Two national championships, a runner-up finish, and 10 Final Four appearances. Michigan State is rightfully categorized as one of the perennially elite programs in college basketball history. Having great coaches like Forddy Anderson, Jud Heathcote, and Tom Izzo helps. So do great players — like the 20 best players in Michigan State players listed in chronological order below.
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Johnny Green, Forward (1957-59)
Michigan State University
Younger, modern-day Michigan State basketball fans might be more aware of another Spartan’s post-presence with the same last name. But Johnny Green helped the program reach the Final Four for the first time in 1957 and again in ’59. Though Green averaged 16.9 points in three seasons, including 18 or more in his last two, he’s best known for his ability to clean the glass. His 1,036 rebounds rank third all-time at Michigan State, but his 16.4 rebounding average is No. 1 in school history. Green was tabbed a consensus All-American 1958-59.
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Ralph Simpson, Guard-Forward (1969-70)
Michigan Sports Hall of Fame
The Detroit native played just one varsity season at Michigan State, but it was truly memorable. Simpson averaged 29.0 points — second in all-time for the program — in 1969-70, including 42 against Western Michigan. His 667 total points rank seventh in school history for a single season. He also averaged 10.3 rebounds, which ranks sixth in school history for a career. Simpson was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and NABC third-team All-American.
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Mike Robinson, Forward (1972-74)
msuspartans.com/Michigan State University
Within the Michigan State scoring annals, Robinson ranks 11th with 1,717 points spanning three seasons. However, no player in school history has averaged more in a career than Robinson’s 24.2. He scored 40 against Northwestern during the 1972-73 season. Considering that career average still tops the list at such a tradition-laden program like Michigan State, Robinson should really be celebrated more when talking about the best in school history.
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Terry Furlow, Forward (1973-76)
Lansing State Journal
Flint, Mich., has produced some truly special Michigan State basketball players. On Jan. 5, 1976, Furlow scored 50 points against Iowa. That remains a school high for a single game. Three days later, Furlow scored 48 versus Northwestern, which remains the second-highest such game among all Spartans. His 29.4 average points per game from 1975-76 are also No. 1 for a season. Furlow ranks ninth all-time at Michigan State with 1,777 points, and his 793 from ’75-76 are second in school history.
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Greg Kelser, Forward (1975-79)
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We’re about to get to the superstar of the Spartans’ first national championship-winning team, but Kelser was equally important as an experienced senior leader on that famed 1978-79 title team. Kelser averaged 18.8 points and 8.7 rebounds for the squad that topped Larry Bird and Indiana State in that unforgettable final. For his career, Kelser averaged 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds — both ranked eighth in school history. He’s also one of four Spartans with at least 2,000 points (2,014) and ranks second with 1,092 rebounds.
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Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Guard-Forward (1977-79)
No doubt, Magic is the most prominent and popular player to come out of the Spartans program. Johnson’s time at Michigan State lasted just two seasons, but he was obviously a major reason the program won its first national title in 1979 against Larry in what’s considered one of the great finals of all time. Johnson finished with 24 points with seven rebounds and five assists in the title game, and he was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Johnson’s 17.1 career scoring average and 491 assists both rank 10th in school history.
Lansing State Journal
While Vincent’s post-Spartan life got ugly, there’s no denying the success he enjoyed on the court at Michigan State. As a sophomore, Vincent was a key part of that ’79 title squad, averaging 12.7 points and 5.2 rebounds. He averaged more than 21 points and 7.5 boards in each of his last two collegiate seasons. Vincent ranks among the school’s top 10 with 1,914 career points, and he’s one of 10 Spartans to have their jersey’s retired.
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Sam Vincent, Guard (1982-85)
Lansing State Journal
Jay’s younger brother, the legendary local Lansing product Sam Vincent was Michigan’s “Mr. Basketball” coming out of high school. He ranks eighth — right behind Jay — on Michigan State’s all-time scoring list with 1,851 points. Sam Vincent’s most productive season came as a senior in 1984-85, when he averaged 23.0 points, 40 assists, and 3.9 rebounds. For his career, Vincent’s 476 made free throws rank third in Michigan State’s history and those 159 steals are also in the school’s top 10.
Lansing State Journal
Another Spartan who had some serious off-court issues, this time while in college. On the court, though, Skiles managed to overcome his immature and ungrateful behavior to put together one of the great college basketball careers of all time. Skiles sits third on Michigan State’s all-time scoring list with 2,145 points. He was the Big Ten’s leading scorer and Player of the Year when he averaged 27.4 points (third in school history) while posting a school-record total 850 in 1985-86. He also ranks among the school’s top five in career scoring average (18.2 ppg), field goals (837), made free throws (446), assists (645), and steals (175).
