Following Michigan State’s incredible 81-72 victory against Illinois, Tom Izzo, Joshua Langford, Rocket Watts, and Aaron Henry stepped up to the virtual podium to offer their post-game thoughts and answer questions.
First up to the podium, Joshua Langford offered his thoughts on the most important game of the season, and, potentially, a career re-defining performance for him.
When asked about how he feels physically after such an all-out performance, Josh noted that he is “grateful for the strength team and the training staff who have helped me so much” in his many recoveries from his many injuries. Josh also offered the two ethos-defining concepts that have driven the Spartans mini-resurgence over the last week. When asked about what is driving the team, he noted that “we are really coming into the identity of the team....we have been preaching two words in practice, first, from Coach Izzo — ‘consistency’ — and then, from us, from the team, we have been focused on ‘attitude’.”
Both consistency and attitude really have defined these past two wins, and it was clear from Illinois’ post-game comments that they felt those two elements of the Spartans’ will in a big way. In Trent Frazier’s comments, he noted that “Michigan State punched us in the mouth.” And Langford concurred, “Yeah, that’s what we wanted to do, but we aren’t too into compliments right now, not getting big-headed, not getting relaxed heading into Ohio State — they aren’t going to care about what we did here.”
In a final reflection on his decision to return to the program for one final season, even amid all that has transpired over the course of the last five months, Langford insisted that “this is the best place for me, the best decision for me, and I went with it....it definitely was challenging, but at the end of the day, it’s the best place for me...and I think, with the coaching staff, we have I couldn’t have made a better decision.”
Next up, Tom Izzo opened his comments by praising Langford, Aaron Henry, all of the front-court players who suited up in green and white, Rocket Watts, Joey Hauser, and, finally, by marveling at Kofi ‘the Mountain’ Cockburn:
“[My guys] been through hell and high water — they’ve been practicing real good, and starting to really move the ball better,” Izzo said “I mean how can Josh get 16 rebounds? That’s a Charlie Bell and Jason Richardson type (of performance)...And Aaron Henry is just becoming a man, and he had to guard, too. We got a lot out of our bigs — we put a skinny guy on him (referring to Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko), we put a 6-foot-8 strong-guy on him (referring to Julius Marble and Thomas Kithier), we just kinda rotated guys in there; I thought we had a decent game-plan to try and dig down. And he missed some free throws, but you know, we also missed some free throws.”
Izzo continued, saying “I thought Rocket played a lot more like I think he can play and that was really fun to watch — he was really, really good in the huddles, and just kept moving forward....I was happy for Joey Hauser — he hit those two clutch threes and those one-and-ones, got a couple of rebounds, and I’m hoping he will continue to grow. We beat them in transition points and points off turnovers, the only thing we didn’t do so great on was second-chance points, but you know he’s a man-child (referring to Cockburn) — they missed some free throws, and I was pleased with how we rebounded with him...happy to get a win, it was against a quality team who was on a seven-game win streak.”
Asked about the nature of the contest and Josh’s comment on consistency, Izzo mused that “Street fight is a good way to put it...we had an alum down there and he said it looked like our street fighting days. Even Gabe (Brown), you don’t realize that his size in there helped cause some issues; he missed some shots, but him and Josh coming back and looking like the players we thought they would be has helped. And Josh has become one of our greatest leaders. He’s in there watching film, helping Rocket. In meetings he’s calling people out; in October we didn’t think he could play; in November we were just hoping for 15 minutes out of him.” And, as he offered a short punch in the air, Izzo finished by noting “if he said that about consistency I’m right there with him.”
Asked about emotion, getting on the floor, and playing with it all on the line, Izzo pointed to “Mady, Gabe, and Josh there’s a lot of guys coming back to health and give us length and energy on the wing...no fans hurt us. We haven’t done anything yet, but we have played better in all but the Iowa game in the last four or five games. Tough task ahead with another tough one against Ohio State who has been off since Sunday. We’re gonna have to do a great job in practice and a better job subbing bodies on Thursday. My staff did a hell of a job in the scouting report and in following the scouting report. We really preached that before the game, and you know everybody has got to get confident in everybody...so for two nights we’ve been better and we’ll see if we are gonna keep being better.”
This comment and self-reflection regarding the performance of the staff seems essential —especially in building trust within the team — they have not always put the players and playing-groups together on the court to maximize individual talents and the team’s productivity. That Izzo noted this aspect of the team’s evolution — getting the right bodies and right game-plan together and sticking with it — is telling, and should bring a LOT of hope to Spartan fans. This is the Izzo and the Michigan State that we are used to seeing.
