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Notes & Quotes: Tom Izzo thinks “it will be one of the all-time great play-in games” against UCLA

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo, along with junior guard/forward Aaron Henry, met with the media today ahead of Thursday night’s First Four game against the UCLA Bruins.

Izzo said the team traveled from Indianapolis to West Lafayette today — about a one-hour-and-15-minute drive — to practice at Mackey Arena where the Spartans will face the Bruins later this week. He also mentioned the extended time off, after playing so many games in a short period of time, felt a little bit strange.

“We just got back from practice,” Izzo said in his opening statement. “We went up to Purdue and practiced, and it was great. I think our guys are looking forward to it. It’s just been a strange time, when you haven’t played in…when you played so many games in two weeks, and now it seems like we’ve played none in two months.”

Izzo, as usual also found some time to add some humor in during his availability, saying that he called Purdue head coach Matt Painter earlier and told him the least he could do was invite Izzo over for brunch, saying Painter owed him that after Purdue beat the Spartans twice this season.

Izzo went on to say that being able to practice at Mackey was good for the team, and the excitement his team has for being able to play in yet another NCAA Tournament.

“It was good (practicing there),” Izzo said. “You’re in Big Ten country, they were all nice, and did a nice job with the arena. You know, everything is good. It seems like there’s a million things you could complain about, because it’s just different, but there’s a lot of great things too, and the best thing of all is I got 15 guys here who get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. You take that for granted at Michigan State, but you really take it for granted until you don’t play one last year, and so I think there’s that excitement.”

UCLA redshirt sophomore point guard Tyger Campbell is a familiar name and face for Izzo. Campbell was a four-star prospect out of La Lumiere School in Indiana — a high school teammate of former Spartan Jaren Jackson Jr. — and Izzo spent a considerable amount of time recruiting him.

Izzo knows that Campbell is a skilled player, and a natural point guard — something MSU has lacked this season — who can cause problems for the Spartans on Thursday.

“His hair is the same and that’s how I can notice him,” Izzo said, jokingly, of Campbell. “But to me he’s a lot thinner, I think he’s done a great job with his body. He’s quicker, I think his shot is better. He’s a likable kid — we always liked him. I think he has matured a lot and I think they have done a great job with him because he’s the still the straw that turns that drink. He’s more of a traditional true point guard — he can score himself, but he’s looking to get people involved. If you ask me, he’s gotten quicker, thinner and those things kind of go hand-in-hand, and a little more under control with his game that I think has really helped him, too.”

The conversation then turned to UCLA head coach Mick Cronin, who Izzo repeatedly praised for the job he’s done with the program, and the toughness he brought to the Bruins.

“I’ve known Mick (Cronin) for a long time,” Izzo said. “I knew him when he was at Cincinnati when he was an assistant with (Bob) Huggins. And you know the one thing that is bad is that a West Coast team is usually a little softer over the years, but Mick brings a Midwest flavor and his teams are tough. He’s done a great job building that program again. Last year he had some problems — kids didn’t want to buy in. And now he’s got kids that have bought in and I have a lot of respect for Mick and the way he has done it and doing it in an environment that’s not as easy to do it in. He brings a smash mouth kind of team and it will be a different team than maybe some we’ve played out west.”

Izzo understands that Michigan State has had a wildly inconsistent season. The Spartans have shown, on numerous occasions, that they can beat any team at any time, including three victories over top-five opponents. However, Michigan State has also shown that it can lose to just about any team at any time.

Izzo thinks the Spartans certainly have what it takes to make a patented Michigan State run in March, but the team has to find consistency in order to do that.

“When you see the last two weeks of the season and how we played, you do get excited about (being able to make a run),” Izzo said. “Then you see the last two weeks of the season and a couple games we played. Sometimes it’s matchups, like Maryland might not be a great matchup for us. But when you can play with a Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, and you can argue Illinois has played as well as anybody and we beat them — the soundest of the three when they were fully loaded. So, I think we have some potential for that and I see that in our team. The consistency has been the problem but it’s a little different, too.

