Following the Spartans’ 83 to 76 over Detroit Mercy on Friday night, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo opened the press conference by expressing the same feelings experienced by most MSU fans. Izzo said that he was, “disappointed, but [felt] good at the same time.” Coach Izzo went on to explain that is was “a very big trap game for us” and later Coach Izzo admitted (likely tongue-in-cheek) the he was “taking Detroit a bit lightly.”
Part of the difficulty of playing Detroit was the relative level of uncertainty about the players on the Titans’ roster. While MSU had already played three games prior to Friday night, the trip to East Lansing was Detroit Mercy’s first game of the season. As a result, the MSU coaching staff did not fully know what to expect.
Coach Izzo lamented, “We had no scouting report. They hadn’t played. They had transfers...The Matt Johnson kid...he averages nine minutes at Saint Bonaventure and averages one-and-a-half points a game and [tonight] goes off for 20. That wasn’t the scouts fault, that was just the virus’ fault....That made it difficult to be very blunt about it.”
Of course, it also didn’t help that Detroit Mercy is coached by former Indiana coach Mike Davis, who is no stranger to Big Ten basketball, Michigan State, or Tom Izzo. Recall that back in the 2014-15 season, Coach Davis brought his Texas Southern team to East Lansing and returned home with a 71-64 overtime win. Izzo said of Davis, “the guy’s a really, really good coach, and he believes that he can beat us when he comes in...and he did a heck of a job.”
Stars of the game
Although Coach Izzo is known to be more of a football fan, on this particular evening he decided to hand out stars to his player, hockey style.
The first star of the night went to Rocket Watts and his team high 23 points. Coach Izzo said, “I told Rocket after the game that was the best I had ever seen him play, ever. Because he was under control. He made good plays. He made great decisions. He played phenomenal defense.”
The second star of the night went to Aaron Henry. Coach Izzo commented, “I thought Aaron Henry just stuffed the stat sheet again.” Henry earned a double-double Friday by scoring 12 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. Henry also added six assists, three steals, and a block to his stat line. Henry only shot four-of-11 from the floor, but it should be noted that before Coach Izzo had even finished with his Zoom press conference, Henry was back on the court, taking some extra shots (as was Gabe Brown).
For the third star of the night, Izzo opted to go with a surprise choice: Foster Loyer. Izzo commented, “He did everything we asked.”
Coach Izzo even added a surprise fourth group of players to the star list. From the beginning of the game, over the the piped in artificial crowd noise, several members of the MSU bench were heard chanting “DE-FENSE” in an attempt to simulate the Izzone and try to energize the home team.
When asked about this, Coach Izzo was absolutely delighted, “the Izzone are our fans, but our bench is the same way. And, I put that as our No. 1 priority tonight. Believe it or not. We are in some strange times. It was one of the things that we talked about. And, I put it on my kid [walk-on Steven Izzo], I put it on Jack Hoiberg, I put it on Steve Smith’s kid. I said, ‘you guys are in charge of that’ and I think that they did a good job.”
However, there was another group of players that did not earn any stars on Friday night: MSU’s bigs. Izzo said, “If our fours and five play like they did tonight, we’re not going to win a lot of games...(they) struggled to guard and struggled to rebound.” It should be noted that Julius Marble did finish the game strong, scoring nine points and grabbing five rebounds, but Izzo still had strong words for the group, “They’ll play better, but they got a lesson tonight.”
Another potential reason for some of the Spartans’ struggles Friday night was the absence of Josh Langford from the lineup. Fortunately, it does not sound like a long term problem. Coach Izzo commented that Josh had “a little bit of a sore knee and could have played.” Langford did participate in pregame warmups with the team.
When pressed about Lanford’s health situation and whether it might be a lingering issue, Coach Izzo pushed back, “Right now after playing 29 minutes and traveling [to Duke], I just wasn’t going to take any chances…Don’t read into it...He’s playing on Sunday and he’s playing on Tuesday… It’s not day-to-day and we’re not trying to manage him or even manage his minutes.”
But Lanford wasn’t the only Spartan who seemed to have knee trouble on Friday night. Power forward Joey Hauer seemed a step slow on defense, emerged for the locker room after half time with a wrap on his knee, and only played 19 minutes. Regarding Hauer, Coach Izzo said, “Joey hurt his knee a little bit...He didn’t twist it or anything. He just hit it on the floor. So, it’s a bruise. He wasn’t moving very good...and then he really struggled defensively, because I don’t think that he could move as good.”