Asked if he felt Illinois underestimated the Spartans, Izzo was quick to defend Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood, and returned to the game-plan the team had for defending Ayo Dosunmu:
“(Underwood’s) a very good coach, his teams play hard and tough too...some teams aren’t gonna play all their games and some are (referring, pretty clearly, to Michigan) and maybe this had an effect on their approach,” Izzo said. “But, this is a very good team and we did a pretty good job against a good team. You can say we contained Ayo, holding him to 17 points, forcing him right and following the scouting report....They’re every bit as capable of going to a Final Four as some of the other teams at the top of the league.”
Asked about Langford’s resurgence from an efficiency perspective, Izzo commented that Josh’s funk really could be attributed to a bit of a hangover from his COVID-pause: “When people look at teams they’re usually talking about injuries (not illnesses). When he came back he was four-for-16 and five-for-18, and those three games in that period hurt him and hurt us and then Gabe came back and that helped Josh too; I think he and Gabe are a little healthier )getting their conditioning back). To be honest I think this team is healthier and a lot of it is that; and you know it affects everyone differently, but it really took those guys the full 17 days to recover from it...but Josh is really playing with energy now and really has some hop in his legs, and give him some credit — he has done a hell of a job leading this team now that it’s healthy.”
Izzo also spoke about having to play Hauser and Malik Hall down the stretch when everyone else had fouled out: “They had different lineups in there too, we played Joey (Hauser) some against Cockburn, and we were down to him and Malik (Hall). Well Malik went in and did a good job on a couple of switches too....we can go a lot of different ways with these lineups— we played our guards a lot of minutes...that’s not the way it’s gonna be able to be for the rest of these games coming up, so these other guys are gonna have to step up.”
Izzo was pleased overall with the defense and the tone of the game and the team:
“We talked about that a lot, I talked with Mateen (Cleaves) and David Thomas a ton about that in the last three weeks — we have to get our culture back,” Izzo said. “Mady’s been making progress, but he’s (lost weight) down from 230 to like 215. Cockburn is listed at 285, but I tell you he’s 300 pounds. I thought we did play more physical, I thought we got on the floor more. I don’t think it’s they’re more hungry now than they were, its that they’re healthy more than they were. Last week we had a lot of guys come in a lot more. I come in the other night and Josh is watching film with Rocket. And when guys like Joey and Rocket come back and make plays like they did — that brings a smile to the face of the coach at this time of year.”
Izzo had this to say on Rocket Watts specifically: “You know what, I just told him I was proud of him because some of it is my fault. He still a couple times got a bit out of control, but he’s getting better every day and he’s coming to huddles and saying that was my fault and I love that. I told him that I was proud of him spending more time and getting tougher on defense and running our team including against Ayo....Rock got tired, and so we’re gonna have to watch that.”
On the connected play of the team, Izzo excitedly noted “that was the battle cry for the last two weeks. Joshua said that in the huddle....leadership has been a part of it, and when Josh got healthier he just took on that (leadership) role more and more. Joshua took (Watts) into the gym and spent time with him, watched film, just spent time with him. Rocket — I wish you could be in the huddle because he is beginning to take criticism and positive stuff too. You know it’s a process and he’s a sophomore, but he’s really a freshman in the position, and he’s making progress and that’s how it’s supposed to go.”
Izzo demurred a bit when asked about playing smaller, commenting that part of the strategy is matching other teams, part of it is Gabe Brown being healthy again, and that they are still looking to get Malik Hall and Joey Hauser back to a better level:
“Part of it is health, part of it is matching what other teams are doing,” Izzo said. “We’re trying to get Malik and Joey back, and now Gabe is healthy so he can really play — he couldn’t have played that many minutes a week ago. Will I stick with it? different teams present different problems — so we’ll see.”
On the possibility of getting back to the NCAA Tournament, Izzo insisted that “The only thing I’m worried about is Thursday (against Ohio State). I don’t have any idea what’s gonna happen with that. Do i think we’re capable? Yeah. I can’t worry about that (streak) any more. It’s just gonna be one game at a time, and especially with how many games we’re playing in a short time. Got out-rebounded by five, but I thought for the most part we fought and scrapped (despite missed loose balls). Most of them deleted their twitter accounts, so that makes me happy on its own. I took the blame for some of it, some people thought it was humility, but it was just (reality). We all had to do a better job....and they’ve fought through it (referring to his team) and I told them, ‘if you can learn to fight through this, the rest of your life is gonna be a piece of cake.’ I thought we played pretty solid from start to finish and I didn’t think we have done that a lot.”
