In the opening press conference for Day Two of Big Ten Media Days, Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo gave an opening statement and answered a few questions in front of the full collection of media members.
In the afternoon one-on-one session, Coach Izzo was able to expand upon his thoughts on the upcoming year. In addition, the two newly-minted team captains, senior small forward Gabe Brown and junior forward Malik Hall were also able to speak to members of the media.
Over the 30-minute session, the coach and players gave the media an update on team leadership and chemistry, versatility and Coach Izzo’s tenure.
Oh Captain, My Captains
With Hall and Brown both being new to a leadership role, each were asked about how they felt to be chosen as team captains and what actions they were taking in their new roles. Hall started by reflecting on what it means to have been voted in as a captain by his fellow players.
“It just says that my teammates think highly of me.,” Hall said. “That’s something that I’m very thankful for. It’s a great honor to be a captain. The people on this team think that I can lead. I’m gonna do my best to do everything I can for them this year.”
Hall also mentioned how he has been able to use some of the leadership lessons that he learned playing with Xavier Tillman, which helped to calm him down and navigate life on and off the court. Hall said that he has been able to act as a similar mentor to the younger players on this year’s team.
Brown echoed this sentiment. He said, “We try to help each player out each and every day.”
That said, Hall knows that his play on the court will also impact his leadership. He said, “I’m just trying to get better. I don’t want to be a good vocal leader and then go on the floor and let my team down whenever they need me to step up.”
Both Brown and Hall also mentioned that there has been an increased effort for the team to do activities together. Hall mentioned having the whole team over to his apartment to watch the NBA Finals.
On the court, it is all about holding each other accountable. But, Hall made sure to emphasize that both he and Brown are encouraging their teammates to hold them accountable as well.
“We are just making sure that everybody knows that they have a voice,” Hall said. “So that it’s not like just two people at the top waving fingers at them, because that’s not going to get us anywhere.”
A Different Mindset
Hall and Brown also spoke at length about team chemistry and what has changed since last year. Brown described this year as a “fresh start.”
Some of this discussion focused on newcomer Tyson Walker, the junior transfer point guard from Northeastern.
Gabe Brown described Walker as a “quick, athletic guard, with a high IQ who can really shoot and defend.” Brown went on to say, “He makes great reads. He’s coachable and has all the tools that you need to win from a point guard standpoint. Right now he’s doing a great job on and off the court. He is learning, taking coaching and trying to become a better player.”
Brown has also been impressed with the three freshmen who joined the team this summer: point guard Jaden Akins, forward Pierre Brooks and shooting guard Max Christie.
“They bring a lot to the table,” Brown said of the freshmen. “All the guys are coachable. Those guys are working hard on and off the court.” He went on to elaborate, “Pierre (Brooks) is working extra hard on defense. Jaden (Akins) is working extra hard on trying to make reads, and Max (Christie) is working hard on all aspects of the game.”
In general, both players feel like there is a different vibe on this year’s team. Hall summarized it best.
“We are just more locked in,” Hall said. “Pretty much everybody on our team has a different mindset and a different focus. Last year, we weren’t as connected. Honestly, being connected can solve a lot of issues. (Last year) we lacked a little bit of leadership.”
Hall added later that, “Maturity on this team has been a big theme over this summer.”
Versatility and Speed
In the conversations with both the players and with Coach Izzo, it became clear that the staff plans to experiment with different lineups.
“It’s going to be who battles who in the chess match,” Izzo said. “Sometimes I think we’re going to have to go big, and sometimes I think we go smaller. I think we can go with Joey (Hauser) and Malik (Hall) in there together.”
Coach Izzo went on to say that this combination may involve Hall playing the three (small forward) position, or it may involve Hauser at the center position (five). When I asked Hall directly if fans would see him playing the three this year, he gave me a coy smile, and said, “Yeah, I think you will.”
Hall elaborated on potential lineup combinations:
“I think it’s something really important just because it gives people a lot of different looks,” Hall said. “One game we could go really big. One game we could go smaller and I think that just being able to mix it up and keep people on their toes would be a big part of it.”
It is also clear from several comments from both the players and Coach Izzo that the changes made to the point guard position should allow Michigan State to play faster and to better utilize the transition game, which has been a staple of Izzo’s program.
Tom Izzo’s Tenure and Bucket List
At one point in the one-on-one with Coach Izzo, a question was asked related to how much longer he planned to be on the sidelines at Michigan State. He gave a rather heartfelt answer.
“It could be two years, it could be 10 years,” Izzo said. “But I’m gonna do it (as long as) I feel like I’m giving the game something.”
He went on to say that he actually got into better shape during COVID and that the experience allowed him to assess his career. He feels that this year’s team will be better defensively, running, rebounding and scoring. He said, “if we do all those things, I think I can coach for a lot more years.”
Izzo also talked about the “new energy” that he feels with the addition of head football coach Mel Tucker and new athletic director Alan Haller.
“There is a lot of energy,” Izzo said. “And that helps me to say ‘You know what? I want to go longer, a lot longer.’”
Based on Coach Izzo’s tenure, he has been everywhere and seen almost everything. He has played games in Germany, on aircraft carriers and in football stadiums, among many other places. This year, Michigan State will face Butler at legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, which will scratch one more venue off of his personal bucket list.
When I asked Izzo if there was any venue or experience still on his bucket list, he thought about it for a few seconds and then said the following.
“I think I want to take a game to the U.P. (Upper Peninsula),” he said. “Maybe somebody will play me up at Northern Michigan. Maybe Michigan wants to go up there. We could take a couple of sleds up there and really get after it.”
Sounds awesome, Coach! Izzo of course hails from Iron Mountain, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. (Check out the tweet below for Izzo’s full answer to my question.)
On what’s left on his coaching “bucket list”: pic.twitter.com/1TQX922Ebo— Greg Waddell (@gwizzy12) October 8, 2021
Pressure is a Privilege
In the final question of the day for Coach Izzo, he was asked to comment whether there was less pressure on the team since they were picked to finish near the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Brown made a statement to that effect earlier. Izzo gave a long and rather philosophical answer.
“It sure as hell doesn’t take any pressure off me,” Izzo said. “I don’t want (Brown) to have pressure on him. I want him to live up to their own expectations.” But he then added that players don’t come to Michigan State to finish fifth.
“I’m excited about a chance to maybe do better than our ranking,” Izzo continued. “But I don’t want to be down in fifth very often. I’d rather have the pressure.
“I don’t look at it any different either. There’s pressure on us, the program has pressure,” he said. “That’s good pressure. It really is. I mean, that’s a labor of love for a long period of time to earn the fact to have the pressure. We’ve earned that, so now we got to live with it.”
Here are a few additional nuggets from the one-on-one media interview session
- Coach Izzo on Marcus Bingham: “He has matured. He’s not a lot heavier but he’s a lot stronger”
- Coach Izzo on Joey Hauser: “I don’t think anybody’s seen the real Joey Hauser. I love the kid. I think he’s got a chance to be really really really good.”
- Gabe Brown on his new, shorter haircut: “The year I had a low cut, we went to the Final Four.”
- Coach Izzo on former assistant coach Dane Fife (now at Indiana): “I think he tried to get me to wear green and white striped warmups. I wouldn’t do that.”
- Coach Izzo on Purdue: “Purdue’s got everybody back, including Gene Keady’s cousin, whatever that guy is who walks around with a hammer.” (The would be Purdue Pete, Tom)
- Coach Izzo on his team right now: “Right now we are a lot better than we were last year, 30 days before the first game.”