Junior forward Aaron Henry had remained a notably reserved figure for Michigan State men’s basketball (15-11, 9-11 Big Ten) in the former stretch of his career.
Reserved didn’t just encompass his soft spoken, articulate demeanor, but also his playstyle. By default, he took precedent as third or lower in the pecking order behind Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman in his first two years at MSU.
While head coach Tom Izzo not only seeks to cultivate such humility in his players, he wishes the opposite in their on-court demeanor.
“Aaron (Henry)’s a guy that needs to be pushed,” Izzo more or less repeated ad nauseam last season. In crunch time, Henry assumed his tertiary role to a fault, it seemed.
So I imagine the convoluted scheme of motivation Izzo employs finally coming to fruition is a welcome sight to the 26-year head coach. Henry now averages 15.5 points per game on 5.5 rebounds as the unquestioned primary option for the Spartans. He was named to the Third Team All Big Ten Monday.
“Aaron Henry is becoming a man,” Izzo said after MSU’s victory over No. 5 Illinois.
When observers like 97.1 the Ticket radio host Jeff Rieger joke that “Izzo is a witch” in reaction to MSU’s annual February-March ignitions, this is what they mean.
The cliches like January, February, Izzo are indeed tired for good reason. His teams continually gain the form he seemingly foresees through November struggles and the incessant lineup shuffles that ensue.
This is why.
He instills a resilience and humble confidence from which his players draw come March.
At times, his tactics are questionable, and borderline sporadic. He grinds his players’ egos and fans alike into submission before each are rewarded with the postseason success that usually follows.
He always expresses he’s happy for the fans in the victorious Elite Eight postgame interviews.
This is why.
I worked back my stance from total loss of faith to cautious optimism. Now, it seems Izzo has gathered his passengers to climb aboard once again. Such is college basketball, especially in East Lansing.
Still, the Spartans suffered their only losing Big Ten season under Izzo; after riding the NCAA Tournament bubble, MSU seems to be on the right side of it as they now look to avoid playing in a First Four matchup.
But utterances like Henry’s continue to illustrate why MSU continually voids talks of missing the tournament.
Take senior guard Joshua Langford who, following MSU’s home victory over Illinois, explained MSU being “the best place for (him)” as the primary reason for his return for a fifth year of school after multiple seasons ended in injury.
Now, he’s seemingly returned to the McDonald’s All America athleticism he brought to East Lansing, chasing down Ohio State forward Justin Ahrens to pin his layup attempt against the glass and keep MSU within seven down the stretch of the second half and what I'd call the season's turning point, following his 13-point, 16-rebound double-double vs. Illinois.
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“I have to make sure that he doesn't get this easy layup because it’s just going to put us even deeper into a hole,” Langford described when relaying his thoughts as the play unfolded. “So I think that just gave everybody a spark, including myself.”
Take sophomore forward Malik Hall, in his sparing recent minutes, who redeemed his value, as he hit two consecutive free throws and grabbed a crucial rebound in the final seconds vs. OSU to help seal the victory.
Take sophomore guard Rocket Watts, whose 21 points off the bench vs. Michigan Sunday all but sealed MSU's 23rd consecutive tournament appearance after averaging 7 points per contest on the season.
Take redshirt junior forward Joey Hauser, whose timely three-pointer and calculated takes for 11 points provided a much-needed bench spark Sunday.
We saw flashes in Watts late last season. We only heard of flashes from Hauser across the strait in Marquette.
Either they each played out of their mind, or they simply finally found their confidence, found their stroke.
I could continue down the roster, but it’s apparent Izzo continually gets his players, and followers, to buy in sooner or later, and now its March.
No. 9 Michigan State faces No. 8 Maryland in the Big Ten tournament Thursday at 11:30 as they look to redeem a 73-55 loss in their last meeting in College Park.
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