Following Michigan State University’s thrilling, last-second 71-69 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Wednesday night, head coach Tom Izzo seemed to not know how to feel. He was clearly excited about MSU’s victory and for the hero of the day, redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser, but he was just as clearly disappointed in his team’s performance. To be Tom Izzo in the month of January is to never be satisfied.
By some metrics, the Spartans played well, yet the game still came down to the final play.
“Wow,” Izzo said to open the postgame press conference. “I don’t think that I have been in a game where you shoot 52 percent from the field and 43 percent from the three and hit almost 85 percent from the free throw line, and could have lost.”
So, why was the game so close? Part of it was clearly some strong play by the Gophers. Coach Izzo had a lot of positive things to say about Minnesota’s first-year head coach, Ben Johnson.
“He deserves credit,” Izzo said of Johnson. “He just did a good job. They executed a lot better than we did.”
However, the Spartans seemed sluggish at times. Izzo was obviously frustrated by a lack of consistency with more than one of his players.
“Some guys played pretty well,” Izzo said. “We had some guys that just played well in spurts...We just got to do a better job of being consistent with our defense and consistent with our turnovers.”
Coach Izzo was also a bit disappointed with the effort of his big men.
“We did not set good screens,” Izzo said. “They were more physical than we were.
“That’s why I was a little disappointed in our energy level,” Izzo later added. “I just didn’t think we mixed it up enough and they did. But sometimes that happens. We’re coming off a disappointing no-play (but that’s) no excuse.”
Lineup shake up
When Coach Izzo gets frustrated with his team, he tends to use playing time as a teacher. At the 10:43 mark of the second half and the game tied at 51-all, junior point guard Tyson Walker and senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. went to the bench. Neither player returned.
In their place, sophomore A.J. Hoggard ran the point for the remainder of the game. In the front court, Izzo went with the “small-ball” line up using Hauser and junior forward Malik Hall. According to Izzo, this move was mostly a way to try to slow Minnesota’s offense.
“We had to do some switching because they were killing us on those ball screens,” Izzo said. “So we put in a defensive lineup that could cover it, and it worked OK.”
There was some speculation that Walker may have been injured, but Izzo made it clear that he could have returned. Once again, it was a decision based on the matchup.
“(Walker) tweaked the ankle and asked to come out, but he could have come back,” Izzo explained. “A.J. (Hoggard) was better because when we switched that one-four ball screen, which was (Minnesota power forward Jamison) Battle, A.J. could cover Battle at 6-foot-7, whereas Tyson probably couldn’t.”
Coach Izzo also felt that the small-ball lineup might present some advantages on the offensive side of the ball.
“We thought we could spread the court a little bit more and maybe drive because Joey (Hauser) can shoot it,” Izzo said.
However, even though the Spartans may have gotten more shots at the rim, they struggled to finish there all evening, which also frustrated Izzo.
“We missed three layups,” Izzo said. “I mean, dead-nuts layups. That’s six points.”
A major focus of the postgame press conference was the final play that ended with the game-winner from Hauser. Coach Izzo started with a very tongue-in-cheek description of the play.
“That incredibly-designed play at the end was off the charts,” Izzo said. “We kind of drew it up to come off, hit the corner, fumble it, drive it, fumble it, and it falls into Joey’s hands, he makes the layup.”
Later in the press conference, Izzo and his players gave a more serious accounting of how the play went down. The play was originally drawn up to get senior guard Gabe Brown the ball with the option to shoot or to dump the ball down into Hauser. But, Minnesota managed to prevent Brown from getting the ball.
“We were trying to get Gabe (Brown) open for a shot,” Hauser said following the game. “(That) didn’t work out and A.J. (Hoggard) made a really good play going downhill and dumped it off to me, and I knew I had to take that shot. It really wasn’t drawn for me, but the way it worked out shows how connected we were in there.
“It was a really awesome moment for me,” Hauser continued. “I was just glad to have really awesome teammates.”
Hoggard discussed the play as well.
“My mindset was to just make a play, honestly,” Hoggard said. “I saw (Hauser’s) man step up and I just knew at that time that it was for him to win the game for us. So I just dumped it off and put it in his hands and trusted him to win the game.”
For Hauser, hitting the game winning shot was a big deal. He revealed in the postgame interview that it was the first time in his career going back to high school that he hit a game-winning shot.
Hauser has had an up-and-down career so far in the Green and White uniform. Coach Izzo and Hauser’s teammates were clearly happy that he got to play the role of hero.
“The players were happy for Joey, and that’s pretty cool,” Izzo said. “I was happy for him too, but when players are happy for a player that’s special...It was one of those weird special moments in a game where you really didn’t play that good, and yet you won. They acted just like we just won the national championship, and it wasn’t the game I think as much as the situation, and that was pretty cool.”
Freshman shooting guard Max Christie, who led the Spartans with 16 points on Wednesday night, was also happy for Hauser.
“Joey deserves that moment 100 percent,” Christie said of Hauser. “He works his tail off and he’s done a really good job taking care of his body. He just does all the little things...like rebounding, defense when we need it, and he can really shoot the ball.”
The Breslin center crowd chanted “Joey” as he celebrated with his teammates following the final horn. When Izzo was asked about the crowd’s response, he said the following:
“I appreciate all the fans that chanted his name as long as none of them were the ones that were writing the (negative) stuff they wrote last year. If they were, they can take a leap.”
Survive and advance
At the end of the day, however, a win is a win. Coach Izzo needed a bit of a reminder of that from another Hall of Fame coach who happened to be in attendance on Wednesday night. Former Kansas and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams gave Izzo a bit of a pep talk following the game.
“It’s kind of insane when you sit in a locker room with a guy that’s won a thousand games, or whatever Roy’s won, and he had to remind me we were 14 (wins) and two (losses),” Izzo said. “I can’t forget that.
“But I know what’s coming up and I know where we are in my mind,” Izzo continued. “That’s all I care about. I know we got to get better and have to get more physical.
“We will try to do a better job because that was not good enough. We won’t win Saturday (against Northwestern) if we do that. (We) just got to do a better job of being consistent with our defense and consistent with our turnovers.”
As the press conference went on, Izzo seemed to also be talking himself into the idea that maybe things really are not so bad after all.
“I think there is something to be said for the way that we found a way to win a game,” Izzo said. “It wasn’t like we didn’t deserve to win. I mean, we shot really well. I wasn’t happy with our performance. But, I’m not happy (even) when we win big.
“The name of the game was to find a way to win and move on, so we did,” Izzo later added. “Hopefully we can move on and learn from it.”
Next on the schedule for Michigan State is a home game against the Northwestern Wildcats where the Spartans will look to secure the season sweep of NU, continue the winning streak (which is currently at nine games), and protect the perfect conference record (5-0).
The game tips off at noon Eastern Time on Saturday, Jan. 15 and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Stay tuned to The Only Colors for continuing coverage of Michigan State basketball. Check out the full statements from Coach Izzo and the players below. Go Green.