Hoops notes: For Izzo and others, Saturday's game was for Jud
Saturday’s game against Purdue was likely the men’s basketball team’s most important game all season.
A win over the No. 3 Boilermakers meant the Spartans would be in play to win the Big Ten regular season title and would improve their chances of receiving a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But Saturday’s game was important for MSU for another reason, one that had nothing to do with the team’s title hopes or postseason aspirations. It was important because it was a night to honor coach Jud Heathcote, who died last August at the age of 90.
“Because of Jud, I got to live a different life than most of my family,” said head coach Tom Izzo, who coached under Heathcote for 11 seasons.
Heathcote served as head coach for 19 seasons beginning in 1976, and guided MSU to nine NCAA Tournament appearances, three Big Ten titles and a national championship in 1979, with Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson leading the way.
Izzo served under Heathcote as an assistant coach from 1983 until the 1990-91 season, when he was elevated to associate head coach, and took over the reigns four seasons later following Heathcote’s retirement.
Izzo shared an emotional moment with forward Miles Bridges right after the final buzzer sounded, tearfully embracing the sophomore, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer with four seconds left, with a hug. Izzo made it known that Saturday’s win was a tribute to Heathcote.
“I wanted to win it for him. That was kind of his game,” Izzo said.
Izzo wasn’t the only coach at the Breslin Center on Saturday whose life was touched by Heathcote, as Purdue head coach Matt Painter said he heavily considered committing to MSU during his playing days because of Heathcote’s influence.
“It was a pretty neat thing because I was pretty close to coming here when I was making my decision,” Painter said. “Obviously, he was known for his coaching and won the national championship with Magic in ‘79. But he was a much better person than he was a coach. He was one of those guys that got along with everyone, had an unbelievable sense of humor.”
As if his tear-filled exchange with Bridges after the game wasn’t evident enough on the importance of Saturday’s game for Izzo, senior forward Gavin Schilling shed light on what the win against the Boilermakers meant to his coach.
“Dedicating this game to Jud, I know coach, that’s how he started his coaching career was under Jud, so it just means a lot for him," Schilling said. "I know he didn’t want to show it too much, but I just know that this win meant the world to him."
Schilling defense key down the stretch: The game plan for MSU going into Saturday was to have sophomore forward Nick Ward matched up against Purdue senior big Isaac Haas, but with Ward ladened with foul trouble, that defensive assignment was handed to Schilling for much of the contest.
The Boilermakers’ top 3-point shooting threats, Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias, combined to go 4-of-12 from beyond the arc, so Purdue’s offense was heavily predicated on 7-foot-2 Haas getting thrown the ball at the low block against single coverage.
Despite Haas finishing with a game-high 25 points, Schilling held his ground against the Purdue forward when it mattered most, forcing him to miss a jump hook with 23 seconds left, leading to Bridges’ go-ahead 3-point shot on the very next possession.
“I just told myself mentally that he wasn’t going to score on me. That’s something I take pride in, guarding people and my defense,” Schilling said.
New No. 1?: The No. 4 Spartans will likely rise to No. 1 in next week’s AP poll, after a week in which the top-three ranked teams all suffered losses.
No. 1 Villanova got beat by St. Johns at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. No. 2 Virginia fell to Virginia Tech by one point in overtime on Saturday, and No. 3 Purdue lost twice this past week, blowing a 14-point second half lead against No. 14 Ohio State on Wednesday, before coming up short Saturday at the Breslin.
Despite possibly having the top spot in the polls, MSU would still remain a game back of the Buckeyes for the top spot in the conference standings.