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Steve Smith, Guard (1988-91)
Lansing State Journal
The Spartans backcourt was not void of elite talent when Sam Vincent and Scott Skiles left school. Smith is one of the most recognizable and celebrated players to ever come out of the Michigan State program. A two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection (1990, ’91) and consensus All-American in 1991, Smith is the school’s second-leading career scorer with 2,263 points. His 18.5 career scoring average ranks fourth, while Smith’s 826 made free throws are third. His No. 21 was retired by the school in 1999.
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Shawn Respert, Guard (1991-95)
Lansing State Journal/USA TODAY
The introduction of the 3-point arc in the college game is a big reason Respert is Michigan State’s all-time leading scorer with 2.351 points — and second with a career average of 21.2 points. Respert, the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1995, also happens to be the school’s career leader with 331 made 3-pointers and ranks third shooting 45.5 percent from distance. Respert knocked down a school-record 119 of them during the 1994-95 season, when he was also named a consensus first-team All-American.
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Morris Peterson, Guard-Forward (1996-2000)
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We’re at the portion of this list highlighting a group of players responsible for Michigan State’s second (and most recent) national championship from 2000. Peterson led that team in scoring at 16.8 points per game and also pulled down an average of six rebounds to earn Big Ten Player of the Year honors. For his career, Peterson ranks among the top 15 in the school’s all-time scorers with 1,588 points and made 48.4 percent of his shots.
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Not only is Cleaves one the greatest players in Michigan State history, but he’s perhaps the most charismatic. Always smiling, always eager to yap it up. A three-year captain, Cleaves was the undisputed leader of the Spartans’ 2000 national-title winning group. He was a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year (1998, ’99), first-team All-American (1999), and the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player of the Year from 2000. While Cleaves averaged 12.5 points for his career, he’s the school’s all-time steals leader (195) and ranks second with 816 assists.
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Charlie Bell, Guard (1998-01)
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Bell was part of “The Flintstones” with Peterson and Cleaves, since all hailed from nearby Flint and were integral in the Spartans’ success during the late 1990s and into the 2000s. Bell started all but four of the 140 games he played in four seasons at Michigan State. Part of the 2000 Spartans’ national championship team, Bell was a third-team All-American pick by The Associated Press in 2000-01, when he averaged career-highs 13.5 points and 5.1 assists. He also averaged 4.5 rebounds for his career.
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Paul Davis, Center (2003-06)
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Ranking No. 10 on Michigan State’s all-time scoring list, the 6-foot-11 Davis finished his college career with 1,718 points and an average of 13.2 per game. After helping the Spartans reach the Final Four in 2005, he closed his collegiate career with personal bests of 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds as a senior. Davis shot 53.8 percent during his Spartans career and also averaged 1.4 assists during those four seasons.
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Though injuries hindered portions of Lucas’ four seasons at Michigan State, he still put together a great collegiate career. The Detroit native was the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2008-09, when he averaged 14.7 points, 4.6 assists, and 2.1 rebounds for the national runner-up Spartans. As a senior, Lucas averaged a career-high 17 points and ended his Spartans career with 1,996 points — ranking fifth in program history. He’s also the school’s career leader with 507 made free throws and 637 attempted from the stripe.
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Green was a freshman during Michigan State’s run to the national championship, and he was again a key reserve as a sophomore when he averaged 9.9 points, 7.7. boards, and 3.0 assists to be named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. But Green became a star as an upperclassman. As a senior in 2011-12, Green was named Big Ten Player of the Year when he averaged 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. He’s the school’s career rebounding leader with 1,096 and second with 180 steals. Green also resides among the Spartans’ top 10 with 117 blocked shots.
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Valentine progressed each season during his four-year career at Michigan State, culminating with AP and Big Ten Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2015-16. During that season, Valentine averaged 19.2 points on 46.2 percent shooting, 7.8 assists, and 7.5 rebounds. For his career, Valentine totaled 1,645 points and ranks fourth in Michigan State history with 265 made 3-pointers, fourth in assists (639), and ninth in rebounds (856).
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Bridges’ Michigan State career spanned just two seasons, but his 2016-17 freshman campaign was one of the best in school history. Bridges averaged 16.9 points, shot 48.6 percent from the field and nearly 39 percent from 3-point range, while also pulling down 8.3 rebounds, dishing out 2.1 assists, and blocking 1.5 shots per contest to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. As a sophomore, Bridges averaged 17.1 points, 7.0 boards, and 27 assists when he was a second-team All-American selection.
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One of the most hardworking and beloved players to don a Michigan State uniform. While dealing with personal tragedy during his time with the Spartans, Winston found solace on the court. He was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and the league’s player of the year in 2018-19, when he set career highs for average points (18.8) and rebounds (7.5) while the Spartans reached the Final Four. Winston, sixth on the school’s career scoring list (1,969 points) also happens to be the the Spartans’ all-time assists leader (890) and ranks fifth with 259 made 3-pointers and seventh in 3-point percentage (43.0). His 84.4 free-throw percentage is fourth-highest at Michigan State.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.