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Postgame Notes & Quotes: Tom Izzo says “it’s going to be fun to grow with them,” after dominant victory over Notre Dame.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After defeating Notre Dame 80-70 in East Lansing, Coach Izzo led off his post-game press conference in typical fashion by first praising (football) Coach Mel Tucker and (hockey) Coach Cole for their wins as well. He lamented that COVID is the reality of the day and thus prevents the excitement a double-header of football and basketball would have brought to the respective venues in East Lansing, but is still ecstatic Spartan fans got to enjoy the 3-0 record on the day across MSU sports.

Notre Dame is a good basketball team, and MSU, disregarding the start and the finish, had a dominant performance on the whole despite Izzo’s refusal to call it that.

While Izzo could not quite find it in him to describe the performance as dominant or a serious beating, he couldn’t help but describe the game as “fun,” before returning to his habitual truculence by the end of the press conference:

“I didn’t realize we had a 26-0 run against a great team. At the end of that first half and beginning of that second half to watch that ball move was really fun...”

Izzo explicitly noted that Aaron Henry was “dynamite,” praised Joey Hauser’s 12 rebounds in the first half, and commented that the team “got something out of Gabe Brown,” “got more out of Rocket Watts,” and Malik Hall, and was pleased that he and the staff were able to start to get Julius “in there a little bit.”

Izzo mentioned that his staff did a great job on the scouting report: “It’s a hard team to guard. There’s a lot of great three-point shooters and they are hard to defend.” He also was pleased with the way MSU managed to wear down the bigs, though he was disappointed to be up 28 points and only win by 10 points.

In reflecting on Notre Dame, Izzo praised Notre Dame’s ability to move the ball, and pointed out again they only had 10 turnovers. Of those turnovers, of course, nine were live-ball steals leading to offensive transition opportunities for Michigan State. Izzo also noted the great effect to which the Spartans used their bench depth to wear down the Fighting Irish:

“when you have 12 blocks and nine steals...I thought we really ‘beared-down’... I thought we were everywhere, I thought we wore them down a bit by subbing like we did, and that was very advantageous for us.”

Bench depth important to Izzo:

In discussing that bench depth, Izzo had special praise and comments for Marcus Bingham Jr., Gabe Brown, and Rocket Watts. Izzo pointed out that Bingham Jr. has gained 10 pounds in the last month or two and has really started to mature and figure out what shots are good shots, and noted his focus level improving — he credited assistant coach Dwayne Stephens for helping a lot there.

Generally, Izzo seems set on maintaining a deep rotation and on building the functional depth of the team: “I just wanna make sure that my second group gets know the day is going to come when we have a couple guys who are out and the game is not going to stop, you know? So that’s my M.O, that’s my thought process...I’ve talked to my players so they know what my thought process is.”

Part of building the team’s depth, and sorting out new roles within the offense, concerns the need for patience — particularly against zone defenses, but also against better defensive clubs in general. As Izzo noted, particularly in the first half, when Notre Dame, at one point, held a four-point lead at 26-22, the team struggled a bit with rushing possessions and shots, “I think our biggest problem was a little bit of patience, when we had patience we really cut up that zone.”

As the team found its flow against the zone, Izzo noted that Foster Loyer and Watts really started to exert an influence on the offense; an offense that is still figuring out how to distribute shots:

“Foster’s been playing pretty well and (he and Rocket) are two different kinds of players...when we are a bit more patient and that ball moves you know we get great know we had like 26 assists on 30 shots, which is just ridiculous. I think the more we can move that ball the better a team we are going to be. And Rocket is starting to really learn that; he’s starting to throw the lobs, starting to come out of there on the break...he’s got to learn how to pace himself a bit, learn to Barry-Sanders it a bit, learn to juke and jive, and when he does that it makes him a better player.”

In addition to his praise for Watts, Izzo was particularly proud of Gabe Brown’s vocal assertiveness, keen reading of the game, and execution of in-game adjustments. It was Brown who suggested the lob-play that helped turn the tide of the game. In typical Izzo-fashion, a significant reference to a program-legend came along with his praise of Brown’s development:

“I was really proud of Gabe — he came to us saying they were playing him off the line and he thought he could get a couple of lobs. So I am proud of us and of Rocket, but most of all of Gabe, who was the one who read it like a Morris Peterson back in the day; so I am proud of Gabe because he is starting to really see the game a little bit better. Rock made the play, Gabe made the call, and that is what you want — players on the floor making the call.”

On his three best players—Aaron Henry, Joey Hauser, and Joshua Langford:

Beyond the trio of bench players that Izzo commented on, he closed his question-responses and comments with a series of discussions of Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford, and Joey Hauser — his three best players in the starting lineup at this point.

On Henry’s excellent two-game start to the season, Izzo made a special note of Henry’s response to the staff’s intentional force-feeding of him early in the game:

“Sometimes it’s getting people more of a chance to make plays; Aaron Henry is playing some of his best basketball... he’s starting to become the complete player. I think one of the things that is impressing me most with these guys and their unselfishness is that in the first game, Aaron, who came back for a reason, let the game come to him. And tonight we said we were going to go to him, and he responded and so I am really proud of him and Joey who along with Josh have a great mix together.”

On his tough-love approach to bringing Josh Langford back into the team and holding him to the highest standard possible in order to help him reach his own goals:

“I hold Joshua to a very high level. I thought he passed up a couple of shots and I thought he messed up a couple of times on defense, and he and I both want to get what he lost in a couple of years in one year. It’s going to take him some time to get it back, but it’s back to dog-eat-dog out there and so he will be fine.”

While the team’s defense and ball-movement were the two main focuses of Izzo’s presser, he also indicated that he is highly confident that this team will be a better three-point shooting team than they have shown in the first two games, noting that “Joey missed those two wide-open three’s and Gabe missed two as well.”

His final and possibly most interesting comments concerned Joey Hauser:

“Joey is going to take some time to get all the way back and he had two misses on those shots, and, you know, I don’t care that you missed those, but you can’t come down and turn the ball over the next time down. But you know what I really liked tonight?... Joey responded really well tonight. Better than the first game. Tonight we had a great conversation on the bench, it was fun, it was good; same with Josh... it’s going to take time, so I’ve got to be patient with them, but we’re trying to speed up their process, so I can’t be patient with them on effort or mental-related things.... it’s going to be fun to grow with them. And Aaron has done such a great job with those two...the camaraderie with this team is just so good.”

“You know Joey has got to ‘learn me’....I got on him a bit about those threes; I shouldn’t do that because he is the best three-point shooter (on the team), but I need to see how he is going to respond. You know I need to see how he is going to respond so that when we get into the heat of the battle, I will know how I should handle him and he can figure out how I am.”

While Izzo continues to be labeled by many who do not follow the program closely as a guy who is “too-harsh,” or “old-fashioned,” or “mean,” he clearly has an incredible depth and nuance to his man-management. Players love him, and learn from him in ways that he almost always fails to communicate effectively — not that he really cares. But in these comments about Hauser, and his pushing of Hauser and Langford and Henry’s helping both guys re-adjust to Izzo and to playing again, you can see the sophistication in Izzo’s coaching: he understands the needs to test and push and prod players early and often so as to understand how best to manage them in high-pressure environments.

Understanding the idiosyncrasies of individuals’ best means of communication and motivation, and the ways in which to help them get more from themselves is the most essential hall-mark of great coaching. Izzo has always had it, but as he has gotten a bit older, wiser, and better able to explain his coaching style to himself, to his players, and to the media, it is becoming increasingly clear what a unique genius he is and the ways in which he imparts his wisdom to his players.

Go Green!!!