On Joshua Langford, and his leadership in particular, Izzo noted that “Josh wants to be held accountable, and in meetings he’s starting to call people out — and it’s just so different from the Josh I’ve known for four years in that regard. And Josh he’s said he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and he’s doing it. He brings tears to my eyes, I almost know three-fourths of what he’s been through, and who knows where this is going to take him. He’s an accountable guy...not like most kids.”
Looking ahead to Ohio State and the Big Ten Tournament, Izzo ruminated and insisted:
“Oh yeah I’d love to just keep going,” Izzo said. “I’m the one that wanted to play the extra games — schedule as many as you can. I’m just happy for my whole group. I don’t know where we’re gonna go, or what we’re gonna do. I resented that people said they were quitting. The road doesn’t get any easier. What we’re gonna do now is I told them to get some rest, then we’re gonna get ready for Ohio State. Tomorrow is gonna be very light physically and more mental. Ohio State is really good, too. They’re playing really good. If we play our best we’ve got a chance, and that’s all you can ask for....We’ll match up with ‘em, but we’ll have to play our best.”
On the proximity of the first and second games in the season series between MSU and OSU, Izzo noted that “it helps them more. They’ve been out since Sunday. Emotionally this time of year, we’ve had some time off — 20 days. It is what it is and theres other teams; there will be no excuses. Is it gonna be tough? Yes, but there won’t be an emotional letdown because we’re a little fired up about how we’ve been playing. Not cocky. We’ve been knocked down, but we’re excited because the ball is going in more, and being connected helps with that, as does being a bit tougher. We’ve just got to keep grinding.”
Maybe this is a different version of Michigan State than the one that Ohio State played just a few weeks ago:
“Yeah, maybe — we’re probably a bit different, but maybe because we’re making shots,” Izzo said. “I think Aaron is a better player now than he was. They’ve got some guys (Duane) Washington and (E.J.) Liddell has been playing well. So have, I think, (Justice) Sueing, (Justin) Ahrens, and (Kyle) Young. They are the glue, they’ve got experience, and it’s gonna be fun. What an opportunity. We get a home game against one of the best teams in the country. Shazam! It’s not the non-conference, but the conference season this year that is making our schedule such a bear. I’m looking forward to it. This team is buying in more and starting to play better. It is something to come through what they’ve been through and Gabe and Josh are what that looks like.”
After Izzo stepped away from the podium, Rocket Watts stepped up, and offered his typically reserved answers to questions that might succinctly be grouped into the following:
Watts noted that the team is “playing Spartan basketball right now, communicating really well on defense,” that he is feeling more comfortable now, “letting the game come to me, watching film, and not forcing things.”
And on Langford and Henry: “we’re all being connected; we’ve got free time — so watching extra film on the next opponent and doing little things like that we’re doing a great job on that right now. Their leadership has turned up a notch and Coach (Izzo) has been on them a lot and they’ve been bringing guys together and holding guys accountable....the Big Ten is crazy right now; the opponent is going to be great it’s about how well we practice and come out each game.”
Having gotten to know Aaron Henry pretty well over the last three years through interviewing him and talking with him in the locker-room, I was excited to check in with him for the first time in a few weeks. I have been marveling at Aaron’s rapid maturation and evolution into a truly dominant “first-option” and nigh-on-unstoppable force in the last two months. I noted recently that Aaron is one of 16 players in the last decade, in Big Ten play, to average 15 points, three assists, and three-and-a-half rebounds per game, while also shooting 80 percent or better from the free-throw line (Aaron is also joined by Cassius Winston and Denzel Valentine on that list, which should reiterate the kind of season that Henry is having).
When I asked Aaron if he feels like he is putting up a great season, whether he is aware of the rarefied statistical air that he is entering, and what his mentality is right now as he heads into games, he responded succinctly:
“I’m trying to win,” Henry said. “I play games to win. I don’t play sports for stats. I’m trying to win.”
It was a direct and forceful answer; the kind I have never gotten from Henry before, and indicative of the mindset that he has fully embraced over the course of this season. Even earlier this season, just a few months ago, Henry would have answered that question very differently; he might have paused and considered it. Instead, he knew what his answer was— he knows his mission; his task; his purpose; and he will not be deterred.
When asked about the rest of the team “joining him” in this recent renaissance, he again, directly, and forcefully met the question head-on: “I’m frustrated we haven’t been playing this well all year. We won tonight playing defense, and damn I wish we had been playing this way all year. It was Spartan basketball tonight. We became tighter, and we have to continue to build and be consistent, it’s another opportunity we have (on Thursday).”
