Walking into the Breslin Center on Sunday afternoon, it seemed clear that it was either going to be a very good day or a very bad one for the Michigan State Spartans. Fortunately, the fans wearing Green and White were all smiling by the time the clock expired.
Michigan State defeated Maryland by a score of 77-67 on Sunday night. In the process the senior class of Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham, Joey Hauser and walk-on graduate student Michael Peterson were able to kiss the Spartan head logo at center-court in the closing seconds of the game as winners.
Even more notable was that with the victory, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo broke the Big Ten record for the most total wins by a coach at a single Big Ten school with his 663rd career victory. The previous record was held by Indiana basketball legend Bob Knight.
Following the win, Coach Izzo addressed the media in the postgame press conference.
What Went Right
Coach Izzo opened the press conference by praising Maryland’s effort and by commenting on the roller-coaster nature of the game.
“I saw an entire season in one game with its ups and downs and the ways things went,” Izzo said.
Izzo was clearly disappointed that his team allowed the Terrapins to close the gap to just three points with seven minutes to play after leading by as many as 22 points earlier in the game.
“We did a hell of a job early,” Izzo said, “But then we did what we do. We let down a little bit and all of a sudden, the gaps (in the defense) got bigger. Then they started driving (on) us and then they started kicking out.”
However, Izzo seemed generally happy with the Spartans’ ability to finish strong and secure the victory.
“Defensively, we were better most of the game and that was the difference,” Izzo said. “We shot pretty well. We out-rebounded them, and we guarded them.”
Coach Izzo also seemed pleased with the play of the three senior starters. As for Brown, Izzo admitted that the senior wing might have been over-excited to start the game on senior day.
“But then (Brown) settled down and made some big shots and big plays during that one stretch,” Izzo said.
As for Hauser, Coach Izzo said, “Joey was solid as a rock. He made some passes and got some rebounds.”
Hauser did have just three points for the game, but his energy was evident from the opening tip.
Izzo seemed most pleased overall with Marcus Bingham Jr. While Bingham did post a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds, Izzo was more impressed with his leadership.
“I was really impressed with Marcus (Bingham) tonight,” Izzo said. “We did go to him early, but I was more impressed with him in the huddles than I was with his play. Maturity — he willed us to win.
“Huddles are interesting things now that Draymond (Green)’s gone,” Izzo went on to say. “They’re not ‘R’-rated. They’re crazy, but they’re good. Marcus was kind of begging people, and willing people, and I never saw that side of him (before). So, some players grow in a lot of different ways. Marcus Bingham grew in that winning is now more important than individual play.”
Breaking Bob Knight’s Record
A lot of the discussion in the postgame press conference centered around the significance of Coach Izzo breaking the all-time Big Ten win record.
“I idolized Bob Knight when I got here,” Izzo said. “He was my hero.
“The year we went to the Final Four, he gave me some great advice that taught me how to handle the media, and the road, and how to get to a national championship because he felt that team was good enough,” Izzo continued.
Overall, Izzo is just happy to be mentioned in the same breath as the former Indiana head coach and basketball legend.
“I’ll always remember that (advice he gave me) way more than the number of wins,” Izzo said. “If I’m in the same sentence with Bobby Knight and (Purdue legend) Gene Keady, for Tom Izzo, that’s a hell of a place to be.”
It was also very clear that the MSU players were very motivated to get win No. 663 for their head coach.
“That was one of the main goals for everyone,” Brown said. “We didn’t talk about it. But everybody on the team knew. We wanted to get the job done for him and have him be on top because of how important it is to him. So, I’m just glad we got it done tonight.”
Bingham echoes the sentiment.
“The goal today was win first and celebrate after,” Bingham said.
With the regular season now complete, it is time for the Spartans to turn their focus to the Big Ten Tournament and then to the NCAA Tournament.
Next up for Michigan State will be a familiar opponent. On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. the No. 7-seeded Spartans will once again face No. 10-seed Maryland in Indianapolis in the Big Ten Tournament’s second round.
When I asked Coach Izzo if it was an advantage or disadvantage to play the same team again so soon, he seemed to be on the fence.
“Probably the assistants that have to scout it are feeling a little better,” Izzo said. “I’m not sure it’s an advantage. Now you’ve got to beat a team three times, but it is what it is...Would you hope to play somebody else? Maybe, but I don’t care. I’m just glad we’re playing with a little better feel.”
Hauser gave a similar opinion later in the press conference.
“It sucks to have to beat a team three times, but that’s what we’re going to have to do,” Hauser remarked. “Going forward, it’s a whole new season. It’s one-and-done time. So, I think that kind of a fresh start is going to be good for us, especially coming off this big win.”
Despite the struggles that this team has experienced in the past month or so, Coach Izzo still seemed upbeat about the Spartans’ chances in the postseason.
“I feel like this team is good enough,” Izzo said. “The one thing I do like about this team is we’ve done it before. We’ve guarded before, we’ve shot 85 percent from the free-throw line.
“What we haven’t done is take care of the ball and now we’re starting to do that at a much better pace,” Izzo continued. “But I just believe that if we can realize that we’ve done these things before we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Coach Izzo summed his team’s postseason prospects up a few minutes later as follows:
“There are teams that are better than us right now. But I don’t think there’s anybody we can’t beat either. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s many teams that can’t beat us.”
Izzo also made it clear that his job as a motivator was certainly not over for the year. Izzo even seems to have gotten an assist in this regard from another esteemed coach.
“I got a call from (Kentucky basketball head coach) John Calipari today,” Izzo said. “We talked about how our job is still to the push kids.”
Coach Izzo also mentioned that he talked to his team about this conversation with Calipari. The final blueprint for maximizing the output of this team seems to be crystalizing in Izzo’s mind.
“What I learned is that in the end there is only one way to be great: You’ve still got to push people, you’ve still got to demand of people,” Izzo said. “You’ve still got to make people feel uncomfortable. “What I was telling them (my players) is that my favorite thing in my job is to make you do the things that you don’t even believe you can do.
“That’s not always fun,” Izzo continued. “But I think it’s the only way you become ultra-successful. Sometimes in this last year-and-a-half, I am not sure that I did as good of a job of that. So, they’re going to get better, I’m going to get better, and we’re going to get better.”
Coach Izzo gave an example of this approach in the form of Malik Hall, who led the Spartans in scoring with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting on Sunday.
“I have a lot of respect, a lot of admiration, and a lot of confidence in Malik Hall,” Izzo said. “I think that sometimes he doesn’t have that. So, if I just let it go, he is going to be average. If I don’t, he’s going to be mad at me. It’s a tough thing to deal with, especially during the pandemic.”
As for the players, they made one thing very clear about how they felt about the next few weeks.
“I went home early last year, and I’m not going home early this year,” Brown said. “So, everybody’s got to lock in, we’ve got to get the job done.”
“We don’t want to be done early,” Bingham said. “We don’t want to make this year like last year. We’ve just got to clean up some stuff and get back to the drawing board.”
The postseason officially begins for the Spartans on Thursday night.