Practice translates into results after blowout win against Youngstown State
Head coach Tom Izzo said his team was “playing with an AAU mentality,” through the first 10 games of the season. Play style that lacked toughness and grit.
Especially after a narrow on Dec. 3, where the Golden Eagles out-rebounded the Spartans and outscored them on second-chance opportunities, 17-10.
After a 77-57 blowout win against Youngstown State University (5-5 overall) on Tuesday, Izzo said his team learned to play more cohesively and has made progress with every game. During his postgame press conference, Izzo said freshmen guards Cassius Winston and Josh Langford have made significant improvements.
“Well I think we took another step, a small step,” Izzo said. “What I was most excited about is we really challenged Josh (Langford) and Cassius (Winston). The last two games the turnovers have been down, the 16 assists and two turnovers with your point guards is phenomenal.”
Langford finished the game against Youngstown State with a career-high in both points with 15 and assists with three. Langford shot 6-of-8 from the floor, three of which coming from 3-point range in 19 minutes. Winston followed up his 15-point performance against Oral Roberts, having shot 8-of-10 from the field with nine assists in 25 minutes.
Izzo’s players know they’ve made progress, too. Fifth-year senior Eron Harris said even though the team is improving on the fly, he’s holding the team accountable to keep getting better.
“We’ve just been continuing to progress and continuing to get better,” Harris said. “I’m happy about it but I think we could have done it even better, but we just have to continue to get better at this point.”
Winston said after the game it was the team’s most energizing performance to date. Winston said the mix of vigor and strategy proved to be a formula for success, but one game isn’t enough sample size.
“We played with energy, but we played smart at the same time,” Winston said. “We made good plays, solid decisions, but we have to keep building on that because that’s what’s going to win us games.”
One of the biggest points of emphasis for Izzo since the loss to then-No. 5 Duke on Nov. 29 has been the team’s ability to play a complete game — and do so with grit and enthusiasm. Even in years prior, Izzo has made physicality a cornerstone of his program, with this team well aware of that.
“(Coaches) have been on us about our energy, about our toughness,” Winston said. “At some point, you’re not going to let anybody call you soft or anything like that, or let them tell you you’re not competing. It’s a chip on our shoulder and we have to prove to the world and prove to everyone those first four games — that’s not us.”
After a gauntlet of travel, including four games against AP top-25 opponents and eight games in total through a month, Izzo said it’s all time away from the film room and practice. Now the opening stretch of the season is over with, Izzo said the team can get grounded into practice and work on conditioning, especially with the freshman class.
“I don’t think we’re in great shape,” Izzo said. “I sit there and say, ‘Well how could you be? You haven’t practiced,’ so that’s another area I feel like is not their fault, but we have to overcome it. I just feel like some guys are looking tired out there.”
Izzo cited Langford and freshman forward Nick Ward as the greatest benefactors of team practices. Ward was averaging 16 points per contest in his last three games coming into the game on Tuesday against the Penguins 6-of-10 shooting with 13 points in 20 minutes. Ward was also honored as Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday. Izzo, however, said the box score of a good game from his team does not indicate growth.
“They played one good game,” Izzo said. “As I told my staff on the bench, the minute you hang your hat on someone, like Nick Ward, he was playing so good but he really played OK tonight. The stats are better than he played. We have to keep hammering away.”
Harris said more time in practice has translated into comfort on the court come game time. Against Youngstown State, MSU held an offense averaging 82 points a game headed into the match to 57. MSU outscored their opponent in the paint 34-12, grinded 24 points forced from 12 Penguin turnovers, 20 points from second-chance attempts and manufactured 23 points off the fastbreak.
“We have a couple more days to practice now and that’s going to help us,” Harris said. We were on the road for a really long time and now we have to practice and get better and prove it.”
As the team gets more comfortable, Winston said they’ll only get better in terms of strength and toughness. The Spartans out-rebounded the Penguins 47-32 and assisted on 28 of the team’s 34 baskets.
“We’re not the most talented or the biggest team out there,” Winston said. “But we’re going to play with the most grit and we’re going to play the toughest.”
But Izzo said there is still work to be done.
“In our society one good game, one good play and we’re ready to canonize guys as the best leaders, the best shooters, the best this or the best that,” Izzo said. “Guys, we have a long, long way to go.”