When asked about his ability to sustain his production, amid heavy minutes and onerous nightly defensive assignments, and when another reporter asked a similar question to mine on his feelings on being in a starring role, Henry commented firstly, “I don’t get tired. I won’t get tired. I don’t have time to get tired.” And, on his role, “you could say that (I am in a starring or lead role) — I would agree, but I’m still a piece of the puzzle; no matter how big that piece is.”
Henry, Langford, and Loyer have been focused on all three of them staying level and leading with consistency on their own parts: “It’s easy to get too high or low (for other guys in games), but leaders have to be even-keeled. Me, Foster, and Josh? We have to stay even. Always poised and ready to play.”
Henry continued with reflections on the defensive play and on Langford and Watts:
“Guys are more connected,” Henry said. “It’s a good time to do it (to turn on the defensive intensity), I really couldn’t tell you what made guys do it. Maybe frustration, but if this is what we get — lets’ get frustrated more often.”
On Josh Langford: “If guys want to question if Josh can still play, fine, but no one in our locker room is doing that. I’m cutting my man out, and Josh is flying in for boards. I said to him at crunch time — I need one of those rebounds and he got it for us. He’s a spectacular player, and I’m so happy to be doing this with him.”
And, finally, on Rocket Watts: “It’s a process for everybody. You never want to knock anyone. you get exhausted mentally playing the one in this system — Coach (Izzo) put me and Josh out there and we are dead after just a few minutes with the mental burden the position places on you, but just the emergence his last few games has been great. He’s been putting in the work on his reads and his shot, and watching more film and I’m excited for him. I really am.”
The season was on the line against Illinois, and it still is. If the Spartans can win at least one more of their ranked-opponent games (vs. Ohio State, at Michigan, vs. Michigan) and win both of their tilts against unranked teams (at Maryland, vs. Indiana), then I would be surprised if the Spartans didn’t sneak into the tournament as a 10-or-so-seed (the goal is to be a 7-seed or a 10-seed to avoid playing one of the 1-seeds in the second round).
Izzo and the players were dead-on from my point-of-view in their assessment of the performance of the team and the staff in this one: the game-plan was correct. Force Ayo to his right and into mid-range shots (17 points on 18 shots), run the Illini three-point shooters off the line (Frazier hit 4-8 from three-point range, but no other shooter hit more than one, and they were repeatedly run off-the-line), force Cockburn to hit free-throws and use your fouls to prevent easy looks at the rim (Cockburn got 13 points on 11 shots, 3-11 from the line) and Kithier, Bingham, Marble, and Sissoko used almost all of their fouls to defend the rim, while helping the team rack up nine blocks for the game.
Langford and Henry were unreal. If Josh really is healthier than he has been, and can sustain this level of performance, then Henry has the Robin to his Batman, and if Watts can continue his out-of-nowhere improvement and consistent play, then all of a sudden there is a perimeter trio. Gabe Brown’s much-improved play over the last week or so continued last night even though he did not have a big night in the box-score — his defense was largely excellent off-ball and he had a number of crucial contests on-ball, tipped balls and contested rebounds, and a number of moments of important communication.
Moving forward all four of these perimeter players simply have to play 30 minutes a game or more. Ideally, Henry and Langford can trend down a few minutes a night towards 32-34 minutes to keep them a bit more fresh, and if that is going to happen then A.J. Hoggard, Malik Hall, and Joey Hauser have to bring it consistently on both ends. They were all good in their roles against Illinois, and it seems that each individual has finally found a bit of comfort in their place in the playing rotation.
Finally, the center position, flawed though it may be, appears to have really found something in Marcus Bingham Jr., and the staff’s choice to bring him off the bench (to protect him from foul-trouble) appears to be working against the many, dominant bigs in the conference. If the staff can get a bit more defense out of Julius Marble to go along with his timely scoring, and if the staff can get Mady Sissoko to play a slightly more reserved game, then the four-headed monster at the center looks set to roll-downhill toward the finish line of the season assuming Kithier’s ankle injury is not too bad and assuming he continues to play solid ball in his much-reduced role off the bench.
Michigan State move on to face Ohio State again on Thursday. The Spartans were completely destroyed by the Buckeyes in the first matchup and simply cannot play worse, after two near-dominant wins over the last week, in must-win situations, Spartan fans and everyone in the program must be feeling a steely confidence that the Spartans will play better tomorrow night.