East Lansing — Late last Sunday afternoon, Matt Costello sat in the locker room and shook his head as he critiqued his performance.
Michigan State had just rolled over Indiana, 88-69, and Costello had scored a career-high 22 points, and even knocked in a 3-pointer for the second straight game and added 11 rebounds.
The last image for fans was Costello celebrating his 3-pointer, wagging his tongue and blowing on his hands. For the 6-foot-10 senior, however, he was more focused on a missed blockout, a poor closeout on a shooter and some questionable defense.
By Tuesday, he wasn’t feeling any better.
“I watched the film and it was worse than I thought,” Costello said. “I’m not very happy. I scored points and everybody looks at points, but that’s not what I look at to be successful. I look at playing good defense and rebounding and playing hard and I did not. I made a lot of mistakes.”
In that reaction was the biggest example of how far Costello has come since he was a freshman in 2012. The numbers have taken a dramatic leap forward, progressing each season to the point where he is averaging a double-double in Big Ten action this year.
But it’s not enough. Not for Costello and not for his coaches. He can be even more, and it’s that attitude that is as impressive as any of the statistics.
“I don’t think he would have acted that way (early in his career),” Michigan State associate head coach Dwayne Stephens said. “It just shows how much he’s grown up and I think the one thing he’s really come long way in is self-evaluating.
“That’s something that is hard to do, and I think it’s the reason his game has improved because now he’s looking at that film a little differently and being more critical of himself.”
It’s been difficult at times to find much to be critical of. Costello entered the season averaging 4.4 points and 3.4 rebounds and had three double-doubles in three seasons. Through 26 games, he is averaging 10.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and seven double-doubles.
And while Denzel Valentine is pushing for national player of the year honors, the progress Costello had made almost goes unnoticed.
“I know I do (take him for granted), for sure,” Stephens said. “As a coach, you’re never really satisfied with guys until they leave, then you really miss them and you say, ‘You know what? I wish we had Derrick (Nix) for this or Draymond (Green) to do that or Branden Dawson.’ It will be the same thing next year. ‘I wish we had Matt to throw that ball down or grab that rebound or step out for a shot.’
“As a coach, you always seem to take guys for granted until they’re gone because you always want more, no matter how well they are playing.”
Costello has been giving the Spartans plenty, and it’s hardly been contained to East Lansing. After the victory over Indiana, Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said Costello was playing himself into an NBA player.
Valentine said, “I feel like he’s one of the best big men in the country.”
That could be debated, but there’s little doubt he’s the best big man on a team that expects to be playing deep into the postseason, focusing on a national title. Costello and Valentine haven’t shied away from talking about a championship — it’s their sole focus in their final season in East Lansing.
And while Valentine and senior Bryn Forbes will be critical to those hopes, Costello remaining a constant on the block will be just as important.
By then, there’s no doubt his contributions will be appreciated.
“He’s been as solid as anybody,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s not always great and very rarely bad. He’s been as solid as anybody, but his solidness is moving toward greatness. When you’re averaging a double-double — Day-Day’s goal was to average a double-double (as a senior) and I think he was 16 and 10. Matt’s a 13.1 and 10.2 right now in the league. I don’t think we’ve appreciated or realized that.”