Jud Heathcote’s career as Michigan State basketball coach didn’t start well. He inherited a program that had produced five straight winning seasons and promptly went 10-17 in 1977. But a big turnaround was coming—Heathcote brought in a recruit by the name of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. In Magic’s freshman year, he led the 1978 Michigan State basketball team to a Big Ten title, some NCAA Tournament success and set the stage for even bigger things that were to come.
Magic averaged 17 points/8 rebounds per game in 1978. That was impressive enough, but it was the ball distribution from the 6’8” point guard that stood out the most. He averaged over seven assists per game, and his 222 total assists were more than three times greater than any other Spartan.
Gregory Kelser anchored the paint, with 18 points/9 rebounds. These two stars were Sparty’s core, but Michigan State’s quality supporting cast shouldn’t be overlooked. Jay Vincent and Bob Chapman were both double-digit scorers and small forward Terry Donnelly was the team’s second-best passer behind Magic.
Michigan State went 8-1 in the non-conference portion of the schedule. There was only one legitimate test on that part of the slate and ended in a loss at Syracuse. So there wasn’t necessarily reason to think of the Spartans as a national contender, but coming off a 10-17 year, they were clearly a different team.
Just how different became clear in Big Ten play. Michigan State ripped off seven straight wins to open the conference schedule. They beat Minnesota, who had Kevin McHale in the low post. They beat Wisconsin and Illinois, then had a narrow 67-63 escape at Northwestern.
Purdue was a mediocre team, but had a great talent in center Joe Barry Carroll, a sophomore who averaged 15 rebounds per game and would lead the Boilermakers to the Final Four two years hence. Michigan State won that game, then beat Lute Olson’s Iowa, another team that wasn’t anything special in 1978, but would be in the 1980 Final Four.
The winning streak concluded with a victory over Ohio State, who joined Purdue and Minnesota in finishing the regular season at 16-11.
Michigan State’s 7-0 start had them in command of the conference race. January 28 would start a two-week stretch that would see them play Indiana and Michigan twice apiece. The Hoosiers and Wolverines were the Big Ten’s benchmark programs.
They had tied for the conference title in 1974, with Michigan winning a one-game playoff for the NCAA bid (the rules allowed for just one team per conference prior to 1976). Indiana had great teams in 1975 and 1976, the latter being college basketball’s last undefeated national champion. Michigan had been a Final Four favorite in 1977 before an upset loss in the NCAA Tournament.
Neither team was outstanding in 1978, but both were pretty good. Indiana would end up joining Michigan State as the conference’s only other NCAA Tournament team, while Michigan tied IU for second place. The Spartans’ ability to handle these two teams would be a good test of how much of a corner the program had turned.
The early returns were not good. Michigan State lost 71-66 at Indiana and then came home and dumped a 65-63 game to Michigan. With the conference race threatening to tighten, the Spartans responded with a 68-59 home win over the Hoosiers. A visit to Iowa City interrupted the run of games against the contenders and Michigan State got a big scare before escaping 71-70.
Sparty was 9-2 in the conference and the Wolverines were 7-4 when the two rivals met in Ann Arbor on February 11. Any possibility of a close Big Ten race ended when Michigan State posted a 73-62 win to take a three-game lead. Even though they lost a game to Purdue 99-80, the worst performance of the season, the Spartans cruised through their final five games to end the year at 23-4, with a 15-3 conference record that cleared the field by three.
The NCAA Tournament was not seeded at this point, at least officially. It seems fair to guess that the Selection Committee saw Michigan State in the 2-3 seed range. They were placed in the Mideast Regional and had a difficult road ahead of them. Kentucky, the consensus favorite to win the national championship was the de facto #1 seed. Marquette, the defending national champion, was probably seen as the 4-seed. If Michigan State won their first round game (the field was only 32 teams), the opponent was in line to be the same Syracuse team that had beaten them in December.
Michigan State faced Providence to open the tournament and everything went smoothly. They shot 64 percent and held the Friars to 39 percent. Kelser put up 23 points/11 rebounds, while Magic posted a 14/7/7 line. Chapman and Donnelly were in double figures and an easy 77-63 win sent the Spartans on to Dayton for the regionals.
They were also going into a regional that upsets had shaken. Marquette and Syracuse had both lost in overtime. Michigan State drew Western Kentucky in the Round of 16 and there was no upset coming here. Kelser was big-time again, with 23/13. Chapman poured in 23 points of his own and Magic settled for distributing, picking up 14 assists. The Spartans led by ten at the half and coasted to a 90-68 win.
No bracket break awaited in the regional final. Kentucky was up next. Kyle Macy and Rick Robey were college stars and future NBA players. Jack Givens would end up the star of the entire 1978 NCAA Tournament. It was going to take Sparty’s best game to win this one and while they played well, it’s not what happened. Kelser put up a 19/13, but Magic had a rough day shooting, going 2-for-10. The Spartans lost 52-49.
A near-miss against the eventual national champion was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, particularly given how far the 1978 Michigan State basketball team had come. They had completely turned the program fortunes around, and one year later they would win a national championship.