On a night when Aaron Henry stuffed the stat sheet on the offensive side of the ball with 20 points, it was his hard work on the defensive side of the ball that stood out in his mind and in the mind of his head coach. Not only did Henry pull down eight rebounds (seven on the defensive end), but he blocked four shots and got two steals; there was a contagious defensive intensity which spread throughout the team.
During the postgame press conference, Henry kept coming back to what he thought was the key — holding everyone on the team (including himself) accountable. If he said it once, he said it a hundred times. The accountability he continually referred to during his portion of the press conference — regardless of what question he was asked — was the hard work that he puts in in the gym and the hard work he expects from his teammates.
“I’m always going to put my head down and go to work,” said Henry. “I can only control what I can control. I’m a guy that I’m always going to go back to the gym. I’m never going to be complacent. I try to hold everyone accountable.”
And now it has paid dividends on the court for two Spartan victories in a row — at Nebraska last week and tonight against Rutgers in East Lansing.
At the podium, Henry continued to point to the fact that his sole focus is on bettering himself. He said he’s just trying to make winning plays, whether that happens on offense or on defense.
“It’s not just one thing,” said Henry. “I try to be a complete player. Doing everything as I feel like I can. Progress on both ends of the court — that’s what we strive for every day.”
MSU head coach Tom Izzo sees it happening as well.
“Henry is playing at a whole ‘nother level,” said Izzo. “The last two games, he’s been unbelievable on the defense. He got into some people, he knocked some balls loose. He’s doing the things he needs to do to become a great player.”
Izzo focused on Henry’s consistency and pointed to the fact that he’s in the gym more and he’s growing up. Izzo is a big fan of the process of becoming a complete basketball player. Trust the process, he says.
“Everybody needs someone to be so good, so quick,” said Izzo, complaining about the hurry-up nature of college basketball these days. “It takes guys time. We’re such a fast twitch society — I think he’s growing up, he’s maturing, he’s starting to understand, he’s starting to trust people. Defensively — he’s starting to act like a captain.”
The praise was flowing so heavily to Henry, that Izzo had to stop himself, albeit it jokingly.
“If I give him too much more credit, I’m going to regret it, so I’m going to cut it,” said Izzo. “But that’s what’s supposed to happen.”
While Henry set the tone, his teammates were right there with him in the win over Rutgers.
“Tonight, we played Michigan State basketball,” said Izzo. “I thought we took the fight to them a little bit, which was important. To beat a team like that, the way we did, will give us a boost — something we can build on. We’ll keep improving.”
Izzo said that the Spartans put together one of their better defensive performances in the last couple years against the Scarlet Knights.
“It was the best of the year because it was against a quality team,” said Izzo. “It was a team win and it was needed — to win the game the way Michigan State wins games.”
That “way” was led tonight by Henry, who is really starting to step into the role that those closest to him knew he was always capable of. Once upon a time, it took outside forces to motivate Henry — we all remember the infamous verbal encouragement he received from his coach during a timeout in an NCAA tournament game awhile back. Now he’s the one motivating himself — and Izzo says that that is going to help push this team further.
“Since the day he came here, his father, myself, the other coaches...you gotta push him,” Izzo said. “But now he’s self-motivated and that’s the difference between good and great. That’s the maturity. That’s the growth.”