Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Column: why Aaron Henry's benching every bit as telling as Travis Trice's

January 28, 2020
<p>Sophomore forward Aaron Henry (11) pushes through defenders during the game against Minnesota at the Breslin Center on Jan. 9. The Spartans defeated the Golden Gophers 74-58.</p>

Sophomore forward Aaron Henry (11) pushes through defenders during the game against Minnesota at the Breslin Center on Jan. 9. The Spartans defeated the Golden Gophers 74-58.

Photo by Connor Desilets | The State News

Recall Feb. 7, 2015, an occasion on which a Michigan State men's basketball team flirting with the bubble and playing on its home floor recorded its eighth loss to NIT-bound Illinois. 

Recall also coach Tom Izzo’s ensuing decision to move then-senior guard Travis Trice, the established starter through that point, to the bench, in favor of then-freshman Lourawls Nairn Jr.

Izzo’s lineup shuffle was telling, but it paled in comparison the results it produced, as the Spartans won four in a row and six of eight en route a tournament run that produced Izzo’s seventh Final Four appearance. Trice turned to the starting lineup six games later.

On Sunday, the 25th-year head coach made a move far less drastic, but every bit as telling. 

While freshman forward Malik Hall fulfilled bold early-season predictions and earned his first career start in a win over Minnesota, sophomore forward Aaron Henry surprised too, as he donned his warmup jacket for the opening minutes of the contest.


"Aaron (Henry) I think responded really well coming off the bench," Izzo said. "Again, no big secret, but (Henry) is more than worthy of being a starter."

Henry finished with nine points on 4-of-8 from the field and added four steals.

“Just a little something to motivate him, just get the juice going and get him playing a little bit harder,” senior guard Cassius Winston said as he acknowledged his coach’s motive for the change.

Izzo has attempted to stoke the Indianapolis native’s flame in his second season, expressing desire to see Henry play with more emotion. The second-year forward entered his home state with a full head of steam Thursday, avoiding foul trouble and finishing as MSU’s second-leading scorer with 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting in the 67-63 loss to Indiana.

On an efficient showing overall, the Spartans’ swingman forced the issue on his misses, taking multiple ill-advised shots in pivotal second half stretches. Some would argue Henry’s benching is a haphazard decision, but it’s a justified one.

For a player so lethal if his first shot falls yet so hesitant when it doesn’t, and for a player continually straddling the line between mindfulness and aggression, the lineup change, while likely temporary, was perhaps overdue. 

The 6-foot-6-inch forward will — at times — blow by defenders who are blatantly disrespecting his shooting ability and playing multiple feet off the ball. Every once in a while, he’ll even make a couple threes, commanding defenders to respect his perimeter game, and Aaron Henry is the Aaron Henry many expected to see consistently in his second year. 

He will also — time and again — force his way into traffic and effectively euro step his way into a lost possession.

Izzo’s decision to demote Henry in favor of Hall is not nearly as dramatic as benching a prolific scorer and senior guard in favor of an offensively handicapped freshman. But its effects could be just as, if not, more dramatic, as this time, he swapped one youthful and potential NBA forward for another.

“I think it doesn't really matter who starts because of how we play,” Winston said. “Guys play the same amount of minutes whether they start or don't start. So I don't think that's the biggest concern. Like I said, I think it's just our mentality in the way we approached the game.”

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