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Counting down MSU’s top 50 basketball players all-time: No. 4 – Steve Smith

This is the 47th in a 50-day summer series, counting down the top players in Michigan State basketball history, as I see them. The criteria is impact and performance at MSU only, professional career irrelevant. Have your own opinion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

No. 4 – Steve Smith
Guard, 1987-91, Detroit

The Skinny: Smith had Kevin McHale’s shoulders, Magic’s height and Scott Skiles’ shot. And he brought MSU back to the top of the Big Ten in 1990 after a title-less 1980s. Smith left as the Spartans’ leading scorer, and has been eclipsed only by Shawn Respert since.

Steve Smith dribbles up court in either the first or second home game played at Breslin Center, against either Nebraska or Austin Peay in late fall of 1989. (MSU Athletic Communications).

Smith’s senior season in 1990-91 was his best individual year. He averaged 25.1 points per game, at one point hitting a Big Ten-record 45 consecutive free throws, finished as the Big Ten’s scoring champion, and was selected a consensus second-team All-American (and named to several first teams).

But Smith’s junior season — when he averaged 20.2, points, shot 53 percent, and tallied career-bests 7.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists — is the season the Spartans so badly needed a quarter-century ago. He was first-team All-Big Ten and an All-American that year, too. More importantly, his efforts led to 28-6 record, 15-3 in the Big Ten, a top five ranking and the elusive conference title. MSU had placed better than fifth in the Big Ten only once since the Magic-led national title in 1979.

The Smith era represented the end of old-school and the beginning of modern. He closed out Jenison Field House as a sophomore, leading MSU in scoring (17.7 ppg) and to the NIT Final Four — back when that was an important step — and opened Breslin Center as an upperclassman, taking the Spartans to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 in the building’s first year.

There, Smith’s missed free throw — the front end of a bonus situation — late in regulation against Georgia Tech, added to MSU’s heartbreak in a controversial defeat that likely cost the Spartans a trip to the Final Four.

Smith scored 32 in the game, however, and a year later, was more clutch. His buzzer-beater in the first round in 1991 allowed the Spartans escape Wisconsin-Green Bay, and seven points in overtime in a second-round loss to Utah extended MSU’s season, well, another overtime.

Smith was the fifth player selected in the 1991 NBA draft, the highest a Spartan had gone since Magic 12 years earlier.

Why he’s No. 4: The Big Ten title in 1990, on the back of Smith, puts him ahead of Respert, who came close but couldn’t quite win a weaker Big Ten. Keep in mind, when MSU won in ’90, there were several mega programs in the league — Michigan coming off a national championship, Illinois just removed from the Flying Illini, etc. MSU seemed inferior. Had since Scott Skiles left campus in 1986. Smith defeated that perception temporarily and raised a banner.

He could be higher on this list. I don’t think he can be lower.

Rank MSU’s top 10 players yourself

Poll results will be updated at Greenandwhite.com.

Previously …
No. 5: Shawn Respert
No. 6: Greg Kelser
No. 7: Johnny Green
No. 8: Mike Robinson
No. 9: Jay Vincent
No. 10: Morris Peterson
No. 11: Draymond Green
No. 12: Terry Furlow
No. 13: Ralph Simpson
No. 14: Julius McCoy
No. 15: Sam Vincent
No. 16: Charlie Bell
No. 17: Horace Walker
No. 18: Kalin Lucas
No. 19: Adreian Payne
No. 20: Drew Neitzel
No. 21: Lindsay Hairston
No. 22: Maurice Ager
No. 23: Paul Davis
No. 24: Andre Hutson
No. 25: Lee Lafayette
No. 26: Gary Harris
No. 27: Darryl Johnson
No. 28: Jack Quiggle
No. 29: Jason Richardson
No. 30: Stan Washington
No. 31: Antonio Smith
No. 32: Eric Snow
No. 33: Chet Aubuchon
No. 34: Mike Peplowski
No. 35: Keith Appling
No. 36: Shannon Brown
No. 37: Kirk Manns
No. 38: Goran Suton
No. 39: Alan Anderson
No. 40: Branden Dawson
No. 41: Bill Kilgore
No. 42: Pete Gent
No. 43: Al Ferrari
No. 44: Ken Redfield
No. 45: Chris Hill
No. 46: Raymar Morgan
No. 47: Kevin Smith
No. 48: Kevin Willis
No. 49: Matt Steigenga
No. 50: Marcus Taylor

