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Player accountability helping No. 8 MSU men's basketball excel in Big Ten play

January 8, 2020
Senior forward Conner George (right) hugs sophomore forward Aaron Henry (11).The Spartans defeated Michigan, 87-69, at the Breslin Student Events Center on January 5, 2020.
Senior forward Conner George (right) hugs sophomore forward Aaron Henry (11).The Spartans defeated Michigan, 87-69, at the Breslin Student Events Center on January 5, 2020. —
Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

With nine minutes to go in the second half of Michigan State men's basketball's 87-69 win over Michigan on Sunday, junior forward Xavier Tillman swatted away a shot by the Wolverines that would’ve put the Spartans rival within single digits. It was yet another play that electrified the Breslin Center, but Tillman wasn’t happy.

Instead, the 6 foot, 8 inch Spartan big got on his teammate, sophomore Gabe Brown, about letting Michigan’s David DeJulius get the ball in the first place since Brown failed to box DeJulius out. 

“When (Tillman) got on me it just made me realize that he’s there for me, he wants me to get better,” Brown, who has started the last seven games, said. “Coach has always been telling us, it’s better when a player gets on you than when a coach gets on you because when you hear it from a coach you feel like it's nagging, but when you hear from a player it's like, ‘Oh yeah I gotta improve that, I gotta get better.’"

The aggression in Tillman's corrections on Brown brought back memories of last March when coach Tom Izzo went under fire after showing visible frustration with then-freshman Aaron Henry.

However what’s different now is Izzo’s push on his Spartan squad to hold each other accountable. Izzo said he has been pushing certain players to make others fear them, like former Spartans feared Denzel Valentine and Draymond Green because fear, Izzo said, is sometimes a good thing when it comes to accountability. 

“There’s two kinds of leadership: one that drags everybody together and one that demands,” Izzo said. “We’re getting the drag together, and half the time I challenge a couple of those guys to demand from a couple guys to hold them accountable. That’ll be the next step of this program.”

He continued with his oft-repeated mantra about players coaching each other.

“A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team. And that’s not lip service, I believe that,” Izzo said. “The players are with each other morning, noon and night, and coaches, with the NCAA, we’re lucky if we get 15 hours a week, so we’re not with them morning, noon and night. And I think that’s the important thing, and our leadership is getting better.”

Ironically, the visible spurts of Spartan leadership are coming right at a time when the team has been showing rapid growth across the board, propelling on a seven-game win streak backed by some of their best shooting and defensive performances all season.

Tillman said he "definitely" sees how the team, in recent games, has been on the same page, all contributing to their individual roles on the court through criticism from some of the more experienced players like himself and senior guard Cassius Winston.

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“We’ve been able to critique each other and take corrective criticism, and kind of take it honestly and not take it personal," Tillman said. "That’s been huge in helping our development.”

Winston, who was named Big Ten Player of the Week after reaching a career-high 32 points on Sunday and is 16 assists shy of topping Mateen Cleaves as MSU's all-time leader, is perhaps one of the biggest mentors on this Spartan squad. The Detroit native said that it's important for the team to hold each other accountable for their job because "everybody has a job on this team."

“It’s all respect, it’s all out of love,” Winston said. “We want the best for each other, so when we say something it’s never out of being mean or anything like that. It’s really something that we see that they can get better.”

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