In the final regular season contest of the 2020-2021 season, the Michigan State Spartans came out with a lot of energy on Sunday afternoon in the Breslin Center, and walked away with a 70-64 victory over the No. 2-ranked Michigan Wolverines — a team the Spartans were defeated by in blowout fashion just a few days ago.
Tom Izzo and several Spartan players spoke with the media following the win.
Coach Izzo opened his remarks by noting how difficult the past 16-day stretch has been for Michigan State — the Spartans have played six games in that stretch, four of which coming against top-five ranked opponents.
“It’s been a hell of a 16 days,” Izzo opens with, and mentions MSU has played four top-five teams with three wins there.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 8, 2021
“It’s been a hell of a 16 days,” Izzo said. “I told my guys probably about six games ago — when we were looking at definitely playing four top-five teams, I don’t know if anybody’s ever done that at the end of a conference season — I said it would be a memory-making experience if you could do your job. To win three of four of those games with the schedule we had, I think that speaks a lot about the character of our guys — assistant coaches did a hell of a job. We beat three really, really, really good team, and got beat by a really, really, really good teams. I think Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan all have a legitimate chance to be a Final Four team.”
Given that the Spartans have defeated three top-five teams in the past couple of weeks, it seems to stand to reason that Michigan State should be an NCAA Tournament team, despite the struggles throughout the season. When asked about the Big Dance, Izzo had this to say:
“Nobody during a pandemic year has ever gone through anything like this,” Izzo said. “I’m not going to worry about what happens to Michigan State, (but) I think there’s a bigger picture here and that’s the Big Ten Conference, there’s not even an argument it’s been the best conference in the country all year. Well, the best conference in the country should get nine, maybe even 10 teams in this year. So, I look at that a little differently, but I’m not on the (selection) committee...We did just about everything we could do...if I had a vote, I’d vote us in.”
As for the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, Izzo wasn’t looking ahead, saying he wants to just take the night to enjoy the victory over Michigan. However Izzo did add:
“I’m gonna go down to Indy feeling good about our team, knowing we have a lot of work to do. We’re good enough to win some games, and we’re good enough to get beat in the first game.”
Izzo went out to praise Juwan Howard and Michigan. He also mentioned that he didn’t want his team to feel the pressure of MSU’s current NCAA Tournament streak — which currently sits as 22 consecutive appearances, and would go to 23 this year — but that the streak does matter to the program.
Perhaps Izzo’s most impactful statement, though, was when he reflected on what this team has accomplished this season through impossible circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic looming large, causing a long shut down, and just the overall difficulty of playing a full conference schedule in the Big Ten. Izzo provided a ton of perspective on how hard this grind has been on the college athletes — and the fans have been quite critical this season.
“This team will not hang a (regular season) championship banner,” Izzo said. “Who knows what will happen in the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament. But if there’s never a banner hung, or anything done, this team should be appreciated by our fans for what they went through and what they gave us because they hung in there...I’m proud of this team because they did what I asked them, and that’s go out and make a memory for yourself.”
“If there’s never a banner hung (this season)...fans should appreciate this team for what they’ve been through and what they’ve done,” Izzo said.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 8, 2021
Josh Langford also met with the media, and praised his coaching staff for the job they’ve done keeping the team together.
“I think it speaks volumes to how great of a coaching staff we have, for starters, because of the way they constantly kept pushing us” Langford said. “It’s not easy to come in day-in and day-out and see a result that you don’t want to see — especially when you’re in a position of leadership and you have people following you. That’s difficult, especially when you’re even second-guessing yourself. So, for our coaching staff to come in every day, and to really put in the time with us and to give 110 percent every day.”
In addition to Coach Izzo, Langford went on to praise assistant coaches Dane Fife, Dwayne Stephens, Mike Garland, video coordinator Drew Denisco, the graduate assistants and the players.
Langford also mentioned that the team is now “battle-tested” and the trials and tribulations of the difficult season throughout a global pandemic has brought the team closer together. Langford thinks this team still has a lot of success in its future.
“I see greatness...a team coming together and playing Michigan State basketball,” Langford says.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 8, 2021
“I see greatness,” Langford said of his team. “What I see is a team really coming together and just playing Michigan State basketball, and as we all know, this is a time (March) where Michigan State is a their best. We’re just going to keep trying to grow, keep trying to mature, and be happy for whoever’s doing well.”
Rocket Watts has had a tough season. But on Sunday, Watts carried the Spartans with 21 points, adding four assists and four rebounds. Perhaps there was a special reason for Watts’ suddenly stellar play tonight — his mom was able to watch him play in-person for the first time in his college basketball career.
“That’s when he told me, ‘Coach my mom came for the first time she’s seen me in college,’” Izzo said. “Even tough old Rocket was in tears. Those are the kind of things that make the job worth the job — because there are a lot of things that don’t make the job worth the job — but they had memory-making two weeks, and I got a memory-making moment that day. To see how much that impacted him, that was pretty cool.”
Langford and Aaron Henry both mentioned how happy and proud they were of Watts. Langford added that “nobody is surprised” about Watts’ performance. Izzo mentioned he was proud of Watts’ character.
Watts also met with the media and spoke about what his mom watching him play for the first time meant to him.
Rocket Watts up now. He said seeing his mom in the stands with tears in her eyes mean a lot to him.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 8, 2021
“It felt real good seeing my mom in the stands,” Watts said. “Me, looking her in her eyes when I was on the court, and seeing tears come down her eyes, it meant a lot to me. Seeing everybody in the stands cheering, and the game was going well on our side, it just meant a lot to me.”
Watts said that his mom is really not into watching the games, but always calls after his games to check in. But her being in attendance today provided an extra boost of energy to Watts.
“During the first couple minutes when I checked in, I looked and I saw her,” Watts said. “I just got real happy and excited. Then I just got mad energy, it was just, I don’t know, it was crazy.”
Watts also added that his teammates have had his back through his struggles throughout the seasons, and that means a lot to him.
Aaron Henry also spoke after the game, and was clearly in a great mood, but knows there is still work to do for the Spartans. He also appreciates everything that Coach Izzo has done for him.
“When the going gets tough, the tough people get going,” Henry says.— The Only Colors (@TheOnlyColors) March 8, 2021
Henry adds that Izzo has done so much for his growth “as a man” and both on and off the court.
“When the going gets tough, the tough people get going,” Henry said. “That’s something I try to instill in anybody I come across — it doesn’t have be to my family, anybody that’s in my circle or who I have an encounter with. Just, fight through the day, it’s never as bad as you think, somebody always has it 10 times worse than you. That’s the perspective that my parents instilled in me early. Coach Izzo has only enhanced that with a fine-tooth comb. He’s done a lot for me as a man, more so than a basketball player, and that’s where I feel like I’ve excelled the most — off the court as compared to on the court.”