The squeaking of sneakers against the hardwood floor of Michigan State University’s basketball practice court makes it hard to hear exactly what’s going on. Players and coaches yell over each other.
Finally, the piercing sound of a whistle stops the noise and the echos die. Suzy Merchant, head coach of the Michigan State women’s basketball team, takes over and resets the play so that she can show her players where they went wrong.
With one final practice before their game against Detroit Mercy and only four days to prepare for No. 1-ranked UConn over the Thanksgiving break, the Spartans can’t afford to lose any time. The season has just begun and the Spartan’s are gearing up for a schedule that has them facing off against six of the nation’s top 25 teams over eight games.
A key to their success are the team of mostly men who help the women’s team prepare for their next opponent. With roughly 17 guys, and the occasional returning player, scout team members spend hours learning about the Spartans’ opponents.
“For the most part, we don’t get guys that are just in it for a year,” said Parkinson. “We get guys that are in it for a bigger purpose and if we can get a championship ring out of it for the girls and ourselves even better.”
Scout teams are an integral part of college basketball programs. When you look at teams around the nation, like UConn and South Carolina, who regularly compete at the highest level, you realize that not one of them is without a scout team.
The scout team becomes an unsung hero to the public eye. Early mornings, weekends, before and after football games, scout teams like the one at state dedicate themselves to pushing their programs to that next level.
“Too be honest it’s not something that can even really be put into words,” said graduate assistant and former Spartan Kalisha Keane. “They have the most thankless job I think. They come in here and get beat up every day.”
Players and fans alike can attest to the fact that the level of competition the girls face makes them a stronger program. Since Merchant’s arrival in 2007, the Spartans have made it to every Big Ten Tournament, while only missing out on the NCAA tournament during the 2014-2015 season.
“Not to generalize too much, but Suzy is a lot like Izzo,” said former scout team player Scott Parkinson. “She doesn’t hold back when it comes to making the schedule. She likes to challenge her girls.”
There are a lot of things that go into building a successful program like the one Merchant has in East Lansing. A lot of that can be attributed to more than 45 years combined coaching experience between staff members and the excellent players that are brought in every year. But there is one aspect that often gets overlooked.
Practicing three to four times a week at four hours apiece, the scout team acts as just one of the many cogs that makes the program run. The versatility of the players and time that they put in allows the girls to in turn focus on their own game plan.
Assuming the role and playstyle of that week’s opposing players, the scout team breaks down a teams’ playbook in a matter of days, creating simulation of what is to come.
“I think they just bring that speed, that athleticism, and just kind of raise that competitive level,” said Keane. “It’s nice to go against someone other than your own teammates.”
For the Spartan’s it’s more than just the athleticism and competitive nature of their athletes that can be attributed to the programs continued success’ under Merchant. There’s a certain level of comradery that stands out when you are around the team.
“It’s funny, I’m actually still really close with the scout guys that were here when I played during my four years,” Keane with a grin. “It’s just long-lasting friendships you never thought you would have.”
There’s no better example than when former players like Annalise Pickrel and Kalisha Keane return to lend a hand or even the team’s graduate manager and former scout team player, James Hellekjaer, steps onto the court to help out at practices. Everyone who sets foot into the basketball court plays a part in reaching that next goal and no matter who you are you’re going to get your hands dirty.
“They (the girls) just really have this free spirit. They can be kinda crazy sometimes,” said Parkinson, when asked about his time with the team. “But the coaches and the scout guys are just as crazy and animated, I think that’s why everyone works so well together.”