“Normally we’re going in and you’re preparing for two games. Now you go in and you’re probably underdogs in all three games, so it’s a little harder to look ahead. I still want to win the weekend, the weekend just became a little longer. So, in this year of the pandemic, in this year of 2020, and it’s 2021 now, I might as well experience some more new things. Not ever playing in a play-in game is a new thing and not ever playing three games to get out of the weekend, that’s a new thing. There’s a lot of new things, but just think if you accomplish them they’ll be really cool things.”

Another “new thing” for the Spartans is the extended rest. MSU had a brutal 16-day stretch to close the regular season, playing in six games in that timespan. However, after an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament at the hands of the Maryland Terrapins on March 11, the team has had plenty of time to rest.

Michigan State will have had a full week off in between contests by the time the Spartans take the court on Thursday night. Izzo looks at the time off as both a pro and con. The team surely needed the rest, but will MSU be rusty after getting out of a rhythm of constantly playing games?

“It’s funny because you could say that (the team is fresher) if you want to talk about the cup being half-full,” Izzo said. “If you want to talk about it being half-empty, you’d say ‘you don’t play a game for seven or eight days after playing every other day for two weeks.’ Nobody knows how that’s going to affect us. I do think we’re going to be fresher, but you know laying around worries me, too, because we can’t do the things that you’d want to do. So you’re spending a lot of time laying in a hotel room, which I’m not sure is good either. It’s everybody’s guess on how everybody is going to react to these different things. I think you’re going to see some teams that aren’t as good beating teams that are as good. I think you’re going to see some strange things because it’s going to come down to how everybody handles the adversity they’ve all been placed in.”

One thing that Izzo is sure of, though, is how proud he is of his team for even making it this far. When everybody seemingly had written off the Spartans’ chances of extending the now 23-year-long NCAA Tournament streak, Michigan State was able to make a run and secure a bid to the Big Dance.

“You know and I know that three weeks ago nobody gave us a chance, including probably most of you, and probably even me,” Izzo said. “We fought our way through and that took some courage and guts and I’m proud of them for that. So hopefully we can build on that and look at a game like Maryland and why did we not play well against them either time. You know sometimes there are bad matchups and you just don’t play well against certain teams and let’s hope it was that way.”

Izzo also said that because of the high-competition level in the Big Ten each and every game, there is nobody who he is afraid to play. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he feels comfortable playing any particular opponent, but given how elite the Big Ten has been this year, he’s ready to take on whatever challenge is thrown at him.

“I’m not worried about facing anybody in this tournament,” Izzo said. “I don’t feel comfortable with UCLA and BYU or Texas, but I don’t feel afraid of UCLA, BYU or Texas or anybody else because we truly, truly have played the best teams in the country on a night-in and night-out bases and especially in the last two to three weeks.”

Izzo says what he is asking from his team, and his guards specifically, in the NCAA Tournament is consistency, good shot selection and less turnovers, however he also put some of the blame on himself for the team’s inconsistent play.

When it comes down to it, Izzo is expecting a tough battle from Cronin’s UCLA squad.

“It’s gonna be a slugfest Thursday night (against UCLA),” Izzo said. “I think it will be one of the all-time great play-in games, which I’m still questioning a little bit (why we’re in a play-in game), but sticking with my theory of anybody, any place, any time — any place, we’re at Mackey Arena. Any time, we’re (playing) at 10 o’clock at night. Anybody, we’re playing one of the storied programs in all of sports, UCLA basketball.”

When Henry met with the media, he mentioned how the 2019 team his freshman year was “one of a kind,” but knows the 2021 version still has some experience and some things to offer. With that said, there are plenty of guys on the roster who have not competed in an NCAA Tournament before, especially with the 2020 event being canceled.

Henry, who is excited to play in his hometown of Indianapolis, has made sure to send a clear message to his teammates on what this opportunity means.

“(I’ve been) trying to express that the ‘my bads,’ have to go (to the younger teammates),” Henry said. “We don’t have time to say. “Oh, this is my fault.’ (Saying) ‘this is my fault’ will end up (causing) me to go home in my hometown. I don’t wanna make it personal like means a lot more than just me. But hopefully they understand that this four years, or however long they’re gonna be here, goes so fast and you have to take advantage of each time.”

Tom Izzo Media Remarks

Aaron Henry Media Remarks