It wasn’t exactly a work of art, but the Michigan State Spartans finally got into the win column in Big Ten play with an 84-77 win at Nebraska. Aaron Henry had a career high 27 points and Josh Langford scored a season-high 15 points, including a key offensive rebound put-back with under a minute to go to seal the win. That said, the Spartans still allowed the Nebraska Cornhuskers to shoot almost 50 percent for the floor and from three and were out rebounded by two. But, a win is a win.
Following the game, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo addressed the media via Zoom. While Coach Izzo was certainly happy to get the win, he still saw a lot of room for improvement. Coach Izzo opened by saying, “I am not as happy as I should be. We won a game. We got off the schneid.” However, as he elaborated later, “It was a good win, but it’s not good enough.”
As for the things that Coach Izzo was not happy about, it seemed to revolve mostly around two things: defense and protecting the lead. “We are not defending like I think that we are capable of,” Coach Izzo said. As for the lead: “We went very passive...we are not finishing the job right now. A 17-point lead should end up 30.” Izzo was also not impressed with the play of his big men, which he added will be a pet project for him in the coming week.
Career Night from Aaron Henry
The biggest factor in MSU securing the win on Saturday night was the play of Aaron Henry on both sides of the court. Coach Izzo said that he played “the best game of his life here.” The way Coach Izzo described it, Henry did a lot of things well. “He hit a couple of threes. He drove the ball. He went off two feet. He guarded. He rebounded. He ran his lane. He should have had a dunk. He could have had 30.” Coach Izzo added later, “he showed total versatility...and was a stabilizing factor.”
When Henry himself was asked about his performance, he wanted to remind everyone that “I am a team guy. The focus today was just to get a win.” He added, “I set a career high for myself. Yeah, that is fine and dandy, but I want to win. That’s all I care about.” Henry stated that he really didn’t do anything different in this game compared to the last few games where he has struggled. “It’s was just a drive to win.”
Henry also mentioned that he had been thinking back to the leaders of the past two Michigan State teams that he has been a part of and about how those players led. He then took it upon himself as a leader and as a captain to hold himself and his teammates to the standard that is MSU basketball in the huddle, the locker room, practice, film sessions, and even the bus.
The New Point Guard in Town
Saturday night’s game in Lincoln saw a major change to the starting lineup with the insertion of true freshman A.J. Hoggard, while Rocket Watts came off the bench and primarily played the two-guard position. Hoggard had a solid outing, scoring only four points, but dishing out a team-high five assists to only one turnover in 23 minutes.
This change allows for both Hoggard and Watts to play at their natural positions. The way Coach Izzo described it, the team would no longer be trying to fit a “round peg into a square hole” or “put a running back at quarterback.” Izzo was in general pleased with Rocket’s performance and the way that he is handling the change. “He was a man about everything.”
As for Hoggard, Izzo implied that the change in the lineup is essentially permanent. Under the circumstances, Coach Izzo seemed pleased with how the youngster did in his first start. He mentioned that his conditioning and defense still needs to improve and that at times he is too “nonchalant.” However, Izzo also commented that Hoggard has a “real feel and flair” for the game that at times reminds him of former Spartan Denzel Valentine.
Aaron Henry also seemed pleased with Hoggard’s performance. Henry mentioned that “the sky’s the limit,” and that A.J. is a “great decision maker.” He added that Hoggard has some natural instincts that you cannot teach and perhaps most importantly, he is “willing to learn, grow, and listen.” Henry also implied that the coaches had asked Henry to spend time with Hoggard.
Despite the three-game losing streak to start Big Ten play, Coach Izzo made sure to mention that Michigan State is now 1-0 in 2021. However, the road does not get any easier for the Spartans as they host a ranked Rutgers team this coming Tuesday evening. That said, after opening the season with three of the first four games on the road, four of the next five games will be played within the familiar confines of the Jack Breslin Student Event Center. MSU has only one road game between now and Jan. 28.
As for Coach Izzo, he left the press conference with a simple closing statement: “We’ll get better. I promise.”
Odds and Ends
Here are a few other notes from the post-Nebraska press conference:
- Joey Hauser apparently lost a tooth during a collision the first half which likely explains his relatively low output for the game (only five points and six rebounds)
- Josh Langford talked a little about MSU’s sudden return to slapping the floor on defense. “It’s in our DNA. Slapping the floor is us making a statement that we are here and we are going to play Michigan State basketball.”
- MSU struggled a bit with the lineup when Nebraska went small. At times, the Huskers were essentially playing a small forward at the center position.
- Coach Izzo continues to praise the play of Thomas Kithier. Izzo referred to him as a “solid and steady” player who is smart and a veteran.
- Coach Izzo also managed to get in a slight dig at the state of officiating in reference to the way transition defensive plays are whistled. “The way that they call it now is like bowling. Let’s put up the pins and just run a ball through. Put your head down and then run through and then call a foul. I hate that.”
Trust me, Coach. You are not the only one.