979 Michigan State basketball team has become one for the history books. They won perhaps the most storied national championship game ever played, dominated the NCAA Tournament and sent Magic Johnson on to NBA greatness. But this Spartan team had its share of ups and downs along the way and it’s fair to wonder how close they come to missing out on March Madness entirely.

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Michigan State came into the season on a high. Magic’s freshman year in 1978 had been an unqualified success, as he joined forces with power forward Greg Kelser to lead Sparty to a Big Ten title and the regional finals in the NCAA Tournament before losing a close game to eventual champion Kentucky. It was a breakout year for head coach Jud Heathcote.

The core talent was all back for a 1979 run. Magic would average 16 points/7 rebounds/8 assists per game in ’79. Kelser averaged 18/9 and underrated center Jay Vincent kicked in 14/6. Johnson was joined in the backcourt by Terry Donnelly, while Ron Charles and Mike Brkovich got the rest of the playing time in a lineup where minutes were heavily concentrated among six players.

Michigan State dropped a 70-69 heartbreaker at North Carolina in non-conference play, but the Tar Heels were on their way to an ACC title and a #1 seed in the NCAAs, so that was nothing to be alarmed over.

The Spartans also beat Oregon State, who finished third in the Pac-10. And there was a rare “non-conference” game with Bob Knight’s Indiana team. The Spartans and Hoosiers met in the Great Alaskan Shootout and Michigan State won a 74-57 game that did not count in the league standings.

Two easy home games opened Big Ten play and wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota seemed to have Sparty riding high. Then the struggles began.

Michigan State lost a pair of two-point road games, at Illinois and Purdue. The Spartans got back on track with a blowout win over Indiana and an 83-72 overtime win of Iowa, each in East Lansing. But Heathcote’s team immediately turned around and lost 49-48 at mediocre Michigan and an appalling 83-65 defeat at lowly Northwestern.

The record was now 4-4 in the Big Ten, four games back of Ohio State, who was off and running to the early conference lead. Iowa had a 6-2 league record, with Purdue at 5-3. It’s important to emphasize that only 40 teams made the NCAA Tournament in 1979, so more than just seeding position and pride was at stake as the Spartans tried to recover from their Big Ten woes.

A Thursday night home game with Ohio State marked the point where the season could one of two ways. The Buckeyes had two great college players in Herb Williams and Kelvin Ransey, who packed a 1-2 inside-out scoring punch. The game went to overtime, but the Spartans won 84-79 and were off the mat.

They followed that win with a victory over Northwestern and a tough 60-57 win over Iowa, who had a good scoring guard in Ronnie Lester and was coached by Lute Olson. Michigan State then won the rematch at Ohio State 73-57 to further tighten the race.

The road trip to Indiana was a key game, not at the top of the standings, but to see which team would fall out of serious contention. Knight’s program had been a bit down since the undefeated NCAA title run of 1976. He had brought in a good recruit in Mike Woodson and would add Isiah Thomas a year later, and win three of the next four Big Ten crowns. But not this year. Michigan State won 59-47 and the Hoosiers disappeared from the radar.

A non-conference win over Kansas, then a fairly mediocre team, was mixed in this recent run in league play. Michigan State’s Big Ten record was up to 9-4, tied with Purdue. Ohio State had come back to the pack at 10-3 and shared first place with Iowa.

The Spartans blew out Michigan by 23 points to keep the streak going and then welcomed Purdue into East Lansing. The Boilermakers had a great center in Joe Barry Carroll and a future NBA guard in Jerry Sichting each playing key roles. Michigan State won 73-67, then beat Illinois 76-62 in what would prove to be Magic’s home finale. Sparty closed the month of February at 12-4 and in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten with Iowa and Ohio State, and Purdue a game back.

There were two games left, and Michigan State went to Minnesota and dispatched the Gophers 70-63. Good news came elsewhere in the league—Iowa lost at home to Michigan and Ohio State was stunned at Wisconsin. The Spartans had clinched a share of the league title and could wrap it up outright with a win in Madison.

