MSU’s Trice underscores value of senior status

“I don’t think I would be who I am today if it weren’t for going through four years of college.”

— Travis Trice

Behold the senior.

He is a dinosaur. A relic. A thing of the past. Four years in college basketball today suggests a failure of sorts. You were not good enough to be snagged by the NBA.

But behold the senior who wears No. 20 for Michigan State. He is smarter. He leads. He sets an example. He has become, as even he admits, “the face that the other guys look to.”

Travis Trice has earned that face. It is steely and calm and laser-focused. It says, “I got this.” You watch Trice play and you want to give him the ball, you want everything to go through him because he just exudes — and here’s a dying word — experience.

“My mentality, my approach as far as being even-keeled, not getting rattled, is because almost any situation I go through in a game, I’ve already gone through,” he said. “Freshman year. Junior year. I feel like I’ve seen almost everything that can be thrown at you.”

That includes the ball when the game is on the line, the ball that Trice calmly swished through the net twice from the free-throw line with 10 seconds left in the overtime against Louisville. Or the four free throws he sank in the final 80 seconds to secure the victory over Oklahoma. Or the five straight shots he hit to drop 13 points — including three three-pointers — in the first 51/2 minutes against Virginia.

All those opponents were ranked higher than the Spartans. All of them, thanks in large part to Trice’s leadership, have been vanquished.

Behold the senior.

A coach’s mentality

“When Jud Heathcote left here,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said this week, “he told me try to recruit a coach’s son anytime you can.”

Trice, a 6-foot, 170-pound guard, fits the mold. His father is a former college player whose high school team just won an Ohio state title. Combine the work ethic that a coach’s son employs, the basketball IQ he frequently inherits and four years of experience, and you have the Holy Grail for a college coach.

“Seniors,” Izzo said, “they get it.”

Trice gets it. Not because he’s 22. Not because he endured last year’s heartbreaking Elite Eight exit to Connecticut.

He gets it because he almost lost it.

Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Trice was afflicted with a strange brain disorder that left him dropping weight like a melting Popsicle. He had no energy. Even climbing stairs was a chore.

“I ended up losing 25 or 30 pounds. And I was sleeping about 16 hours a day. The doctors couldn’t pinpoint it. I was going in every other day to get blood work — CT scans, MRIs — and they weren’t ever able to find out what it was.”

Was he fearful for his basketball career? “I was fearful for my life.”

You go through something like that and come out healthy again (as he eventually did, months later) and nothing is taken for granted. You realize you are fortunate to dribble a ball — or even look at one.

And you attack life with relish.

Incredible numbers

Which might explain why Trice’s contributions and numbers have climbed ever since, and virtually doubled between his junior and senior years.

In last year’s NCAA tournament, he averaged 7.3 points. This year, he’s averaging 19.8 and four assists, while hitting over 40% of his three pointers — and averaging over 38 minutes of court time.

Most important, he is the head honcho of the We Are Not Losing Police, refusing to accept that this will be his last game. It meant so much to him and fellow senior Branden Dawson to make a Final Four before their class graduated (a point of pride for MSU players) that when it was achieved, he broke down and cried, something the steely-eyed guard apparently does less than once a decade.

“Yeah, I’m not a big crier,” he said. “But it was just a big moment, not only for myself, but for my team and my family.”

His family had made a long drive to Syracuse, N.Y., after his father’s team won its championship Saturday night. The Trices arrived Sunday morning with blankets and pillows, “looking like the Clampetts,” Izzo joked.

But being a senior means appreciating moments like that with your family. Maybe even crying. Think of how flat his career would have been without the past two years. He’d have never seen the heights. Never appreciated the comeback. Never been as smart or, who knows, even as happy.

The real world comes soon enough, and the pressures of a pro career — especially sports — are nowhere near the fun of pizza and video games in a dorm. Or telling your coach in a huddle, “We got this,” and seeing him smile.

Behold the senior. No matter what happens, there will be no agonizing for Trice over trading one existence for the other. He will have gotten everything out of the college experience. If it doesn’t end with a ring, he still has that badge, one that, given the disappearing senior breed, he should wear with pride.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

 

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