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16 Responses to Counting down MSU’s top 50 basketball players all-time: No. 4 – Steve Smith

  1. avatar W Bauer says:

    Absolutely no argument here that Steve Smith deserves a top-5 ranking. What you did not mention in your article is how much he continues to give back to the program after he left MSU. For starters, there is the annual charity golf outing. And I believe that his donation for the Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center, honoring his mother, is still the biggest donation to MSU by a former athlete. Your ranking is about impact on the program, and Smitty continues to have a tremendous one.

    • avatar Spartan 81 says:

      You are correct the donation is slightly larger than the recent gift by Flozell Adams. Smith is Kelser in the modern era. I was at the Georgia Tech game still believe the shot that sent the game into overtime was after the buzzer

    • avatar Graham Couch says:

      Well said, W Bauer.

    • avatar Ernie Boone says:

      Joining the conversation late and can’t argue with the members of the top 10. I’d just shuffle things a bit. Each of the national championship teams had a consummate leader and a go-to scorer without whom they couldn’t have made it. Since those two titles represent the most the MSU program has accomplished, Magic, Cleaves, Kelser and Mo Pete rate one through four in my book. The five spot goes to Johnny Green, who took the Spartans to the Final Four without the presence of a big time recruit or teammate of All-American stature, and compiled rebounding stats that still boggle the mind. Respert, Smith and Skiles are without a doubt the three most talented players never to reach a Final Four and I’d throw a blanket over the trio and rank them the way they crawled out. I want to thank Graham for this trip down memory lane. He did a great job.

  2. avatar msu76 says:

    And remember, he was virtually unrecruited out of high school. Jud found him when he was going to watch another player (the same way football discovered Dennard).

  3. avatar AASparty says:

    Interesting, I had him one ahead of Skiles but I guess it’s apples and oranges…

    • avatar AASparty says:

      you know, I’ve always wondered how good Skiles could have been if he hadn’t been playing under the shadow of Vincent, but I guess that’s a topic for tomorrow perhaps…

    • avatar msu76 says:

      I also would have put Smith ahead of Skiles. Big Ten title, no DUIs (sorry, it’s true). I also think Smith was much more of a team player than Skiles.

    • avatar Spartan 81 says:

      I think maybe Graham did too untill he talked to Jud, Graham mentioned on a video with Joe that 3-6 were splitting hairs and he changed the order after talking to Jud just my guess

  4. avatar Tim says:

    Obviously AJ Granger is in the top 3, because you know he isn’t #51. Graham are you kidding????????? The Cleaves era would not have sniffed a Final 4 without him. I don’t understand Marcus Taylor and Chris Hill being ahead of him especially. That guy made such a dramatic improvement from the beginning of his junior year until the end. Bad omission. I think he belongs around 41-43.

    • avatar jerseyjohn says:

      I could not agree more. more on that later. there is no way marcus taylor belongs ahead of granger.

      • avatar Graham Couch says:

        There are only three guys in Big Ten history who’ve led the league in scoring and assists. Taylor is one of them. Granger was definitely considered, a nice complementary piece (and the 100-meter champ from Findlay, Ohio).

        • avatar Spartan 81 says:

          I know its your vacation but did talking to Jud cause you to change the order on 3-6 I think I heard you say that on the video with Joe?

  5. avatar Ron says:

    How about Terry Donnely. He was integral. Way better than Taylor.

    • avatar Mushroom says:

      I don’t think the ’79 national title would have happened without Donnely and Brkovich. Their deadly long shots opened up the middle and made Johnson, Kelser and Vincent’s play a lot easier.

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