Just a few weeks ago the Michigan State Spartans were done. Finished. Dead in the water. Many people had them counted out (myself included) and tried to deal with the fact that this year’s month of March would be different from any other in the last 23 years.
That long stretch of fantastic basketball over two decades of countless wonderful hoops memories apparently wasn’t enough to have many of us Spartans fans all truly believe in the magic of Tom Izzo — never counting him out until the last game is over. We all thought we did, but when push came to shove many of us really didn’t.
Now we do and our belief will probably never waver again. Ever. What Tom Izzo, his staff and most importantly his players did in the last two plus weeks of a grueling season has been nothing short of remarkable. Especially given the extreme low point the Spartans were starting from, the circumstances and the tremendous amount of pressure on their shoulders of probably ending a legendary NCAA Tournament streak. After going 5-2 over their last seven games (in 15 days and facing four top-five matchups) MSU seems to be destined to once again get to the Big Dance, even if the Spartans fail to accomplish anything in the Big Ten Tournament (starting tomorrow with a matchup against Maryland).
It took a tremendous amount of work from many people to right the ship, yet some factors have definitely been more important than others down the stretch. Let’s dive into three keys for Michigan State’s late season turnaround and how the Spartans helped to most likely salvage a season that already seemed lost.
Key No. 1: Aaron Henry put the team on his back
All season long Aaron Henry has been MSU’s best player, but it wasn’t until midway through the season that he consistently embraced the role of the Spartans’ top dog. When he finally did it, though, his transformation has been remarkable. Long gone were the days of a passive, tentative and brooding player who never seemed to make enough out of his packed toolbox. Henry not only was vocal throughout the entire homestretch of the season, he also became the centerpiece of the offense and put the team on his back whenever it needed his carrying.
The coaching staff put Henry in more isolations from the top of the key, got him comfortable with his mid-range game and they made him more of a focal point in the post. The junior forward paid back this confidence with some memorable performances, especially late in games. Just like so many MSU stars in the past, there was never a doubt about who would have the ball in his hands for the closing possessions of the game and who could bring the Spartans home. He hit big shots, made his free throws when they counted and delivered countless times on the defensive end as well. Henry did it all while only missing 25 minutes during the seven-game, 15-day stretch that put MSU back on track. He averaged 18.6 points (on 45.7 percent from the field), 5.6 rebounds while also dishing out 3.4 assists per game. This version of Aaron Henry is certainly ready for the NBA and it might also be ready for carrying a team for a decent run in March.
Key No. 2: Tom Izzo made some key rotation changes
Not only did Tom Izzo and his staff change up a few parts of the overall game plan like mentioned in the usage of Henry, they also realigned their rotation late in the year. Gabe Brown is playing major minutes (28.8 per game over the last seven games) all of a sudden after struggling to find playing time midway through the season (partly health related). While he hasn’t exploded numbers wise (7.5 points, 4.7 rebounds per game) his presence has made the team longer, more athletic, more matchup resistant on the wings, and it has helped the overall offensive flow. Brown plays without much hesitation, can make plays with his athleticism that not many in college basketball can make and he has provided some much needed positive energy.
The same can be said for Marcus Bingham Jr. who finally was the first front-court player to emerge from a pack of mostly struggling big men. Bingham is adding a new dimension to MSU’s roster, as many people expected him to do before the season. Recently he has found consistency, confidence and the overall maturity to provide impactful minutes whenever he gets them. In 14.1 minutes, he has averaged 4.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game over his last seven outings. It doesn’t seem much on paper, but his contributions are extremely valuable to this Spartans squad. He battled some premier big men recently like Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson (twice) and Trayce Jackson-Davis (twice), not once did he look out of place against them.
While Bingham and Brown have increased their playing time, other players have seen their minutes reduced heavily. Joey Hauser lost his starting spot midway through the Big Ten Conference season (something that he actually recommended to Coach Izzo) and has seen even lesser minutes during MSU’s late season push. He only played 18.5 minutes per game in the Spartans‘ last seven games and somehow it might have been a positive for him. Off the bench, his defensive struggles don’t matter as much and it seems as if he’s doing better with less pressure in a slightly smaller role. Aside from Hauser, Thomas Kithier has almost fallen out of the rotation as he only played a total of 27 minutes over the last two plus weeks.
Key No. 3: Michigan State did more Michigan State things
Now make no mistake about it, this year’s Michigan State outfit is still far away from matching past MSU teams in terms of defense, rebounding and overall physical play. But in recent weeks the Spartans at least have found a way to reflect on some of the things that this program was built upon and it has helped them to some big time wins along the way. Over their last seven games, the Spartans were only out-rebounded twice (one time by five against Illinois and at Michigan by six) and are overall plus-17 on the boards over that span. Again, it’s not a huge accomplishment but considering how badly they struggled at times at the beginning of the season, this certainly marks a step in the right direction.
The same can be said for the overall defense and the offensive approach. The highest point total Michigan State has given up in the last two weeks was 73 points on the road against Maryland. In the first 13 games of the Big Ten season the Spartans gave up that many points or more eight times. In their last five wins, they’ve almost kept their opponents below 40 percent from the field (40.4 percent) and most importantly got some key stops during crunch time in many of these games. Offensively, the approach has been more methodical and a bit more situational. Aaron Henry has manned the point guard spot late in games, MSU’s valued possessions more and there has been a bit more emphasis on inside play as well. Simpler pick and roll sets or isolations have unlocked Henry and at times even Rocket Watts, who probably made his best game of the season in the finale against Michigan.
Where does all of that lead to? Nobody knows. Even without a bracket set yet it might already be tempting to call Michigan State a dark horse for the NCAA Tournament. But not only does MSU have to make the field first (which seems likely at this point), the Spartans also have a long way to go before they deserve the aforementioned label. Especially considering how much energy they had to spent in recent weeks, basically fighting for their season every day for more than two weeks. Yet this also makes Michigan State more battle tested than probably any team in the country and even with all its obvious flaws, there have been worse teams that made a decent tourney run on a favorable matchup and a timely hot streak.
And don’t forget: Never count out Tom Izzo…ever.