The final score on Sunday in the Spartans’ noon clash with the Oakland Grizzlies shows that Michigan State won by a fairly comfortable 18-point margin, 109-91. But at halftime, the game was still very much in doubt. After 20 minutes, MSU led only 44-40, due in large part to 12 MSU turnovers and blazing hot three point shooting (eight-of-15, 53 percent) from Oakland.
Fortunately for Spartan fans, MSU came out with improved focus and play in the second stanza. The Spartans used a 13-0 to push the lead to 14 points at the under 16 minute media timeout and another 8-0 midway through the second half to push the lead to 20 points. Oakland did not get the margin below 15 points for the remainder of the game.
So, what was said at halftime that catalyzed this turnaround? Did head coach Tom Izzo lay into his team? As it turns out, no. In his postgame press conference, Coach Izzo mentioned that while assistant coach Mike Garland wasn’t pleased, he himself was “calm and collected.” The loud voices in the room came from the place Izzo prefers: from the leaders on his team.
“I really liked the way Aaron (Henry) and players started talking to one another, and the theory here is a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team; has been that way since Cleaves started it, and I think they deserve a lot of credit,” said Coach Izzo. “I thought the halftime speech wasn’t a Knute Rockne [speech], it was the players, and that impressed me.”
Team captains Josh Langford and Aaron Henry agreed. Langford explained, “I just think we went in after the first half and said that we had to be better. There were a lot of effort-related mistakes that we had in the first half, a lot of lackadaisical turnovers and different things like that. So we just wanted to come out in the second half and try to just put the first half behind us, learn from it, but not let it control how we moved forward within the course of the game.”
Aaron Henry added, “We decided to play better defense, rebound better, move the ball more and get better shots. It was just a great meeting at halftime because we couldn’t play any worse than we were already playing. Let’s play basketball, play defense and move the ball.”
Career Day for Gabe Brown
MSU put up over 100 points on Sunday, and as a result a total of seven players scored in double figures. But, none of those players put up more points than Gabe Brown, who scored a career high 20 points on seven-of-nine shooting (including four-of-five from three) and two free throws in only 18 minutes.
In the postgame press conference, Brown had a chance to reflect on this journey as a Spartan to this point. Brown said, “It is crazy to see it. As a senior in high school, I thought I was going to take the world by storm. I thought I was going to come in and everything was going to be handed to me. Coach Izzo humbled me, and I appreciate him for that because it taught me a lot of things during my first two years. Now that he believes in me and has trust in me, things are starting to happen.”
Team co-captain Aaron Henry was also impressed. Henry said, “Gabe is my favorite player, honestly. He is someone that I always want to see win, and somebody that has so much room to grow, and he has already come so far.” Henry also had some thoughts on how Brown was able to make so much progress. He added, “He is a guy that takes everything serious. You all always see him in the gym shooting and working on his game. It’s the little things that he does that make him the player that he is, and those things are the reason that he is going to be successful.”
Coach Izzo agreed, “I mean he is coming into his own. He spends a lot of time in this building, a lot of time on his shooting, and it was nice to see him get what he deserved and I thought he did. I didn’t think he forced anything, just really happy, proud, again, just happy for Gabe because he works so hard.”
A Game Next Week?
Due to the cancelation of the ACC-Big Ten challenge game against Virginia this week, MSU has a chance to potentially add one more non-conference game at some point. The current idea to add a game in the coming week, but nothing is yet fixed.
Coach Izzo implied that MSU has received permission to add a home game next week, preferably on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, even though his team will be completing final exams. But, the challenge will be to find a team that has both an open date and is not also going through finals. The Spartans have their best man on the job, associate athletic director and scheduling expert Kevin Pauga, whom Izzo referred to as a “mad scientist.”
If possible, Coach Izzo definitely wants to find an opponent. “I just think it would be important to play — win, lose or draw — just to get us more and more experience get Josh (Langford) and Joey (Hauser) more time get Rock (Rocket Watts) a little more time at the point. Get some of our subs of centers in there to play. So we’re working on a couple different things.”
In any event, a decision should come in the next 24 to 48 hours. If MSU is not able to schedule another game this week, they will take the floor again on Sunday, Dec. 20 in Evanston, Illinois against Northwestern for the Big Ten opening for both teams.
Breslin Gets a New Look?
When the Spartans return to action at the Breslin center, whether in the next few days or for the Big Ten home opener against Wisconsin on Christmas Day, expect to see a few new additions to the gallery of cardboard cut-out “fans.” Coach Izzo hatched a plan with former player and current director of basketball operations, David Thomas, to honor some of the past MSU greats with some additional cut-outs.
Coach Izzo explained, “I brought up the idea. We’re going to get a couple rows, we’re going to spend some money of our own, and enjoy all the people that helped me.”
The additional visuals will not just be limited to former basketball greats, such as Coach Jud Heathcote, Coach Gus Ganakas, and members of the Spartans’ two National Title teams. Also be on the look out for former Spartan greats like George Webster, Bubba Smith, and Kirk Gibson. “We’re trying to get a guy from each sport too, believe it or not.”
Check out the videos below for Coach Izzo’s full comments, as well as comments from Josh Langford, Aaron Henry, and Gabe Brown.