Wisconsin was a bad team, finishing 12-15, but they had shown an ability to play spoiler. They had beaten in-state rival Marquette, a program just two years removed from a national title and who would ultimately make the Sweet 16. The victory over Ohio State on the final Thursday of the season was just the start of the Badgers’ closing rush—they topped the Spartans 83-81.

It cost Michigan State the outright title. Iowa blew out Northwestern to reclaim a piece of first place and Purdue beat Ohio State 74-66 in West Lafayette, completing the Buckeyes’ collapse and giving the Boilermakers the third team to gets its hands on the conference trophy.

The importance of the riveting conference race was underscored by the NCAA Tournament bracket—only Michigan State and Iowa made the field. The Spartans were a 2-seed in the Mideast Regional (the forerunner of today’s South bracket) so they had plenty of room to spare, but the different times show how much peril Sparty had been in when they were 4-4 in the conference.

Michigan State had a first-round bye and if form held, they would play the University of Detroit (since re-named Detroit Mercy), the program recently coached by Dick Vitale and who played with a big chip on their shoulder against the big boys of the state, including a near-upset of Michigan in the 1977 NCAAs. But Detroit was upset by Lamar.

It almost certainly didn’t matter, because Magic, Kelser & Co, were peaking, their last outing at Wisconsin nothwithstanding. Lamar was coached by Billy Tubbs, who would later lead Oklahoma to a Final Four in 1988. The Spartans jumped all over him to a 46-27 lead by halftime and won 95-64. They punched their ticket to the regionals in Indianapolis.

They faced 3-seed LSU in the Sweet 16. The Tigers were a rising power in the SEC under head coach Dale Brown. They had displaced defending national champion Kentucky and won the first of three straight conference titles. But they weren’t yet ready to win a game of this magnitude. Magic scored 24 points and handed out twelve assists. Charles was brilliant, with 18 points/14 rebounds. Michigan State again had control by halftime, leading 36-19 and ultimately winning 87-71.

A juicy regional final was set against top-seeded Notre Dame. The Irish were looking for a second straight trip to the Final Four. They were led by small forward Kelly Tripucka, and by an interior player would one day be a fan favorite in the broader Detroit area—Bill Laimbeer, a key player for the “Bad Boy” Pistons that won consecutive NBA titles in 1988-89.

Michigan State shut them both down. Tripucka only scored eight points and Laimbeer was held to seven, while getting just four rebounds. Meanwhile, Kelser destroyed the Irish, with 34 points/13 rebounds, en route to Most Outstanding Player honors. Magic scored 19 and dished 13 assists. The Spartans were again in control by halftime, 34-23 and won the game 80-68.

The Final Four was in Salt Lake City and Sparty got a break they probably didn’t need the way they were playing. The East Regional, where North Carolina and Duke were the top two seeds, had fallen apart with upsets and ninth-seeded Penn, the last Ivy League to make the Final Four had qualified. They had a nice player in Tony Price but were no match for Michigan State. The Spartans got 28/9 from Kelser and a dominating 29/10/10 triple-double from Magic. The score was 50-17 at halftime and ended 101-67.

All the hype in this tournament had surrounded Magic and Indiana State’s Larry Bird, who had led the previously unknown Sycamores to an undefeated season, while winning national Player of the Year honors. Bird didn’t have a lot of help, but his supporting cast delivered just enough for two-point wins over Arkansas in the regional finals and DePaul in the Final Four.

Magic vs. Bird for the NCAA title on Monday night was must-see television and remains the highest-rated national championship game in history. This game is credited for putting March Madness on everyone’s sports radar. The truth is more complex than that, but there’s no question that Monday night in Salt Lake City was a seminal moment in college basketball history.

Seminal it may have been, but it wasn’t a compelling basketball game. Michigan State was too good. The defense locked up Bird and forced him into 7-for-21 shooting. Magic scored 24 points, while Kelser delivered a 19/8/9 line, actually passing for more assists than the Magic Man. And Donnelly hit all five jumpers he took, scored 15 points and was the reliable supporting piece Indiana State didn’t have.

It wasn’t a blowout, but Michigan State led 37-28 at halftime and kept Indiana State at arm’s length the rest of the way in a 75-64 win. The Spartans had their first NCAA basketball title and from the doldrums of the early conference schedule, they had risen to make history.