It was a win that Michigan State desperately needed and in the end, it was a win that MSU got. Aaron Henry said that Indiana was “feisty.” Coach Tom Izzo said that the Indiana Hoosiers, “played so hard that it was scary.” But when the clock struck zero, it was the Spartans who had prevailed, 64 to 58.
The win very much keeps MSU’s NCAA Tournament hopes alive, and it is even possible that the win over Indiana alone will be enough to earn the Spartans a bid to the Big Dance.
The game itself was not a thing of beauty. The word “ugly” came up several times in the postgame press conference. Neither team shot better than 40 percent from the field or better than 25 percent from the three-point line. The teams also combined for a total of 45 fouls and almost 60 free throw attempts.
But, it was a close game. The first 58 minutes were played within a range of nine points, with neither team having a lead of more than five points. The Spartans trailed for most of the first half until Josh Langford hit a pair of long twos to close out the half and tie up the score at 26 all.
In the second half, the Spartans fell behind again and the shooting woes continued. At one point Michigan State missed 11 consecutive shots, until a rebound tip-dunk by Marcus Bingham Jr. broke the streak. Fortunately, that seemed to spark MSU on the offensive end.
First, it was a pair of jump shots from Gabe Brown to give Michigan State a three-point lead with 10 minutes to play. Then, it was a pair of post moves from Joey Hauser that fended off a Hoosier counter-attack. Finally, it was none other than Aaron Henry who closed out the Crimson and Cream.
Henry scored 18 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, including 12 points in the final five minutes. Much of the discussion in the postgame press conference focused on Henry’s play and on his evolution as a leader.
Regarding his junior guard and captain, Coach Izzo said that he is currently asking Aaron Henry to do a lot of things for the team, including play minutes at both the point guard and at the power forward positions. “He could write your article and coach my team for me,” Izzo said of Henry.
When teammate Gabe Brown was asked about Henry, he emphasized that what makes him special is the little things that he does that those of us just watching the game usually don’t see. “He does a lot of things for us, Brown said. “He is our captain. He does do the the vocal part.” Gabe added that while the scoring is nice, “in the huddles he is great. He is phenomenal.”
A bit later in the press conference, Coach Izzo reflected a bit on the journey that Henry has taken as a Spartan, starting with the infamous incident in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament where Izzo was visibly furious at the then-freshman Henry for an on-the-court error.
“We talk about that (incident) more than a little...It’s really a good thing... Aaron is a better player because he handled that like a man from the first day (after it happened),” Izzo said. “It brought us together...He knows I got his back and to be honest him you, I know he’s got mine.”
Coach Izzo also said of the original incident that if it were to happen again tomorrow, he would handle it exactly the same way. It is by continuing to hold his players like Henry accountable, every day, that has built the program into what it is today. Izzo said, “When you hold somebody accountable that cares and you show them that you care, it’s a beautiful thing.”
As for Henry himself, when asked about how he has been able to grow into the leadership role that he finds himself in on this team, he also credited his former teammates and current professionals, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.
“Not everybody gets to be that guy here at Michigan State,” Henry said. “Seeing Cassius and ‘X’ be that for so long and playing along side of them...they handled it the best. They played off of each other well all of the time, and I was a part of that. We got some places with them. I saw how they did it...We got to a Final Four. I just want to get there and take it a little further this time.”
But Winston and Tillman weren’t the only former Spartans mentioned in the press conference. When it was pointed out (by yours truly) that Henry’s late three-point basket with two minutes to play was reminiscent of former Spartan and National Champion, Mateen Cleaves, it brought a smile to Aaron’s face.
Henry said of Cleaves: “I just want to be half the winner that he was....I am just trying to follow in his footsteps.”
Slowing Indiana’s Bigs
One of the other keys to the Spartans’ victory on Tuesday night was the defensive performance on Indiana’s big men, and on Trayce Jackson-Davis, specifically. Just over a week ago in Bloomington, Jackson-Davis scored 34 points on the Spartans, but on Tuesday, he managed just nine points, making just one field goal on five attempts.
When discussing the performance of Indiana’s post players in the first game Coach Izzo said, “It was personal. It was embarrassing...You can’t give God 34 points.”