Once again, it does not sound like a long-term situation and I would expect Hauer to be at or close to full strength on Sunday evening when Western Michigan comes to town.
Defending Antione Davis
On of the main reasons Detroit Mercy was able to pose such as challenge to the Spartans was due to the outstanding play of guard Antione Davis, son of head coach Mike Davis. Davis led all scorers with 24 points and made several tough and contested shots down the stretch which kept the pressure on the Spartans until the final minute.
MSU’s coaches and players were asked about the play of Davis, and they were also clearly impressed. Coach Izzo said that he was, “a hell of a player.” Foster Loyer said, “he can score with the best of them and he’s going to be a nightmare for the other teams that he is playing.” Gabe Brown agreed. “He is a very great player. He is going to make great things happen in the future. I am blessed enough that I got to play against him, because later on he’s going to shock the world.”
But, perhaps the highest praise came from Aaron Henry who said, “He’s a competitor. You can’t teach those types of things...He’s that guy that wants that last shot and that wants that big matchup...That is somebody that I want to go to war with if I was on the team with him.”
Playing guards of the caliber of Antione Davis can only help MSU prepare for the upcoming Big Ten gauntlet and the eventual postseason.
Emerging Leadership from Gabe Brown?
While the captains and leaders on the 2020-21 MSU squad are clearly Aaron Henry, Josh Langford, and Foster Loyer, there were signs in the post-game press conference that Gabe Brown is also emerging as a leader and even mentor for some of the underclassmen on the team, based on both his work ethic and his life experience.
Brown talked about his desire to continue to work on his game. “I work out, like, a lot…I live in the gym, and I want to keep on working.” A member of the press corps mentioned that Malik Hall had seen a clip on social media of Brown working out that inspired him to spend more time in the gym. Brown responded, “It means the world to me. It means that they see it and that they want to get better too. I want to get better with them.”
In addition, Gabe seems to have formed a bond with teammate Julius Marble, due to a shared life experience. Gabe Brown’s father Charles passed away in 2016 from a stroke. This summer, Julius Marble’s father also passed away. Brown told reporters, “Since I have been through it and still go through it every single day, I just try to be there for him...If my experience can help him, and his experience can help me, then that is the best thing possible. We can both help each other.”
Brown is excited about the progress that Marble has made on the court so far this year. “To me, he is playing out of his mind right now. I am a Julius Marble fan. I am his No. 1 fan...I am just very proud of him and proud of the things that he does.” Brown also added, “People don’t know this, but Ju is in the gym. Ju works, Ju tries his hardest to be the best that he can possibly be. He watches film. He is there early in the morning. He is one the guys that leaves late at night. I just want people to know that.”
MSU made a lot of mistakes in this game and missed a lot of shots. But, the Spartans still emerged with a victory. On some level, this is the best case scenario for Coach Izzo. In his words, “We found a way to win. It’s a lot easier to get their attention after a win sometimes. You don’t think so, you’d think you’d need to lose, but I think that I have enough maturity on this team. We don’t need to lose to figure it out. In tomorrow morning’s film session, they’re going to figure out that we didn’t lose, but there’s a lot of work to go...Those that think we are ready for the National Championship because we beat Duke, readjust your theories.”
Captain Aaron Henry echoed this sentiment. “It was a learning experience for us. It is good to get those types of games in and win them. We have obviously seen teams around the country fall in those types of games.” That’s true. Teams like Virginia, Kentucky, Villanova, and Wisconsin have all learned lessons the hard way in this young season. Michigan State gets a chance to learn while keeping an unblemished record.
What is it going to take for MSU to keep that perfect record for a little while longer? Aaron Henry perhaps explained it best. “ We just have to…nut up, I want to say something better than that, but when it comes down to it, we have to do that. Play tough. Play with some grit, and just come more prepared. We can’t just come and think that anything is just given to us.”
Henry went on to say, “The growth of our team is dependent on how much we listen to Coach Izzo and how we keep each other accountable. He always says that a player coached team is the best coached team. I try to hold guys accountable, even me...I am happy that we won in this growing moment.”
Aren’t we all.