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Notes & Quotes: Tom Izzo says “I’ve been so soft on my team”

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Another night, another loss for Michigan State. However, something was different about the Spartans tonight. Maybe it was more effort, maybe it was better focus, maybe it was the energy, or maybe it was the fact that MSU was actually able to knock down open looks from three-point range. The Iowa Hawkeyes ended up walking away with an 84-78 victory, but it was an encouraging game from the Spartans against a very good team.

The game is something to build off of for the Spartans moving forward, but a loss is a loss, and the Spartans have fallen to 8-7 overall and 2-7 in Big Ten conference play. The 2-7 mark is Tom Izzo’s worst start in conference play in his coaching career, and Izzo is in serious jeopardy of missing his first NCAA Tournament in 24 years.

Overall, Izzo liked what he saw from his guys, at least offensively. He did not, however, like MSU’s defense or the officiating in the game.

“I was proud of them,” Izzo said of his team during the postgame press conference. “I thought we moved the ball well, I thought we shot the ball really well early. I didn’t think we defended as well as we can, I thought there was mistakes there.

“We didn’t do the things we needed to do down the stretch,” Izzo added. “Our defense, our weak-side and offensive rebounds (weren’t good enough). I thought there were some ridiculous calls. I don’t say that very often, but I am going to say it. The combination of things was disappointing. (But) I’m proud of them for bouncing back.”

That was far from the only time on tonight’s press conference that Izzo mentioned the officiating.

“Like I said, I did not appreciate some of the calls,” Izzo said. “And we didn’t do a good enough job...(but) every time you touched the big guy (Luka Garza) there was a foul call. ”

Izzo went on to say that the foul calls may have been the difference in the game. Not necessarily that Iowa shot 20 more free throws than Michigan State did, but more so that it swung the momentum of the game, especially in transition.

“If I would have taken one thing that changed the game it was the fouls,” Izzo said. “And it wasn’t because of the free throws (Iowa) shot, which was in the hundreds, but it was the fact that it negated our fast breaks, which I thought early was very, very good and hurt them a lot.”

While Izzo did say he was encouraged to see the team play better, hit open shots, and come out with energy, he’s not into moral victories.

“I really thought we were going to win the game,” Izzo sad. “Isn’t that weird? I said it today. I told people, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ I told my team, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ Is it a turning point? No, it’s not a turning a point. We’re Michigan State, we’re not gonna get a moral victory.”

But perhaps one of the more telling quotes of the night was Izzo admitting that he has not been as hard on his team as he would have been on his previous teams due to the nature of how difficult this season has been to navigate through with COVID-19 ravaging the program, and the world.

“I’ve been so soft on my team because it’s been so difficult (this season with COVID),” Izzo said. “I said I’m taking the gloves off, too. We’re not playing with the tenacity that Spartans play with. I talked to a very, very successful coach today, maybe the best in this business, and he kind of thought that about his team, you know, ‘Are you losing the culture?’ I had a good friend of mine tell me ‘Why are you coaching them with kid gloves?’ I said ‘Because I don’t know what they can take.’ So the kids gloves came off a little bit (tonight), the problem is I had to use it more on the officials than on my team.”

Also of note on the press conference, Izzo mentioned that a second coach, along with assistant coach Dane Fife, missed tonight’s game. That coach was recruiting coordinator Doug Wojick.

Given the team’s struggles on the court, and issues with COVID, Izzo and the Spartans just need to take things one day at a time. While it may be easy to look ahead at potentially missing out on the NCAA Tournament, the team’s focus will continue to be the task at hand. Izzo also truly believes the team is much better than its record shows.

“I’m not worried about the next 11 (games), I’m worried about next game” Izzo said. “We gotta win games, get better and somebody better hope we don’t get on a little streak.”

The lineups and rotations are still being tinkered with, as Izzo started Foster Loyer at point guard and Marcus Bingham Jr. at center tonight. Also, for the third-straight game, Izzo believes he made a mistake in playing a recovering Joshua Langford for too many minutes once again.

“I just keep playing Josh Langford more minutes than he can play, and he misses that six-footer and doesn’t guard at the end,” Izzo said. “That’s my fault, that’s not his fault, just running out of bodies...(32 minutes), it’s just too many minutes for what he can do in three games.”

While Izzo wants to be more careful with Langford’s minutes — as Langford is coming off of a foot injury that plagued him for nearly two full seasons as well as a recent bout with COVID — he did say Langford’s “turned a corner” and continues to improve.

The one thing Izzo did want to take away from the night was that his team played well and against most teams, it very well may have been a winning effort.

“If we would have played this good (throughout the season), we would have won a lot of games,” Izzo said.

As for Langford, he also spoke to the media tonight. While he liked what his team showed tonight, it was not quite good enough to get the victory, and he knows that.

“It’s tough,” Langford said “We had so many spurts in the game we were playing really well. Give credit to Iowa, they are a great team, but at the end of the day I think we still kind of shot ourselves in the foot. It’s no need to put our heads down with the season still continuing. We just have to learn from this and keep moving forward.”

Langford looked rejuvenated with 15 points, including three three-pointers, two rebounds and one assist. He didn’t shoot the ball all that efficiently, making just five of 16 shots, but his energy and scoring was easy to notice. He even went up for a dunk early in the game, something he has not down very often since returning from the aforementioned foot injury.

“I’m just trying to win,” Langford said. “When you’re trying to win, you do anything that you can to help your teammates win and that’s the only focus right now. Just trying to keep learning and get a win and keep moving forward and try to build.”

Going back to the foot injury, Langford was asked about it, and while not making any excuses, he did admit that it has been tough to get back in the swing of things as far as rhythm and feel for the game.

“My last official basketball game outside of this season was December 27 of 2018, so you know that’s two years that I missed,” Langford said. “It’s definitely going to be different trying to get your timing and your rhythm back. But at the end of the day, you gotta have a fine balance. You can’t focus too much on yourself because if you start focusing on yourself it will kind of take you out of what you can do for the team. So I have to just keep with that balance and realize my game is gonna come, but I just have to do all the other things that my teammates need (from me) for us to win.”

As far has what the future holds for this struggling team, Langford, like Izzo, is choosing to focus on the present and controlling what he can control.

“I think you have to have the mentality that yesterday was last night and the future isn’t necessarily promised, the only thing you have is the present moment,” Langford said. “You have to make sure that you lock in on what you have to do now, because all you have is now. And the season isn’t over. We have some games left, we have the Big Ten Tournament. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself because it can take you out of the present moment, and when you’re out of the present moment, you can’t be your best self.”

Michigan State has a lot of work left to do, but has an opportunity on Saturday evening to get a victory at home over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.