EAST LANSING, MI –
The Michigan State men's basketball team has earned a spot in the Final Four for the sixth time in 12 years. They'll play Butler in the national semi-final game tomorrow night, with a berth in the championship game Monday on the line.
The road from East Lansing to Indianapolis has been lined with potholes.
The Spartans have overcome devastating injuries in the last few weeks. In a couple of cases, they've had to make tough decisions about playing, or hanging up the sneakers for the rest of the season.
WKAR's Scott Pohl reports.
AUDIO: Who would you say is the MVP of this run to the Final Four? Durrell Summers, who's averaged 20 points a game in the tournament? Korie Lucious, who's buzzer-beating three-point shot sank Maryland? Delvon Roe, who made a free throw in the final seconds to beat Tennessee? Somebody else, maybe?
Well, it depends on what you mean by MVP. If you mean "most valuable player," you could take your pick. But if you mean "most valuable physician," then the winner is Dr. Jeff Kovan.
COACH IZZO CREDITS MEDICAL STAFF
Kovan is the teams' primary physician. Without him, head trainer Tom Mackowiak and others on the medical staff, MSU wouldn't be in this Final Four. Don't believe me? Head coach Tom Izzo does.
"You know, those guys work," Izzo says. "I mean, Kovan works his tail off, and Mackowiak, the guy spends more hours than any trainer in America. So, I guess I'm very fortunate in that respect, but they have cobbled some guys together, probably more than any other year, more critical guys. You know what I'm saying? More guys that you needed (snapping his fingers) immediately."
PLAYERS ALSO PRAISE DOCTORS
There wasn't anything the doctors could do to keep starting point guard Kalin Lucas playing. He's undergone season-ending surgery on the achilles tendon he ruptured in the win over Maryland. But the doctors have been able to keep Delvon Roe and Chris Allen on the floor.
Roe has been described as playing on one leg lately, with an injured knee. The medical team has used a combination of ice, rest, stretching, and sleeping with a sleeve on that knee. Roe says there's no question that he wouldn't be playing without that treatment.
"They've done a tremendous job of giving me a lot of medication, and rehab, and just resting it," Roe says. "By the time gametime comes, I'm pretty decent and able to play."
Chris Allen has struggled with a painful foot injury. He, too, credits the medical staff for enabling him to play, even in a limited role.
"If it wasn't for them," Allen says, "I definitely wouldn't have been even able to play. I probably still wouldn't be playing if it wasn't for them, so, I mean, it's just all them. Everything goes to them."
Dr. Kovan is reluctant to take much of the credit. Instead, he turns it back to Roe and Allen. In his words, they shoot the baskets.
"That's all heart," Dr. Kovan says, "and that's why we're where we are today. It's a lot of guys who said you know what? We have some adversity, and you either deal with adversity, or you let adversity deal with you and take care of you, and these kids have done that."
SHOULD AN ATHLETE PLAY OR NOT?
Treating severe injuries is a two-headed beast. Maybe a player can be kept on the floor, but at what cost? Players want to play in spite of the pain.
Can MSU get another game or two out of a guy, but at the risk of causing further damage...maybe even career-ending damage? Is another win...even a national championship...worth that? Dr. Kovan says that isn't an issue with coach Tom Izzo and his assistants.
"It makes a difference, a little bit," Dr. Kovan says, "in how the coaches look at that, and we have a coach who's wonderful at not just looking at the moment, but looking at these kids' futures. And, he cares so much about what happens after they leave MSU that from that regard, it makes it a lot easier for us. We don't have the pressures, because he wants the kids to play, he wants success, he wants to win, but he's not willing to jeopardize their careers for that."
Dealing with these injuries has put this team in a special place to many fans. They'll understand if anybody winds up unable to play any more at some point this weekend. They'll remember this team one day for having played through great pain. And maybe, along with remembering the guys who toughed it out, they'll remember the people on the bench, and in the training room...the people with the tape, and the knee braces, and the buckets of ice...for their part in making it all possible.