Coach went on to say that only the MSU big men practiced on Monday with a focus on getting better position on defense and putting in some additional wrinkles to disrupt the big men. Marcus Bingham, in particular, was excellent against Jackson-Davis and was an unsung hero off the bench with only three points, but added six boards and three blocks.
Coach Izzo mentioned that the experience of playing so many other high quality big men in the conference, such as Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois'’ Kofi Cockburn have helped the Spartan big men improve over the course of the brutal Big Ten schedule.
Tired Legs and Foster Loyer Out For the Season
While MSU has a stable of big men who are more-or-less interchangeable, the guard rotation is smaller and with so many games compressed into a short period of time, fatigue is a concern. This problem is made worse by the fact that it was announced on Tuesday that junior point guard Foster Loyer had season-ending surgery on his injured left shoulder.
Regarding Loyer, Izzo said that the decision was made to have the surgery now to make sure that Loyer would be at full strength and be ready to play next season.
Izzo is clearly worried about the legs of his team. He said, “If you were in that locker room right now, you wouldn’t be interviewing anybody, because they’re spent.” Late in the game, after Langford uncharacteristically missed a free throw, Izzo recalled that Langford turned to him and said, “Coach, I can’t move.”
Later in the press conference, Coach Izzo was clearly emotional when talking about Langford.
“Josh gave me everything that kid had tonight,” Izzo said. “You had to be there. It is one of those things I will remember for the rest of my life...You ask guys to give you everything that they got. He went beyond that. He didn’t do a very good job in the huddle, because talking was taking energy and air.”
Izzo went on to mention that players like Langford, Brown and Mady Sissoko are all still feeling some effects from COVID-19. “If you think that they are completely over it, then you don’t know anything about the virus.”
On a lighter note, Coach Izzo (half) jokingly said that he was going to need to find some ice and a masseuse for Aaron Henry to help him get ready for the next game.
The next game, of course, is a rivalry game against Michigan in Ann Arbor. Izzo mentioned that Wednesday’s preparation for the Wolverines will likely involve a lot of meetings, walk-throughs, and film study. He even joked that he would get wheel chairs for the players so that they didn’t need to stand anymore than necessary.
About Those Michigan Wolverines...
As the discussion turned to the next opponent, Izzo couldn’t help but comment on the rivalry and what it means to the him personally. He started off by reflecting back on the John Beilein years, his respect for Beilein, and how they used to talk about talk about the rivalry. They used to discuss how, “we don’t have to take a back seat to the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. We can build our own.”
Coach Izzo said, “Rivalries aren’t rivalries when they’re one-sided. In my first few years, we got beat by 20 every game. It wasn’t a rivalry. And then we went a stretch where we beat them by 20 every game. It wasn’t a rivalry.” But after John Beilein arrived and got established, it became a “very respected rivalry,” according to Izzo.
Coach Izzo said of the 2021 version of the Michigan Wolverines: “What a cool opportunity this is...You get a chance to play against, I could argue, the best team in the country. You play them twice. They are your rival.”
He went on to praise the coaching job that second-year head coach Juwan Howard has done in Ann Arbor, and said that this might be the best Michigan team since Howard was there as a member of the Fab Five.
But, of course, Coach Izzo had to also mention, “I always have to say that you hate your rival. I mean, that’s the American way. But, if you respect them, that makes it a really good rivalry.” He went on to say, “We are going to try to give them a good game on Thursday.”
Will the Streak Continue?
In the final question of the press conference, Coach Izzo was asked directly if he felt that MSU had done enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid this year. Coach did not answer the question directly at first, but did say that if the Big Ten did not get nine or 10 bids this year, he wasn’t sure “what conference ever will.” He added, “Now saying that, are we one of those (teams)? I don’t know. That for you guys to write about and the committee to pick.”
“We dug ourselves our own hole,” Coach Izzo said, and he mentioned the last-second loss to Purdue and how at the time he feared that it would haunt his team later. But eventually Izzo said, “I think that we are an NCAA Tournament team...but we got our work cut out. We are no shoo-in.”
“But I am not going to worry about that. I got a rivalry game. I got an opportunity of a lifetime... We can still pad our resume.”
That opportunity comes on Thursday afternoon in Ann Arbor at 7 p.m. Go Green!