Malik Hall has been referred to as one. Mady Sissoko as well. A.J. Hoggard, too. Quite a few others. And the latest has been Pierre Brooks. All of them are “OKGs” - our kind of guys. Tom Izzo and his coaching staff have adapted the term pretty frequently in recent years. It defines the virtues which they want to see in a potential recruit and everything they look for in a typical Michigan State Spartan basketball player.
The saying has its origins – at least publicly – with Chris Peterson, the former college football head coach who had great success at Boise State and then at Washington. He made the term famous and often described what exactly made an OKG for him and his staff. Numerous articles have been written about it.
Yet what about Tom Izzo? What truly is an OKG at Michigan State? Let‘s have a look at the special demands the Spartans coaches might have for their players and how they probably define a perfect recruit for themselves:
In the end it all starts with talent, as redundant as that might sound. You can be the smartest, kindest, most special human being ever – if you aren‘t good at playing basketball you won‘t be of any interest to the MSU coaching staff. At least not as a potential Spartans recruit. In terms of skills and fundamentals the requirements greatly vary from position to position or from year to year. The talent or potential usually doesn‘t have to be fulfilled or realized immediately, but MSU is rarely if ever recruiting players who are extremely raw. Usually they have at least solid fundamentals, certain elite or promising skills plus something to contribute early on as well.
It‘s probably a cliche at every major university that the school‘s basketball team only recruits quality, high character young men. Yeah right, we don‘t have to list all the examples of where this regularly is not true. Anyways, in MSU‘s case the coaches certainly have followed suit and put a huge emphasis lately on recruiting true stand-up kids for the basketball team. High character guys, like for example, Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman or Miles Bridges are easy to root for, perfect representatives of the university and even at their young age sincere role models for many people.
PLAYING WITH A PURPOSE
Whether it is Gabe Brown, who is playing for his father who passed away, whether it is Tum Tum Nairn trying to change his life or whether it is Jaren Jackson looking to prepare himself for a bright future in the NBA, Tom Izzo wants his players to have a certain purpose for playing basketball. This often goes far beyond the usual goals like personal accolades or winning championships. It creates an inner passion with every individual player, something that can‘t be taught even by the greatest coaches. These purposes put the game in perspective for the young Spartans yet at the same time make them appreciate how important every second on the court is.
A lot of coaches like versatile players and Tom Izzo is no different. While there are numerous historical examples of this kind of recruit, he seems to have put an even bigger emphasis on that lately. A.J. Hoggard and Rocket Watts are both combo guards, Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry can play different wing positions, Malik Hall is a swiss army knife and newest recruit Pierre Brooks can also handle multiple positions. Many Spartans have a diverse skillset, like for example Julius Marble. He can shoot, he can post up, is a tough rebounder and a willing defender. In the past Izzo had quite a few “specialists” but he seems to be looking to have some more well rounded players lately.
One of the great things about Michigan State‘s deep NCAA Tournament runs is watching the fanbase and especially the families of the players in the stands. Tom Izzo not only considers the team, but the entire university, as family and pounds home that aspect to his players. Most of his kids come from tight-knit families and tremendous backgrounds so it really isn‘t much of a change for them. You often hear Izzo refer to the great job the parents did with their children when he talks about a Spartans player. His office door is always open for everyone and that extends to the loved ones of his guys. “Just to know that he is not only a coach, but someone my entire family can come to when we have a problem is absolutely huge,” Xavier Tillman says for example.
It‘s probably one Izzo‘s most famous quotes during his career and one of the basic philosophies of his entire program: “Players play, tough players win.” He tries to build every team on that and has now for almost three decades formed his entire program on that mantra. He doesn‘t only love players who mix it up physically with their opponents, the toughness he refers to is just as much meant to be mental. He wants his players to stay calm in dire situations, he wants them to rise to the challenge anywhere and at anytime plus he needs all of them to play fearlessly. Just like the Hall of Famer once said: “You aren‘t allowed to be scared, not in this program.”
It‘s called “student athlete” for a reason and from everything you can tell Michigan State takes that part of the game very seriously. Recently even the best MSU players have been tremendous academic achievers. Xavier Tillman, all while welcoming his second child midseason and playing at an All-Big Ten level, was an Academic All-American and his co-leader Cassius Winston graduated early and was also Academic All-Big Ten. Izzo has often been very outspoken about the fact that his players have to perform academically and that he wants to play a part in preparing them for life. “Those 20-year-olds are going to live to 85 or longer,” Izzo says. “We better be concerned about those next 65, because we kind of concern ourselves with one or two a lot.”
Here is to many more OKGs” at Michigan State...